"I Am A Princess" And, Apparently, A Narcissist

The other day, I saw a toddler on the subway sporting a rhinestone-bedecked t-shirt bearing the words "Baby Bitch. Bow Down." I declined her kind offer. But not because, like some people, I think she's ruining society.

There's definitely something weird going on. Sure, little girls have always been plied with pink princesses, but this used to mean handsome princes and gowns, not some kind of entitlement to homage. The more conscientious amongst us could certainly call this a lateral move, but noted husband-supporter Megan Basham worries in the Wall Street Journal that the "every girl's a princess" ethos is leading to a rash of lady-narcissism.

Basham cites the rash of Super Sweet 16s, "Juicy Couture Princess" shirts and "princess makeovers" involving tube tops and makeup, the racks of entitled-skanky-baby gear in every mall. Oh, and did we mention the sinister "Christian Princess" trend? "Christian retail outlets like A Different Direction carry "God's Girlz," glamour dolls dressed in princess shirts and spandex with sparkling tiaras on their heads. And check out the church-apropos tee bearing the words, '"Yes, I am a Princess." The small print underneath: "I'm a daughter of the King."'

Says Basham,

Maintaining a diva daughter has become one more way to one-up the Joneses...Now researchers are finding that parents are promoting attitudes of superiority in their daughters. Jean Twenge, associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University, tracks the rising egotism on college campuses in her new book, "The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement." She has found that college-age women are developing narcissistic traits at four times the rate of college-age men. She attributes the startling discrepancy in part to parents who put their girls on a pedestal.

This arouses very mixed feelings. On the one hand, we are glad girls have healthy egos and are made to feel worthwhile; but the point of Twenge's book is to distinguish between self-esteem and narcissism. And Twenge's hypothesis is controversial; other studies have found that narcissism is no greater than it was 30 years ago - it's just manifested in more aggressive, pinker ways. Or, as Dr. Drew would have it, being encouraged by celebrity culture. But is that even the issue? Whether we're more narcissistic or just more blatant about displaying it, it's really not about "putting girls on a pedestal," it's encouraging a sense of worth and entitlement based on what used to be considered unattractive behavior - or at least the domain of opera legends of a certain age. What does it even mean to be a "diva" or a "princess?" That you're pampered and entitled? Well-groomed? It's distressing less as a manifestation of narcissism than as a focus on the wrong things.

But that said, Basham's argument rankles. She's not who we want to hear this from - you'd better believe she'd like to see more selflessness and humility! If young women are becoming "narcissists" it seems like it's at least partially because a culture of objectification that values the trophy wife or girlfriend. And while young women may meet a more obvious, Fendi-toting definition of classic narcissistic materialism, Twenge's book also cites the rising narcissism epidemic - among men, primarily - as the cause of the financial and mortgage crises. Besides, whatever the levels of campus narcissism, one can certainly argue that these young women have far less to do with determining cultural direction than a few narcissistic adults, mainly men. By definition, an obviously "princess" is not going to do as much to influence the world's course - more's the pity.

Is it naive to hope that this ethos is a leftover from pre-Recession? Even in my own generation, now pushing thirty, there's a pernicious sense of being entitled to everything - yet having nothing to prove. We are all safe in the knowledge of our own vague "specialness" regardless of the outcome, and the buck doesn't tend to stop at our own failures. In this regard, although it's horrible, the current economy may prove a boon in some ways: I've spoken to a lot of friends who, while they obviously deplore the pain and difficulty of the current situation, recognize that, as one friend put it, "it's the first test we've really had." And how much more true will this be of children growing up in its shadow? Okay, maybe not for the "baby bitch."

Bringing Up Princess: Turning Girls Into Narcissists [Wall Street Journal]
Narcissism Epidemic: Why There Are So Many Narcissists Now [Us News]
Narcissism Epidemic Blamed for Economic Woes [NBC]
Is Narcissism On The Upswing In The Young? Studies Disagree [USA Today]

Earlier: Beside Every Great Pile Of Bullshit, Or: Crap Book From A Chick