In which I say why princesses aren't evil role models and cry about the Slate article about how programming parents are scared of dolls.
There is nothing wrong -- absolutely nothing wrong -- with your young child liking princesses. Any princess.
I get annoyed at the gendering of toys and books -- Legos and science are for boys, feelings and dress up are for girls -- but that is because Legos and science and feelings and dress up are for any child, boy or girl, and problematic messages are sent by calling one "boy" and one "girl."
Princesses (especially pink sparkly princesses) can be problematic not because they are pink sparkly princesses but because what it means to be a princess, to want to be a princess, and how society views that, along with misunderstandings about the nature of play and imagination (and I'd add, that goes for children, teens, and grown ups.)
I'm not the first person to talk about princesses, what they mean, what they don't mean, and the depth and substance that is needed for the "princess talk." To be honest, looking for posts and articles reveal mostly "oh no" reactions. But I want to explore more what it means when we engage in "princess shaming," and here are a few good articles to look at before I get into my own thoughts. (Also, if you know of other posts about this, please share in the comments. I thought I'd read a librarian post about play and princesses and I can't find it.)
Meg Cabot summed it up beautifully in this 2010 post about the Disney film Tangled: "I think it would be a shame for parents not to let [their daughters] have [princesses] just because they don’t believe in “the princess thing.” Because the princess thing is amazing. It’s about standing up for what you believe in, protecting the people you love, and never letting the bad guys win. It’s about rescuing yourself, and yet risking your heart when you meet someone who seems worth giving it to."
In 2013, author Emily Kate Johnston wrote In Which I Talk About Princesses (and go read the whole thing): "I’m more than a little disturbed by the current trend of trying to raise girls without princesses. . . . it suggests that princesses have no inherent value, save as commodities in love and marriage, and that’s just the result of too-casual interpretation of their stories. Okay, okay: it’s also the result of Disney marketing, which is kind of awful a lot of the time. But in the past few years, even Disney has become much more self-aware (not always in terms of merchandise. That remains depressing. And also not a little bit racist. But in terms of the story), and shutting down their contributions to the genre isn’t fair either."
And while it's long, these posts by Zoe Chavet at the Mary Sue also deconstruct the types of princesses out there: the Princess Type, Part One and Part Two. Read the whole thing, but I'll include the conclusion: "I said at the beginning that I wanted to see characters that encourage the tenents of feminism, instead of diminishing them for the sake of Hollywood politics. Allowance for choice, and not a declaration of a singular, preferable type, is one thing that modern feminism is really about. The more (and more kinds) of female characters that we see, the healthier our own estimation of ourselves and our capabilities. There’s room for the princess, for the tomboy with a crown, and everyone else, too. Women, young and grown, are looking for themselves in the media they watch. We should give them something more to look at."
I get the immediate reaction to what we'll call the "pink princess" and the horror of marketing. And I also get not wanting to limit children's play and choices based on their gender.
That said, part of not wanting to limit includes letting the child have a choice -- even if that choice is not the one that the parent views as correct.
And when the only correct choices for girls are those that have been coded "boy," or the "tomboys", that's wrong. Feminism and equality are not about "girls are as good as boys because boys are the gold standard." It's not about saying "being a CEO is better than being a stay at home parent with six kids, because men are CEOs and power and money." It's not just about choice. It's about not saying that by default "boy" is better; "boy" is the norm; "boy" is the standard; "boy" is the default." And that is one of the messages that is sent by labeling books and toys "boy" or "girl"
A girl choosing pink princess is a valid choice. Because it is play, it is a child defining for herself what it means to be a princess. We still live in a world where the main players in films and movies and books are male, and if there is a female in a film there is only one.
So the first thing that princess culture does is it gives a girl a world where she, as a female, takes center stage. She is the main character, the lead, with the men providing supporting roles. There is no need for the child playing princess to imagine herself as Henry Potter's secret twin sister Henrietta to make herself the hero: the princess is already the hero.
And as for choosing pink -- dress up is fun, for all kids. If someone wants dresses and feathers and satin, why the heck not? Fancy dress or sweatpants, it's a child's choice. Wearing a dress doesn't stop a child from being active and doing things. It just means they are wearing a dress while doing so.
Then there is the argument that princess is all about the prince. My counter arguments to that are: today, not so much. Even then, I'd bet the play surrounding being a princess isn't so "get me a man" heavy as the narratives they play around. And if you're so against that narrative, I'd ask you a favor, Instead of speaking up against princesses, the next time someone puts their girl baby next to a boy baby and sees them playing together and exclaims, "oh, her first boyfriend!" -- speak up against THAT. Because frankly I'm more annoyed at how often an adult says this about two young children playing together, and how that sets up children to believe that relationships are to be primarily dating even when they are six months old.
Why today's rant? Well, I've been meaning to talk about how princess play isn't the end of the world for a while now. And I also urge those who are concerned to ask the actual child what it is they like about princesses, the stories, and reading about them -- you may be very surprised at how children are subverting tropes and viewing story in a way you, an adult, did not. Conversations instead of assumptions.
But the real push was a father's lament that his daughter wants princess stuff and that's just icky.
I know that people don't get to pick their headlines but here it is: The Princess Trap. Our Daughter is Getting Into Dolls and Dress Up. What Are Programmer Parents To Do?
Problem Number One: the belief (expected to be universal) that princesses, dolls, and dress up are less than programming and other good science stuff.
Problem Number Two: The subheading is "is it really too much to ask for unisex toys?" I agree with a hundred percent. Combined with the actual headline, this translates to asking for "boy toys" that aren't labelled as such. This is not so much asking for unisex toys as saying that the "girl toys" the daughter wants aren't good enough. Second class. Boy toys, that's the ticket! But with the recognition that "boy toys" is a ridiculous concept so they should be unisex. Which I agree with. But guess what? Dolls and dress up, also unisex.
Problem Number Three: "When my 4-year-old told me the other day that she was “ready for princesses,” part of me died. Not just because the day had finally arrived when that virulent meme had infected her, but also because of how utterly powerless I was to contain it. Let me be clear: These weren’t progressive princesses like Adventure Time’s Lumpy Space Princess and Doctor Princess (that’s just her last name)." Translation: there is a right way and wrong way to be female and the child is picking the wrong way. And of course, the books are all wrong because they don't have enough "exemplary, idiosyncratic female role models."
As a quick aside, I'm sure someone out there is already putting together the booklist for him to show him the error of his book shopping ways. But as I said above: there is no one right way to be a girl.
Problem Number Four: "Getting more women into science and technology fields: Where’s the silver bullet?" Because STEM is better than anything else! Confession: I fell for this bullshit in the 1980s, and instead of doing what I wanted (English! Arts!) I first went into science (computer science) and then law (like the boys, it's serious!) before I realized that choice is doing what I want, not being one of the women to break into fields because I was being told by people like this guy that such a choice was the only right choice.
No, I won't go sentence by sentence through the rest of the article.
Oh, maybe I will.
Problem Number Five: "It’s not that dress-up and dolls are inherently terrible, just that an exclusive focus on stereotypical-girl interests severely limits the scope of unstructured play, which is so important to creative development. When we visit the shop, we try to minimize our involuntary sighs, but our child notices when we get more excited about the boys’ side. Not that she’s realized it’s the boys aisle—because it’s not. It’s a kids aisle." Um. Yeah. First, I'm right there with him: it should be toys. Not girl aisles and boy aisles. But I do wonder..are those the signs? Or, with parents who are more excited about one side, is it the parents' interpretation? And how is dress up not unstructured play that adds to creative development? Note the title and subtitle are accurate: girls = girls, boys = unisex.
Problem Number Six: Legos. Go, read the whole thing. Yes, Lego and it's marketing is problematic, no arguments. But kids play with things for different reasons. When I was a kid there were just Legos, no sets, and we put them together how we wanted, not according to a box set of directions. The gender stuff Lego has done is a problem, but it's equally a problem to look at the so-called "girl Lego" and see it lesser than. Easier to put together? Not the question. The question is, does the kid want something that is easy or hard to put together? Do they want the final product or the process?
Oh god the dollhouse passage. Dollhouses. I can't even. I have to stop now because I'm thinking maybe the daughter wants pink princesses as an act of rebellion.
So, long essay short:
Princesses? Not a bad thing. Find out what it is about the princess that makes your kid want to read about her and be her; find out what your kid thinks it means to play princess.
And stop already with the explicit and implicit message that boys are unisex, girls are girls, and girls are lesser.
So, what are your thoughts? And any good articles to share?
Thanks to @BicAndMoleskin for the title of this post
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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy
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