On April 30, Mariah Carey celebrated her fifth wedding anniversary to actor Nick Cannon with her yearly renewal of vows. This time around, the ceremony took place at Disneyland, with Mimi dressed up like Cinderella and Nick clad in Prince Charming’s finest duds. The pair arrived at the fete in a horse-drawn carriage. The ceremony had the theme “Do You Believe in Fairy Tales?” and it reportedly involved 15,000 flowers and 10,000 crystals. They shut down the entire park for the occasion.
Carey is 43 years old. She’s a mother of twins. And yet, one of her fantasy wedding celebrations is explicitly based on fairy tales. This is par for the course for Carey. She is famously a Hello Kitty addict whose spacious apartment is decorated in shades of Pepto-Bismol. But she’s far from the only bride in America to embrace the Disney Princess trappings. You, too, plebian bride-to-be, can have a similar Disney World ceremony in a Disney Princess–inspired wedding gown with a backdrop of the Cinderella Castle (if you’re willing to get married at 8 a.m., you can get the venue for a mere baseline cost of $10,000, not counting food and drink expenditures!).
Spending a lot of money on your special day is nothing new. The average cost of an American wedding in 2012, according to a Knot.com and WeddingChannel.com survey, was over $28,000. The average wedding cost $18,874 in 1999, and adjusted for inflation, that would be almost $26,000 in today’s dollars. But the full bridal embrace of the Disney Princess image seems new, and somewhat disturbingly infantilizing. What does it say when adult women who are about to make a very grown-up decision are clamoring to imitate princesses from children’s movies?
Part of the growth of the Disney wedding is very successful marketing, says Peggy Orenstein, the author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture. (It’s unclear whether Carey’s super-public Disneyfied wedding was part of a deliberate marketing scheme. As Kim Kardashian amply proved, lots of celebrities brand their nuptials, and Carey did give the exclusive coverage of her event to Entertainment Tonight.) In her book, Orenstein describes the effect the Disney Princess brand has on young girls—these princesses represent and reinforce a very narrow form of pink-laden femininity.
When Orenstein wrote Cinderella Ate My Daughter a few years ago, she thought princesses were just a phase that most girls grow out of. But now the Disney Princess brand has bled into grown-up products and affected grown-up fantasies, Orenstein writes in an email. Christian Louboutin sells Cinderella heels, and there are Disney Princess housewares. “I’m waiting for the Snow White coffin,” Orenstein quips.
But it’s not just that a Disney Princess wedding represents such an unimaginative kind of womanhood, with delicate, frilly skirts and rescuing princes. It’s also possibly a symptom of acquired situational narcissism, which Slate’s advice columnist Emily Yoffe (a.k.a. Dear Prudence) believes affects a lot of today’s brides. Yoffe receives a “consistent tick-tock” of letters complaining about bridezillas who are afflicted by a total, obsessive grandiosity when it comes to their “big day.” She says in an email that having a wedding based on a childhood fantasy makes a strange sort of sense, because “the last time lots of girls felt like princesses and really were the center of attention was when they dressed up in princess outfits and paraded around to the delight of their parents and grandparents.” The Disney wedding is just a reenactment of those earlier imaginings.
There are more generous ways to read the rise of the princess wedding. One is that the obvious, garish pomp of a Cinderella ceremony is a way to say one final goodbye to childish things. In her excellent book about the wedding industry, One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding, Rebecca Mead of The New Yorker argues that we are now spending so much on weddings because we need a way to mark the wedding as an important rite of passage. Up until 40 or so years ago, most women did not become adults in any real way until they got married: they lived at home; they didn’t have premarital sex; many of them did not have careers. Now that women do all these things before they get married (the average age of first marriage for women is now 27), an elaborate ceremony is one way to mark the occasion.
And perhaps this momentary, Disney-sponsored retreat from the real world is more necessary than ever now, given that modern adulthood is such, well, a bummer. Twenty-somethings getting married today have much bleaker prospects than their parents did, as they are saddled with mounds of student-loan debt, and many entered the workforce into a down economy from which their lifetime earnings might never recover. It might make a strange sort of sense to want to bury your head in tulle rather than face this unfortunate reality.
Still, you do have to emerge from a Disney-sponsored tiara central someday and act like an adult if you really want a marriage to work. There’s a reason Mariah Carey’s wedding-vow-renewal ceremony took place in a part of the park known as Fantasyland—the notion of aping a Disney Princess as a grown woman in your quotidian life is completely ridiculous. Thankfully, once their weddings are over, many of these Disney Princesseses for a day will go back to the nonroyal individuals they once were. The self-involved-princess spell will probably be broken, so to speak, once they’re out of the Magic Kingdom.