Somehow, at the restaurant, my daughter pitches face-first off the toilet with her tights down around her ankles. She scrapes her chin and busts open her little lip. In her Cinderella dress, she is a shocked and wailing ball of glittering blue tulle and silver sparkles. I gather her up and try to dab at her lip with a wet paper towel. Even through her sobs, she is a little bit proud that she’s bleeding. She doesn’t want me to wipe away the blood. Just her tears.
The maitre’d, far from giving me grief for carrying a sobbing child back into her dining room, asks if there’s anything she can do. Would I like some ice? This is Disneyland, after all. They know how to treat a crying princess.
My four year-old is squarely inside the Princess Phase. The storm of conflicting feelings that this provokes in me is nowhere in evidence so much as at Disneyland, the real-life counterpart to her imaginary “PrincessLand.” We good feminist mothers commiserate over The Princess Phase, over the shocking intensity of our daughters’ devotion to tiaras and glass slippers. To mitigate, I tell my daughter stories about a princess who does research in libraries to save baby dragons, who negotiates peace treaties between aggressor villages and the fairy peoples. I do this instead of saying that I can’t stand Cinderella — currently my daughter’s favorite — and her blonde lack of female friends, her utter lack of volition.
And yet, I also love the princesses. I am aware, believe me I know, that Ariel in The Little Mermaid gives up her voice and slices her body in two for a man. She gives up her voice. Her voice. Her best friend is a fish and she silences herself for a man who grew up eating seafood. And yet, when we showed my daughter the movie for the first time, my husband caught me with my eyes watering and said, “You still love this.”
When you walk through DisneyLand, you realize that Disney owns all the stories. Toy Story. Star Wars. Winnie the Pooh. Peter Pan. Indiana Jones. It’s terrifying, this monopoly on our shared imagination. Every blockbuster character has come home to Disney to be silk-screened onto a sweatshirt and made into a two-minute, jostling, psychedelic experience. I walk through the park thinking about the staggering reach of this cultural corporate hegemony.
And yet, when I introduce my girl to the actresses in full Ariel and Cinderella finery, and I see her little eyes light up… I can’t help it. I love the princesses for being so real to her. She is just at the cusp of losing this ability to believe in make-believe. She knows they’re “not real.” But when she sees them in the Royal Hall… Just before she walks away, she turns back and asks, “What’s it like being a princess?” Cinderella tells her it’s wonderful. Says the prince takes her dancing every weekend. Oh, Cindy.
Walking through the park — where every “cast member” knows to address my four-year-old with a gentle, “Hello, princess, don’t you look lovely?” — all I can think is, Who wouldn’t want to be my husband right now? Walking down Main Street with an adoring, enthralled little girl holding his hand? It’s a strict and normative and problematic heterosexual fantasy, yes, but she’s four and still learning what gender even is… And how lovely, just for a few hours, to step into the role of prince to this tiny creature, to be the one keeping her safe and happy.
I see a girl of about twelve in a yellow Belle ball gown, laced corset-style up the back. She has white gloves. Her hair is curled in an up-do. Lipstick. She must be freezing. We have managed to hit a chilly day in Orange County. Her father, who looks young and strong in his black canvas jacket, tries to shoulder a clearing for her in the crowd. She is at a different cusp, almost too old to be dressed like this, almost at the age where it will mean something else. In the set of her father’s chin, the fierce edge to his pride, I feel I can see how hard the next years will be for this girl. There’s no way to live up to that fantasy after a certain point. The princess phase can’t last.
Every aspect of Disneyland has been managed with great care by experts. The strollers are cheap, the ground is soft, the changing tables are plentiful, the ticket-takers have your photo on an iPhone. The park gives the powerful impression that someone has thought things through. It’s reassuring, in these days of catastrophic shadow banks, this manufactured all-American expertise. As an intended result, you keep your princess there to the limits of her endurance.
Even after the split lip, we go back for more. We ride the teacups, under the colored lamps. There are lots and lots of small children still in the park. They all look up past their bedtimes, delirious with pleasure and sugar and endorphins, wide-eyed and rapt — or absolutely gone, racked with sobs. I see a girl, maybe nine, wearing her father’s sweatshirt, holding his hand, and walking through the park with her eyes completely closed, sleep-walking. My husband sees a grown woman, standing between what looks like her husband and son, herself reduced to tears.
A teenaged boy breakdances in front of the jazz band. Begs for them to throw him beads. People wear their special favorite T-shirts: I’m Fun-Sized. Believe the Hype. Risky. Reckless. I’m With Grumpy. CRS: Can’t Remember Shit. A panoply of American stances on life.
People wear Disney buttons: It’s my Birthday. First Time Visitor. Just Married. This last button on a brunette in a bridal gown with a man in a tux. She sits very straight, with her hair in a bun and her hands folded in her lap, in a wheelchair. He wears a red carnation in his lapel. Almost everyone who passes them says, “Oh, how beautiful. Congratulations.” The park is wheelchair accessible.
If you try to cut in line or even jump a hedgerow to join your family, Cast Members will kindly stop you. But when I rush into a bathroom with a small girl in dire need, a young woman grabs her friend and yanks her out of a stall to let us go first, with the instructions, “Let Cinderella go! Her pretty dress…”
As we walk up the stairs for Tarzan’s tree house — “Me Tarzan, you Jane,” — my college friend who we have come here to meet tells me about a professor who teaches in sociology and works with victims of domestic violence. He shows his students Beauty and the Beast and counts the signs of abuse: Beast isolates her from her friends. Has violent outbursts of rage before abject apologies…
These are old Disney conundrums: Walt Disney wanted to be king of a neatly-ordered but friendly universe. One strain of his vision was deeply humane and communal, about creating a land where people would be good to each other. Another vein was racist and sexist. The heteronormative princesses co-exist with a park that refused to bow to a right-wing boycott of Gay Day there. I suspect gay people simply spend too much money to deny them. The park also now gives some instructions in Spanish.
I had a student who wrote a powerful essay about the role DisneyLand played in her family’s assimilation into American culture. For her Oaxacan family, Disney yearlong passes meant they had arrived. Once, her grandmother ran into a woman from their home village in the bathroom. The woman was cleaning it, as a Disney janitor. My student’s grandmother stopped to speak with her. My student was deeply conflicted about that moment, her unruly and complicated feelings about what it meant to arrive in America. She enjoyed the readings I gave her on Disney’s vexed racial history. But she still loved DisneyLand.
My daughter watches the fireworks in my husband’s arms. She is about to collapse from exhaustion, and the explosions are too loud. Colored light that sounds like war. She covers her ears. But she loves watching Tinkerbell, who glows with some kind of body paint on a zip-line high above. When the bursts are particularly bright, my daughter says “It’s like the day!” Someday, I will explain heteronormativity and the beauty standard and cultural hegemony and “women’s work” and my skepticism about Cinderella will make perfect sense. Someday. For now, I just want to watch her hold her hands out just so, as she makes her graceful sweeping princess turns.
She’s still wearing her blue tulle the next day. A man pushing a shopping cart full of aluminum cans up our street stops to look at her twirling. He searches for the word in English. “Princess,” he finally manages. We share a smile.
Michelle Chihara: Mixes your cocktails.