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Do Princess Parties and Dress-up Really Affect Girls’ Gender Roles?

 

Last year at this time, my daughter, Bess – who’s turning 4 this Halloween – asked for spiders or bats on her birthday cupcakes. This year, since pretty much April, she’s been asking for princess cupcakes. In other words, it has begun.

I was so not looking forward to this. My kids, so far, have been raised mainly on toys of the handmade-of-wood-in-Denmark variety. Almost no TV other than first-season Sesame Street DVDs and, on a really good day, Wonder Pets, which is basically operetta. The only “character” featured on my children’s clothing is Barack Obama. I am a professional feminist with a bag of ice hockey equipment in the basement. I think everyone behind the cynical, manipulative, vacuous, sexist, even downright creepy princess industrial complex deserves 100 years sleep by poison apple.

And yet, when it comes to Bess’s own princess experience, I may lay down my pitchfork. How much damage, really, can it do?

For one thing, I concede that we are powerless to fully shield our children from the pink princess tractor beam. Or, really, from any of that crap that is apparently streamed directly into their brain cells by an unsettling process I call Elmosis. (My kids had never seen him. And yet they knew him. What is that?) Anyway, if I forbid princesses completely, she’ll only sneak out and experiment. Best to do it on my watch.

Plus, I figure, I liked princesses, not to mention my Barbie Beauty Salon, and (yes, though I did walk through the valley of the shadow of basing my self-worth on male approval) I still turned out okay. Why? In part because princesses and skinny Dawn dolls and mommy’s lipstick were not the only things I was exposed to. I also climbed trees, raised pet lizards, and watched my mom do local environmental activism and my dad value her for more than, I don’t know, her hair.

As Bess gets older, I may worry that the messages some of the princesses espouse, in some cases, are even more deleterious than the baseline “be decorative” – I’m looking at you Little, “I’ll give up my voice for a man” Mermaid. But right now, I’m not sure Bess is getting any message from princesses other than “sparkly!” with which I cannot argue. Bess doesn’t even know what princesses do – I’ve asked – but she doesn’t know what the Secretary of State does either.

I’ve also learned that you can’t always predict what kids are actually going to glean from these things. Maybe they’re not all so bad. Recently, Bess selected – as the one book she wanted to bring home from an entire library bursting with Ezra Jack Keats and Lillian Hoban and Dr. Seuss – some inane book-like product about how Belle, Cinderella and Ariel all love to dance, and they proceed to do so in the forest. That is the entire plot, except at one point when a sexless blond prince shows up to twirl along, to which Bess responded, “Oh! So princes can dance, too!”

More broadly, you never know how kids are going to relate to the princess – and the girlyverse in general; maybe they’re not as immediately brainwashable as we think. One friend’s daughter is cuckoo for Cinderella, but thinks she’s a superhero. The biggest fun I had with my Barbie Town House – oh yeah, I had the Town House, too – was building the elevator, missing from the box on arrival, out of strawberry boxes and old speaker wire. So maybe we can let this stuff source, not stunt, their imaginations. Especially when the princess stuff is only part of their otherwise soccer-playing, knee-skinning, outside-voice worlds.

Ultimately, when it comes to princesses, the incessant marketing makes me much crazier than the inherent mythology. So, in what is sure to be a crippling blow to the Princess Industrial Complex, I shall continue to not buy that crap. But at home, I’ll allow the DIY princess dress-up and the like – all while taking a page from the playbook of my genius friend Amy Reiter who, when her daughter, then about 4, indicated interest in becoming a princess, responded: “Ah yes! You know, you’ll have to work really hard, speak many languages, understand foreign relations and diplomacy. It might also be helpful to get a graduate degree in international studies.” Dahlia then changed her career plan to ballerina (then butterfly, then baker or car-service driver).

And maybe if I do cave and make birthday princess cupcakes, we’ll all dress up as dragons and eat them alive.

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