Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Trouble with Princesses

Not mine, of course, but the whole Princess schtick. As the mother of a young girl I've been no less susceptible than thousands of other parents though I've tried to at least keep it DIY and avoid the major brands but still.....

Peggy Orenstein wrote a great article in today's New York Times magazine entitled What's Wrong With Cinderella? that did a fine job of clarifying my vague but persistent discomfort with the whole pink-girly-princess-fairy-ballerina cult. She lays the blame for the whole thing squarely in the lap of the Disney corporation (no surprise there) but of course there are lots of other folks trying to jump on the bandwagon because there are millions to be made.

I've never liked my kids to be marketing tools, I've always tried to avoid the corporate logos and licensed characters on their clothing and, more importantly, in their play. But the stuff just creeps in, doesn't it? I've never had a Disney princess movie in the house, but my daughter seems to have a remarkable attraction to their trademarked faces on everything from library books to toothbrushes. Orenstein suggests that the current princess cult may in fact be a backlash against the gender-free childrearing practices of my childhood.

I admit that I still feel very much on shaky ground with this whole business of raising a daughter. Actually raising sons remains a baffling business, too, but they seemed immune to the princess thing and that's where my mind is this evening. I was delighted when I gave birth to a daughter to complete our family and honestly believed that raising her would be more or less the same experience I'd been through with her brothers, toilet training aside. Well, as we all know, parenting is about nothing so much as having our illusions shattered again and again, right? It's been so different and I'm sure it has to do with things beyond her gender, but I know that's a huge part of it. I noticed it right off with gifts. When the boys were born we were showered with gifts, many of which were books for them for later. Not one book did The Princess receive. Lots of pink clothes and a mountain of stuffed animals, but no books. These days she gets...clothes, dolls, and doll accessories, many of them handcrafted and quite lovely but stereotypical girl gifts nonetheless. Even my own choices of Chanukah gifts this year were ridiculously girly-- a flowered flannel nightgown (her "princess" gown), a hand knit hat in pinks and greens decorated with more flowers, and even a pop-up pink castle. Yikes. It all seemed so harmless but I guess I've been sucked in along with everyone else.

Her brothers are merciless in their scorn for her girly pursuits and they frequently try to redirect her to less wispy activities. She's gotten to the point of doing her dress up and dancing behind a closed bedroom door so they won't tease her which I find sad. No one ever told the boys that their beloved fire trucks and dinosaurs were "too boyish". We never tried to control their imaginative play and to see this now drives me crazy. Except there's a part of me that thinks like the boys--get over this girly thing already.

I wasn't much of girly girl. My one Barbie ended up with a severe and unflattering haircut and her knees destroyed after being bent backwards too many times. I built forts and drew ships. But I, too, had a thing for royalty as my inexplicable passion for Tudor England and the ups and downs of its rulers blossomed around 5th grade. I haven't gotten over that one as my current reading attests. So maybe there's something there.

Some would say it's all harmless, all good fun. But already she seems to worry about how she's dressed, whether or not she "looks pretty". We watched Little Miss Sunshine last night and it gave me a rather sobering image of just how far this sort of thing might go if left unchecked. And this is my main reservation about kindergarten. I think, unlike her brothers, she would actually love school. But I want her to grow up with the strength and confidence to be whatever she wants to be and I fear that school might knock that out of her pretty quickly as she is exposed to girl pop culture day in and day out. Still working on that decision for next year.

Meanwhile The Spouse and I keep talking about how ballerinas have to be strong and work hard, that smart and good is more important than pretty, that she can be whatever she can dream of being, all those good 1970's Marlo Thomas messages. I want her to grow up to be as tough as her brothers and stronger than Disney!


LynnS said...

You tell those boyz to knock off making fun of their sister or Josie will bop them on the head with a magic wand. :) Besides, neither one of them have much of a leg to stand on to criticize someone else for playing pretend. *cough*D&D*cough* I know where the feather boas are buried, boyz.

I wonder that the Princess doesn't get books. That seems to be almost all that my girls get--which is JUST FINE with me. I suspect my bitchiness on the subject of gifts (just ask my MIL) is part of it. And I am a bookish woman, so it may even be assumed my girls take after their mother. I dunno. That makes me sad. Next birthday she gets a book from us.

While Jo and Lou have "the princess thing," it's not raging out of control, or at least it seems so to me. They love princesses, and they love other stuff too. Josie is mad for comics in general and Spiderman in particular, for instance, and Lou--well, you know Lou. If she were ever admitted to a castle she'd just as soon swing from the chandelier as curtsy.

The question isn't what are the Disney Princesses teaching girls. The question is WHAT ELSE are YOU teaching your girl, or are you just abandoning her to popular culture entirely? If you're homeschooling, you already know the answer to that. It's why I don't worry about a little--ok, a lot--of dress-up at my house.

Melisa said...

About the books--I think there is a good possibility that people think we have enough books. As if. Is such a thing even possible? But we did get lots of classics for the boys. And my wonderful aunt who works in a bookstore does keep Tovah well supplied with new titles. But she does not receive books like her brothers did.

Good point about the feather boa. I'll use that for sure ;-)