You can't observe the culture of small girls (under eights) much without realising that there are an awful lot of princesses involved. They are encouraged to wear princess clothes and princess jewellery, and watch princess videos and read princess books, etc, etc. At this point any good feminist's alarm-bells will be going off. Aren't such stereotypes promoting a desire for a lifestyle of conspicuous consumption, unproductive idleness, an ambition limited to marrying a handsome prince and a willingness to grind the face of the poor? (Well, OK, that last aspect of royal life is not specifically mentioned, but it's surely inherent in a class-based society).
There are undoubtedly problems with such marketing onslaughts: I would be upset if L said, as I once heard a classmate of hers do, that she dreamt of being Sleeping Beauty. But I'm inclined to think that L's mild princess desires aren't too harmful. That's partly because I'm increasingly interested in what princess narratives are trying to do.
I want to focus on the Tiara Club, one of the popular mega-series of princess books. There are currently almost 40 books in the series, and they're intended for girls of about 5-7, who have either just learnt to read or are being read to: they're short (about 70 pages), with pictures on most pages and a fairly standardized plot. (They're also implicitly multiracial: a few of the princesses are shown as non-white in the pictures, although that's not mentioned in the text).
The books are set in 'The Royal Palace Academy for the Preparation of Perfect Princesses', essentially a boarding school for princesses. I want to summarize the plot of one which we own: 'Princess Ellie and the Enchanted Fawn'. Witch Windlespin ('not one of those horrid witches who ride on broomsticks, or make scary spells. She weaves the most beautiful material, and makes fabulous clothes, and magic herbal medicines as well'), has found a fawn which has lost its mother, and the princesses in the class, along with their fairy godmother teacher, are helping to find the doe. This involves the princesses searching in groups within a large wood. The heroine's group find the doe by spying her from a large tree they have climbed ('very unprincessy'), but then get lost when the pebbles they have been given to mark their path are moved by nasty classmates. However they manage to navigate back part of the way and then meet the doe (with another fawn), who guides them back to the witch's cottage. They are rewarded with points for their group and a special picnic lunch.
Beneath the sugary trappings, what you have is a school story of a very traditional kind. The heroine has an adventure (if one involving only 'mild peril'), but by courage, ingenuity and teamwork saves the day. The girls being princesses, and the magical elements in the story, are really secondary to the plot. Instead the girls live up to the school motto: 'A Perfect Princess always thinks of others before herself, and is kind, caring and truthful.' The resolutely pro-social nature of the books may grow tedious after a while (virtue is always rewarded and vice always punished), but it's fairly common in books and TV shows for children.
So why princesses and why magic? One obvious reason is that children like fantasies (and a lot of adult fiction is also marked by a lack of gritty realism). Yet in fact, the glamorous life of the princesses in such books is less removed from the reality of the readers than it once was. In contrast to my childhood, in the twenty-first century to have beautiful clothes and jewellery, dance at glamorous parties and go to exciting new places is hardly unusual for most small girls, even if pony riding is still an expensive hobby. The lifestyle of a princess is now aspirational, rather than impossibly exotic. (Perhaps it has to be, in order to be marketed successfully to small consumers).
But I think the glamorous side is not the only reason for the settings of the story. Consider what the story I've mentioned above involves, if it's not about magical princesses. Groups of young schoolgirls (the age of the princesses isn't given, but they're implicitly still primary school age) are sent into a largish wood without adult supervision, and expected to look after themselves, and find a potentially hazardous wild animal. In a realistic world, at the end the fairy godmother teacher would be facing a disciplinary charge and the Princess Academy would be being sued by alarmed parents. If you read children's literature from 50 years ago or more, you realise that most of the parents involved would be getting prosecuted by the NSPCC for neglect or negligence. (The Walkers and the Blacketts from Swallows and Amazons would probably be first, but there are many more).
It seems to me that the use of princesses and magic in stories are a way of getting round this problem. Young girls reading the books won't think the unusual freedom of the heroine strange; they will also be less likely to imitate in real life the more dangerous behaviour of the princesses. The most notorious models of the passive princess tend to come from traditional fairytales crossed with a 1950s Disney ethic (Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella). In contrast, the 'modern' princess enjoys a freedom that many girls in the target audience lack. It may not just be the tiaras that young readers aspire to, even if that is what gets marketed most heavily.