New battle in 'Princess Wars': Disney dolls featuring ... your daughter's face

Disney continues its princess juggernaut, rolling out custom-made princess dolls that will have personalized faces etched onto them by computer. Is it good, bad, or just ... weird?

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    Girls dressed as Princess Tiana from "The Princess and the Frog" await her arrival at the Disney Princess Royal Court Crowning Event in New York, Sunday, March 14, 2010.
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Has your daughter always wanted to be a Disney princess? Now she can be one. In action figure form, that is.

For $99.95 (plus $15.95 shipping and handling), Disney will turn your daughter into a seven-inch, three-dimensional custom figurine of her favorite heroine from a Disney animated film. Aside from Cinderella and Snow White, there are five other choices: Ariel from “The Little Mermaid,” Aurora from “Sleeping Beauty,” Belle from “Beauty and the Beast,” Rapunzel from “Tangled,” or Tiana from “The Princess and the Frog.”  

The custom dolls are sure to be yet another battle in the “Princess Wars” – the sharp divide among parents, debated heatedly around the mommy blogosphere, about whether or not emulating the Disney princesses is good for the little girls of the world.

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Proponents see the princesses as good role models: even-tempered, kind, and occasionally resourceful and tough. Their detractors decry the craze as an overly successful Disney marketing campaign turning our daughters docile, uncreative, shallow, and obsessed with appearance.

“It escalates the Disney Princess takeover of girlhood,” says Josh Golin, associate director for the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Boston. “I have some real concerns about the body image. When you personalize by putting a girl’s face on it, that sends a real damaging message about what she should aspire to look like.”

In its announcement about the custom dolls, posted on the company’s Disney Parks blog, Disney said the 10-minute process features several cameras taking images of a girl’s face and storing them in a computer for processing.

“Hair, skin and eye color of the figurine are customized to match the guest. A Princess silver link necklace with choice of colored gem charm is also included for participants,” the announcement says.

The princesses all star in popular Disney films. Jasmine from “Aladdin” and her scandalous bare midriff were left out, as were Pocahontas and Mulan.

The service will be available beginning Aug. 26, only at the Downtown Disney Marketplace at Walt Disney World Resorts in Orlando, Fla, as a part of what the company calls the “D-Tech me” experience. It was launched in May of this year with “Carbon Freeze Me,” where Star Wars fans could buy comparably-sized figurines of themselves frozen in carbonite, similar to what happens to Han Solo in “The Empire Strikes Back.”  Offered as part of Disney Hollywood Studios’ Star Wars Weekends 2012, “Carbon Freeze Me” was received as harmless, if expensive fun.

Figurines crafted from actual faces may seem novel, but it’s hardly cutting edge for the toy industry, says Christopher Byrne, toy reviewer and content director for TimeToPlayMag.com.

"It’s technology that has been used for action figures for several years now,” he says. “They use it when they scan Bruce Willis or a movie star to license their likeness, or professional wrestlers.”  

But the Disney princesses are a touchy subject, and anticipation of the custom figurines is already proving a bit more polarizing than Han Solo.  Comments on the Disney Parks blog were overwhelmingly positive, with several commenters bemoaning the 3-to-12 age restriction.

“Awesome idea, but why the age limit?” wrote one commenter identified as ‘Cecily from CA.’ “I’m a 22-year-old woman … but I’m really a 5-yr-old princess at heart!!”

“Will they ever do anything like this in California? All the cool stuff like this happens in Florida,” another entry by ‘David from CA’ said.

Reaction around the web hasn’t been so kind.

Business Insider called the dolls “creepy.”  On the feminist blog Jezebel, Katie J.M. Baker was even snarkier: “So they'll never forget what they're supposed to turn into when they grow up: a pretty pretty princess in a pretty pretty ballgown, ready for a Happily Ever After that begins and ends with marriage, male approval, and a disconcertingly tiny waist.” 

“Why push girls into emulating princesses by literally putting their faces onto theirs?” she wrote.

According to Mr. Golin, no product franchise has been more successful at co-opting a firmly established childhood narrative than the Disney princess line. First launched in 1999, the line, featuring Disney’s most popular heroines grouped together, boasts over 40,000 products, TV shows, live productions, and billions of dollars in revenue.

“They’ve capitalized on the fact that the princess narrative is a very powerful one for young girls. I don’t know that there’s been another line that holds that kind of power for young children today. And it’s very successful, because every product is an ad within itself,” he says. 

Mr. Byrne has a less critical view of the phenomenon. 

According to Byrne, who has spent his entire career covering toys and the play habits of children, the princess fantasy fades for most girls by the time they reach the first grade.

“Snow White or Tiana is not what I would hope would be your permanent role model,” he says. “What you conceptualize at age 6 shouldn’t be what you conceptualize at even 9 or 10, so why not let them play? They will naturally grow out of it.” 

“Parents who impose adult sensibilities on their kids about princesses are wasting their time,” he says. Concepts like “self-reliance,” and “shallowness,” have no meaning at age 4.

“Anyone who’s got girly girls knows that at a certain age they only want to wear the tutu. We tend to panic too soon,” he says.

Golin disagrees, saying there’s a difference between playing princess and being tied into a very specific narrative commercialized by an entertainment company.

“It sets up ideas that last into adolescence and beyond about appearance and gender roles. The stories that we learn in childhood are very powerful beyond the age that we are playing with the doll,” he says.

But will little girls actually want little princess action figures of themselves, and will we see the personalized figurine market expand into other places?

Byrne points out that the parks are the perfect test market, because parkgoers are already primed to spend money. Plus, because Disney can keep a low inventory, Byrne guesses that the profit margin is probably high. The figurines aren't really toys to be played with, but more of a keepsake, like a very expensive version of getting your picture taken on a roller coaster.

From a purely cosmetic standpoint, Byrne adds, the dolls are just plain frightening. “Some girls are going to cringe in a few years when their parents break those out at the (wedding) rehearsal dinner,” he says. 

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