Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Princess Shaming

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

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

16 comments:

slayground said...

Fantastic post! I am cheering you on. I especially love the paragraph which begins, "So the first thing that princess culture does is it gives a girl a world where she, as a female, takes center stage."

I too dislike it when people pair up babies and tease kids about first boyfriends/girlfriends - That's just unnecessary.

Gender bias is a big thing with me, to put it simply. Did you see the article I wrote about gender bias in holiday gifts some years back? Such things frustrate me.

slayground said...

Fantastic post! I am cheering you on. I especially love the paragraph which begins, "So the first thing that princess culture does is it gives a girl a world where she, as a female, takes center stage."

I too dislike it when people pair up babies and tease kids about first boyfriends/girlfriends - That's just unnecessary.

Gender bias is a big thing with me, to put it simply. Did you see the article I wrote about gender bias in holiday gifts some years back? Such things frustrate me.

Maureen E said...

I want to comment more substantially but for now I'll just say, thank you so much for this post. It hits a lot of what I've been concerned about with the push for gender-neutral toys. Gender-neutral all too often defaults to male.

Also, this whole paragraph: "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""

YES.

Diane Zahler said...

As the author of four middle-grade books about princesses, I have pretty strong feelings about the topic. Thank you for addressing the controversy so sensibly and straightforwardly. I've tried hard to make my princesses the controllers of their own destinies, role models for any kid, male or female, who should happen to read the books. And I've run across a problem less common than princess-shaming for girls but equally disturbing: princess-shaming for boys, which I talk about here: http://www.dianezahler.com/uncategorized/villains-and-monsters-and-princesses-oh-my/.

Jen Robinson said...

Great stuff, Liz. For Christmas this year for my four year old daughter I have stashed away a pink princess Lego kit as well as a yellow dumptruck and crane, and pink sheets for her new bed. I do try to be conscious of getting her things that I think will encourage her to play creatively and build things, whether they are marketed to "boys" or "girls".

I went into engineering as a girl in college in the 80s, too, even though what I loved was books. I would like my daughter to be exposed to enough to have the option of engineering, but if what she loves is words and books and pink princesses as she gets older, I do want to encourage her to do, and be, what she loves.

Mary said...

Yay! Love it all the way! Thank you.

Cecilia said...

Thank you for an excellent article. My boys were given dolls to play with, one was called a Judith pregnant doll. The boys used the spring loaded platform under her detachable abdomen to shoot each other with the plastic baby. My daughter shaves all the hair off her barbie and called her punk barbie. I vote unisex and a return to the seventies where toys were multi colours not just pink and blue.

Alysa Stewart said...

AMEN about the "first boyfriend" thing! At least 6-month-olds don't have a clue about what their parents mean.

My mind was totally boggled when two or three friends of mine played into gender stereotypes last year.

The scene is this: My introverted 3-year-old son and I arrive for a first playdate at their home. He doesn't immediately engage (because he's observing first; that's what he does). My friend, the hostess, jumps in with, "don't worry! we have boy toys too! Do you like trains/cars?" or "Sorry, you probably don't like [whatever it was her daughter was playing with]. We have some trains/cars..."

I didn't even know how to respond! I wanted to say "gee, thanks, you just told my son he can't play with those cool toys the other kids are playing with because he's a boy!"

Just did my best to smooth it over and teach him that toys are for kids. *sigh*

Sara O'Leary said...

You gave me lots to think about here, Liz. I was thinking I hadn't gone through a princess stage as a child but then remembered my Mary Queen of Scots obsession, so I suppose I did and that you've now given me reason to rein in my tendency toward princess shaming.
I responded on my own blog and directed readers back to you. http://123oleary.blogspot.ca/2014/12/be-hero.html
I do really like your comment "So the first thing that princess culture does is it gives a girl a world where she, as a female, takes center stage." That seems exactly right!

Jenny @ Reading the End said...

I love this post! Because you're exactly right: The problem is the gendering and the gender policing of children's play and toys, not the play and toys that GIRLS have in particular. It's always panic panic about what the girls are doing, while what the boys are doing is considered the sensible default.

Liz B said...

slayground, thank you & thank you for the link.

maureen, and it's not just for kids. With the various magazines & websites have "gifts for ..." lists, I much appreciate the "gifts for tech lovers" instead of "gifts for men." Or "gifts for pet lovers," etc.

diane, thanks for the link! I think for many kids, "princess" simply means "someone special."

jen, thanks! it's not easy but kids are really such a mix. My niece, now 14, loves pink and has always hated dolls; would rather have stuffed animals. Right now she prefers nonfiction to fiction. Options = good, but options includes seeing value in those options.

mary, thanks!

alysa, I find those types of things so hard and awkward to address in real-life. it's like the people who say "oh my 3 year old son just loves trucks, such a boy" but everyone can love trucks! and if all you've given are trucks, of course that will be what they love.

sara, thanks! (and has your Mary Queen of Scots obsession returned with the new CW show REIGN? Mine has!)

jenny, thanks! and then there is the whole issue of clothes and the types of clothes sold for kids...where even the cut/length of clothing differs for kids. it's non stop.

rockinlibrarian said...

I missed this when it came out (I remember seeing OF it, but being too busy to read it until it slipped away), so I'm glad somebody Tweeted it today. I flatter myself to wonder if maybe one of my posts is the one you were thinking about, a librarian's post about princesses and play: http://rockinlibrarian.livejournal.com/207733.html Reading it again now I'm not sure it applies exactly anymore-- it's a five year old post, and obviously Disney didn't exactly give up on fairy tale movies at all-- plus my princess-nut daughter was only a baby and not into princesses when I wrote it, so I feel like I could write so much more now. Ah well. It's easy to catch yourself unconsciously supplying your boy and your girl with toys marketed to their genders when you're not really paying attention and they do tend to LIKE toys marketed to their own genders, and I have to stop and say, "Wait, is my daughter REALLY the BIGGER My Little Pony fan than my son, or are they actually even and I'm just assuming because of all the pink?" They have birthdays coming up, within a week of each other, so I'm giving them BOTH the Frozen castle LEGO set to SHARE because there's no way I could give it to one and not the other. Whichever one it wasn't addressed to would try to claim it from the other anyway.

missfine said...

Thank you so much for brining up this important topic! I'm writing a book as we speak called "In Defense of the Princess: Why Royal Women and Those Who Love Them are more Progressive than you think" - I will be discussing Disney princesses, princesses in ancient fairytales, real princesses like Diana, Grace and Kate,and discussing the empowering values of princess play as well as defending pink and all the things girly. Finally I will show how this all relates to feminine power and how important it is to encourage this in girls rather than make them feel bad about it. It's coming out spring 2016 with Perseus Books! Watch for it!!!! www.jerramyfine.com

missfine said...

Thank you so much for brining up this important topic! I'm writing a book as we speak called "In Defense of the Princess: Why Royal Women and Those Who Love Them are more Progressive than you think" - I will be discussing Disney princesses, princesses in ancient fairytales, real princesses like Diana, Grace and Kate,and discussing the empowering values of princess play as well as defending pink and all the things girly. Finally I will show how this all relates to feminine power and how important it is to encourage this in girls rather than make them feel bad about it. It's coming out spring 2016 with Perseus Books! Watch for it!!!! www.jerramyfine.com

Jennifer Webb said...

Yes, yes, yes! This is so great, and it really speaks to discussions about romance novels I've been having lately. Romance heroines, like princesses, are often misunderstood and not recognized for being the main characters of their stories--and not valued for representing happy endings for women, which are scarce in our narratives.

There's such a pervasive tendency to devalue women's work and women's narratives. There was a time before the hipster DIY movement where I felt I had to justify my interest in things like cooking or crafts! Now men and women are pickling and knitting and I love it.

Nicola said...

'Problem Number Four: "Getting more women into science and technology fields: Where’s the silver bullet?" Because STEM is better than anything else!'

This idea creates a false dichotomy, where you can *only* like 'girl' things or 'boy/unisex' things. You can like princesses as a child and grow up to be a programmer. I did. And you can be an adult who likes female-coded things like writing and the arts and still have a fulfilling career in a STEM field. I am.

And I think that false dichotomy is a major contributor to the gender imbalance in STEM fields today, because it means girls feel they have to choose between their tech-y interests and their more 'feminine' interests.

As a side-note, I think 'get more women in tech' is a flawed way of looking at the problem. We need to move away from the gender coding of all careers, including female-coded ones like caring-oriented roles. It's not about getting girls into the 'better' careers, it's about allowing everyone to pursue their interests irrespective of gender.

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