April 22, 2007 — -- For millions of young girls, dressing up like a princess is an innocent part of childhood. Call it the Cinderella phenomenon: It's hard to find a girl who hasn't dreamt of donning a ball gown and a pair of glass slippers.
"I think it's normal for kids to kind of fanaticize roles, to try them on for size," said UCLA child psychiatrist Dr. Mark DeAntonio. "And both boys and girls do this, and it's a very normal thing."
But for retailers, the fantasy is also big business. The princess brand not only rules at the box office, but also at stores all over the world.
Disney, parent company of ABC News, has made a royal windfall with the princess movement. Last year, the company made more than $3 billion on princess paraphernalia -- from toys and costumes to hot chocolate and pet accessories.
But for some, the plethora of princess merchandise is troubling.
"When you have 25,000 items beaming at your daughter every day, it stops being really a choice," said author Peggy Orenstein, who has written extensively about women's issues.
Orenstein questions whether perfect-looking princesses are good role models for girls. She wants children to live in reality, not fantasy.
"It really is ultimately about looking pretty, and having a lot of stuff," she said. "And as somebody who studied body image, I really worry about what it's setting girls up for. Will the girl who is wearing 'Princess' across her chest when she's three be wearing 'Spoiled' across her chest when she's six, and 'Porn Star' when she is 12?"
On the front lines of the princess debate are the moms of America's would-be Cinderellas.
"The girls use it to relate to each other a little bit, especially at preschool," said Siobhan Schenz. "It's a new experience something that they kind of share in common, brings them together."
Liberty Conboy, another mom, tries to modernize age-old fairy tales to paint her daughter a portrait of a 21st century princess.
"I change the story lines," she said. "I'll say, 'Snow White was sweet, and kind … and she also thought someday she'd like to be a veterinarian.'"
Andy Mooney, chairman of Disney consumer products worldwide, is the braintrust behind the craze for anything princess. He believes the characters he creates are good role models, and said he receives many calls from ethnic groups asking for princess icons of their own.
"They are caring, they are loving, they are friendly, they are courteous," he said of his princess creations. "This is really not about being a damsel in distress. This is really about these girls projecting themselves into the life of a princess and the environment of a princess, and kind of really reveling in that moment."
Orenstein remains unconvinced. She said it's hard for young girls to see past the glitz and glamour of a princess.
"All they know is that Cinderella is really pretty, and she has a lot of bling," she said.
But some experts say kids learn their core values from real people in their lives, not from made-up princesses. In the long run, an affection for all things pink and sparkly may not matter.
"The values that kids really pick up on and incorporate are really more the values they're exposed to with their family, within their community, with people," DeAntonio said.