Since I can't escape my midwestern upbringing, I'll open with an apology: I'm sorry I hate Disney Princesses and fancy-pants Dora so much. I feel really bad about that, almost guilty, I really do. I think they're fun and sweet and I love magic and make-believe as much as the next mom. I do. I like ballet. So I'm sorry if what I'm about to say hurts your feelings, or makes you feel like a bad parent, or gives the impression that I think I'm a better one than you are. Because most definitely I am not. I'm not writing this to be judgy. But I am sick and tired of having to justify and apologize for my refusal to allow these things into our home, and I think it's time we have a more frank and honest conversation about them if we're ever going to move past this debate. And I think it's time for us to work together and stand up against the marketing machine that makes all of us - parents, daughters and sons - complicit in the princessification of femininity.
So why am I writing this now? It's 2011. Most modern moms I talk to seem to be of the general sentiment that the feminist movement has come, and gone, and is now an offiicially historic marker in the rear-view mirror of childrearing. Our girls, we tell ourselves, can now Be Whatever They Want To Be. They can be anything! Or, better yet, they can be everything! Doctor, dramatist, darling. Educator, explorer, entrepreneur. Baker, builder, beauty queen. Pirate, plumber, prostitute, parent, princess. The list is infinite. Let them dream. Give them wings (preferably fairy). They are free to become whatever they want!
Whatever they want. Ok. What do they want, then? And how did they come to want it? My own four-year-old daughter wants, I learned today, Ballerina Dora merchandise. Having recently decided (after an in-house "field trip" at her school provided a week of ballet introduction) that she's going to be a ballet teacher when she grows up, she's been talking a lot about ballerinas and doing a lot of adorable twirling and leaping around here lately. It's super cute. And I haven't discouraged it. But she's not signed up for dance class (yet) and she doesn't own ballet slippers (although she does have a very sparkly pair of shoes her grandma bought her that make a convenient substitute). And now she wants Dora, beloved Dora!, to dance into our lives and be a ballerina with her.
Dora used to be The Explorer. She wore a cutely uncoordinated t-shirt-and-shorts outfit and had a boyish bob suitable for climbing trees and searching for clues. She was curious, intelligent, eager. She shouted at us in Spanish (and look what we learned! Ayúdame! Help me! Abre! Open!). Then, in a pointless and unfathomable episode, she became...a princess. Her hair grew longer. She got much skinnier. She was begowned and bejeweled and sparkled for all to adore. She took up ballet. And little girls, most tragically my own, fell even more in love with her. Sweet, sensible, eager Dora has transformed from caterpillar to butterfly. Butterfly! She is beautiful, she is free, she can fly.
So...what's wrong with that? Beauty. Freedom. Flight. Sounds like everything we say we want to instill in our daughters: Confidence. Opportunity. Capability. What's wrong with that? What's so wrong with wanting to be a princess?
Everything. It's a trap.
The "confidence" that comes with security in her "beauty" is an illusion. Aspiring to be beautiful - or, as is probably more accurately the case for our own young girls - being confident in their beauty (because we constantly tell them how beautiful they are, don't we?) - is the first step to being a princess, or a butterfly. And the confidence is pretty wonderful, isn't it? Who's the fairest of them all? "I am!" our girls declare, and we can't stop smiling. But deep down, I think we know that over-fostering this prepubescent confidence could backfire: when they enter locker rooms, without us, and stand in a long line of girls before the mirror, the entire universe of girliness will team up against us, just looking for reasons to undermine that confidence, and they could come out of it, angry, thinking, "You lied to me! I am not beautiful!"
And I'm willing to skip over the more tired and superficial aspects of the issue of beauty-as-everything, which I think we all pretty much have moved beyond - the part about how the beautiful princess needs rescuing by the handsome prince and how living happily ever after means never aging, or doing much of anything. I think the moms I know are pretty much universally over this crap. They don't want to see the damsels in distress - they want Princess Fiona to come out, kicking ass and embracing her ogrish heart of hearts. They prefer DreamWorks to classic Disney. It's more modern. Cooler. Realistic. They tell their daughters that they don't have to give up their voices like Ariel did, that they don't have to just be a maid like Snow White or Cinderella. We tell them that whether or not their prince will come someday, they can still be happy. We tell them beauty comes from the inside, and that includes the brain. But we stop short of telling them not to be beautiful in the conventional sense. We stop short at not buying the hooped skirt, the long gloves, the tiara. The beauty is an illusion, we admit, but it's a fun illusion. A magical illusion. And who are we to deny our girls magic? What kind of mother doesn't want her daughter to have fun?
So...the beauty is not really beauty, and doesn't translate to confidence, but we go along with it anyway. Who am I to blow against the wind? Our society has superficial values, but we just have to make the most of it, and put the emphasis on making sure our daughters make the right choices. That they make the right decisions to be strong, empowered girls.
But can we even do that? This is perhaps the most dangerous part, because I think many parents really fall for this brilliant marketing campaign: the idea that strong, confident girls have the freedom to choose what they want to be. But the brute fact is that this "freedom" is at best illusory and at worst a total scam: the "choice" to want to be a princess or not is not one of many viable options. It's the default option: princess, rainbow, butterfly, unicorn. Go to Target, the exclusive vendor for the new Ballet Dora series. Walk down the "girl" aisle. And let me know what kind of "choices" you find. Count how many items in the "girl" section could just as easily be moved to a gender-neutral area. Practically none. They make pink "girl Legos" now. Even books are gendered!
The flip side of this, of course, is how we train our boys to fear and abhor femininity, but that's a topic worthy of its own discussion. I also have a 6-year-old son. And the "boy" aisle is just as bad - if not worse. Every toy is a fighting toy. We have two major rules in the toy department at our house: no Barbie/Disney Princess (and preferably no Disney at all, if we can help it) and no weapons as toys. And the no weapons rule was so much harder to enforce that I had to soften my stance on it when I realized no weapons meant no Legos. But I digress. Where were we...yes. Beauty. Freedom. And Flight.
So the beauty is illusory. The freedom is illusory. And the flight...the spreading of wings and being whatever she wants to be!...is a cruel, insensitive trap. Why are we trying to dupe our girls into believing in a myth of gender equity and equal opportunity when we know damned well that women do not receive equal pay for equal work in this country? Women do not have equal opportunities to succeed in business or economics. Women do, when it comes down to it, still carry the burden of most domestic work and child-rearing, whether they "choose" to or not. And the glass ceiling, through which we now occasionally get the momentary, misleading and voyeuristic opportunity to peek up a woman's skirt, is still as solid as Disney on Ice. So tell me: why are we telling our girls they can fly (if they really want to! if they just believe in magic!) instead of giving them the tools they're really going to need to build the wings? When Daedalus taught his son, Icarus, to fly, he gave him a very clear warning: Fly too close to the sun, he said, and you'll come crashing down. And here we are, crooning "you are my sunshine, my only sunshine" as our girls strap on the most adorable wings money can buy - made in China of the cheapest possible materials. Whose fault will it be when they come crashing down? Icarus was to blame for not heeding his father's advice. Our girls can rightfully blame us for convincing them they were immortal.
Many of you are probably thinking I'm exaggerating, that our smart girls know the difference between fantasy and reality and can be princesses today and stock brokers tomorrow without blaming us - or Barbie, or Ballet Princess Dora or whatever. And you're right: all of our girls will grow up and make the adjustments they need to deal with social disparities and body-image issues, and gender roles, etc. They don't have a choice in dealing with all that. But I think it's high time, as parents, that we get honest about the role we really play in all this. Are we really deluding ourselves into setting up our daughters to fail? Are we really so easily manipulated by advertising that we can trick ourselves into doing this? And how do we stop?
Look at what they continue to give us! Look at what they've done to Dora! She comes with a comb now. She's almost unrecognizably dolled up. And her beauty, if we're going to call it that, has come at a very high cost: she traded in her curiosity for a tiara and some glitter. The most interesting thing about her - that she's The Explorer - has been "upgraded" to princess/ballerina. Not an even exchange, if you ask me.
One of my sisters asked me why it bothers me so much that Dora "wants to be a ballerina" and I said it should bug all of us, that Dora suddenly would rather be a ballerina than a scientist. What message does this send? Girls can be anything...until they reach a certain age. Then cut out the smarty stuff and buy some eye shadow. But when you put it to the test, Dora isn't "choosing" to be a ballerina. She just comes in the box that way now, already wearing the tutu. We are the ones choosing to give our girls this new "choice." Ballerina or princess? You pick!
Disney and Nickelodeon and Mattel and all the others continue to present us with these "choices" because we continue to buy it. And they'll keep producing it as long as we keep paying for it. We are, in actual fact, the guilty party here: we are forcing them to keep producing this drivel through a mindless and self-justifying consumerism. They're just toys. It's fun. I make up for it by buying tool belts and "boy" Legos. My daughter will grow up strong and confident and beautiful. She can be whatever she wants to be.
Parenting is hard work. Trying to raise kids who have values beyond materialism is a daunting task in a consumer culture. But as far as I can tell, we have the ultimate authority here because we hold the purse-strings. We can control the market by taking a stronger collective stance on what kind of products we're willing to buy for our children. We need to stand together as parents and (1) speak up to say we don't WANT this kind of merchandise and (2) put our money where our mouths are by not buying it. I think we can do it. If we do it together. Are you in?
You can start here, by signing this petition and sharing it with your friends: Tell Toy Companies Our Girls Need More Choices than "Princess". Talk to your kids. Talk to your friends. Take action - with your dollars and your voice.
|Dora Ballerina, by Fisher Price/Mattel. Available exclusively at Target!|
|Don't forget Ariel, who gave up her voice for her man...|