27 May 2007

In Which I Explain My Aversion to The Princesses

I didn't used to have a problem with The Princesses. I liked the Disney movies with their slender waisted heroines and dashing Prince Charmings. Sure, I'd heard the stories about the animator's dirty tricks and secret hidden messages in the clouds, but whatever, kids are too little to really catch those evil subliminal messages and if teenagers want to watch Disney movies stoned, what business is it of mine? I didn't let Matilda watch the movies, but it had more to do with a General Dislike of All Things Commercial than any real moral objection to pretty princesses.

But when Matilda hit 2 we were suddenly inundated with pale pink and baby blue princess things. They were everywhere - on her clothes, her toys, in her food. She wouldn't wear pants, even if I begged. All of her games suddenly revolved around being a princess and waiting for her prince. She would lie down and close her eyes and wait. Literally.

After sputtering around for a few months, trying to figure out where the hell she had even heard the Disney songs she was now manically singing, I set about trying to counteract the pinkness. We read The Paper Bag Princess and watched non-princess movies like Wallace and Gromit and The Muppet Show, anything to break free from the stereotyped Disney Girliness.

Some of my friends and in-laws didn't get it. (My mother got it, because if there's one thing I am, it's my mother's daughter.) They didn't see the harm. They bought her cardboard boxes of shiny Princess dresses, bright pink Sleeping Beauty bikinis and puff sleeve t-shirts adorned with trios of smiling princesses. Total strangers would use cute little girl voices to ask her, "Are you a princess?" or say knowingly, "You must be a princess."

My countermeasures took on an almost desperate tone.

"Disney is evil," I would whisper to her.

She would look at me, her head to one side, and then say, "Okay, I am Cinderella and you are the Prince," thrusting a dirty mary jane into my lap.

It wasn't that I hated Disney, or that I wanted her to be a total tomboy, I was just trying to give her some balance. Soon it became clear that I was not even close to getting through to her. Every. Single. Day. It was the same thing, over and over. Sure, there have been times when I used this to my advantage, but mostly I just tried to subvert the whole thing.

I started reading the real fairy tales to her, the Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Andersen. I was amazed at how much I had forgotten and how much Disney has managed to change the way we remember fairy tales. Of course most fairy tales have been told so many times that it's hard to say which version is "real" and which is altered, and I'm not saying that the overt Christian morals of the Grimm brothers are better or worse than Disney's equally overt patriarchy, just that they don't get the same kind of media play.

In the Grimm brother's version of Cinderella, there is no fairy godmother and her father's not dead. Cinderella's father brings her a twig, which she plants and weeps beside every day, mourning the loss of her mother. The twig grows into a tree and becomes the home of two doves, who give her the dress and shoes for the ball and later peck out the eyes of her jealous step-sisters.

And it's not just Cinderella - The Little Mermaid is all about unrequited love, in Hans Christian Andersen's version, she commits suicide at the end of the story, because the prince doesn't love her back, and Mulan? The girl kicks ass, true, but in the original legend, she kicks ass long enough to become a general in the Chinese army, one of six top advisers to the Emperor, while in Disney's version she is found out and marries her commanding officer. (Okay, we don't actually see the ceremony, but it's implied.)

Last winter one of my dear friends gave me a copy of this article in which Peggy Orenstein talks about how the Disney Corporation's marketing tactics are intentionally targeting girls exactly like Matilda. And while it was nice to know that I'm not imaging the sudden surge in All Things Princess, it was kind of disheartening to be reminded just how vulnerable our children are to the marketing tactics of mega-corporations like Disney.

Lately I've been feeling a little more relaxed about the whole Princess thing. Partly because Matilda is beginning to out-grow it, and partly because it looks like Freya might escape unscathed. She loves the movie Cars (yes, I know it's still Disney, but it is far from Princess) and this morning she was walking around banging on her head, pretending to be the Corpse Bride, and talking to the worm that lives in her eye socket. No frills for this one!

So at this point I guess you could say that my Princess Aversion is residual. It represents a fight of three years to rescue my daughter from being just another princess and my deep mistrust of large corporations and people who think they know what's good for me. I know that many, many people love the Princesses, some in a nostalgic kind of way, others because they are simply harmless bits of fluff, a welcome distraction from the grit of everyday life.

But what kind of message do these princesses, and their masses of princess gear, really send to our girls? That they should wait, and look really pretty and then someday a prince will come and save them? From what? From themselves?

I'm not saying that the messages that exist for boys are any better than the helpless pretty princess message is for girls, just that I think that it's dangerous for our children to be drilled repeatedly with a single message. Even if all of the little pink princesses out there grow up to be strong independent women, and even if all of the bionicle-loving boys grow up to be sensitive well-adjusted men, it will not be because of their early childhood indoctrination into societal norms, but in spite of it.

I want my girls to be able to look past the shiny pink veneer and say, "Yeah, she's pretty, but it must take forever for her to get her hair like that, and how come she has to stay home while he gets to go out and have fun? What's up with that?" or "Yeah, sure. Some guy's just gonna show up at your house and marry you. Right. That'll happen." This is something that is hard even for me to do. I am a sucker for pretty packaging and it takes work to be able to look past the slick exterior and see what's really underneath all that gloss.

But I want my daughters to grow up to be strong and independent women, who will live lives full of advertising and see through it, who are willing to work for what they want, not wait for it to fall into their laps. And because there is so much of the Princess Stuff out there, it's my job to provide some balance via rebel alternatives - like strange picture books and sarcasm and punk rock.


Andrea said...

I've almost forgotten that at one time Eden's favorite color was pink and she would only wear dresses. We kind of (luckily) missed the boat on the massive princess invasion, but I sincerely believe that the dialog we had with her about Disney, the princesses and the real stories made her stop and think one day and decide that she wasn't really into it anymore.

Now if we could just get her to say things like "How much oil does THIS gas company get from the Middle East, Mom?" and "What is that terrible store that we never go to? Oh yeah, WAAALLL MART" a little quieter, we'd be all set.

riva said...

The weirdest thing is that the google ads on the left of your blog are both for disney princess things. They are taking over the world. But don't worry Nell, your kids will be strong, independent, and wicked smart. There is no question.

Annika said...

Google ads are keyword targeted, so it is no surprise that they are displaying Disney ads. They only way to avoid it would be to misspell Disney. (Though Nell can tell Google to ban those specific URLs from her ads. But I have had zero luck doing that with ads for formula. Ban one, another appears. I am over Google ads. You should be able to have an ignore list of keywords.)

Stepherz said...

You're awesome. So well said. I totally agree with you 100% on what you said.

I looked forward to having a girl to share floofy pink dress-up clothes with. I puff with pride when I see her try to clicketty-clack through our house with my high heels on. I love that she likes to play with my makeup and that she loves sparkley pink toenails. I also bought her the Disney Princess movies, never even thinking about this side of things that you wrote about. Ugggh. We make mistakes without even meaning to as mothers. I never want to encourage vanity with her. I guess I never thought deeper into it until I read this. Thanks for sharing! :-)

Jen said...

It's a funny thing. From a logical point of view I agree with everything you said. I still love Disney princess though.

It's funny, Elle is far, far girlier than me. If I give her a choice between a frilly pink dress and blue jeans, she'll choose the dress every single time. I expose her to a lot of different things but at only 18 months she's already shown a strong preference for all things princessy. I'm not too worried about it I guess. I don't treat her like a princess but I do admit that I get a little bit of a kick out of dressing her like one.

CamiKaos said...

it's a great post, but I find endless entertainment in the google ads vor disney princess stuff that come up next to it. ;)

Queen Heather said...

Your a great mom! Striking that balance is the right way to go because, unfortunately, we can't escape society.

Having a husband who makes his bucks in the advertising field, I can't slam marketing too much. hehe. But I also have no problem teaching my kids to see through the ads too.