Two weeks ago, we threw a princess birthday party in honor of my daughter who specifically requested that everything be made pink. And it was. Pink tulle hung from the banisters, pink tissue paper flowers hung from the ceiling, pink balloons were taped to the archways. And the party was perfect. We had princess tattoos, crowns, jewels and at the end we cleared the floor for a big ball.
I’ve struggled with letting princesses into our home. I didn’t want them here. I thought they would be a bad influence. But at two-years-old, my daughter began refusing to wear pants and declared herself a princess. Ever since then, it’s ballgowns and necklaces everyday. Once at the grocery store, as Ellis twirled in the aisle in a white Easter dress, a lady asked, “Oh are you going somewhere special?” My daughter just looked at her and said flatly. “I am ‘pecial.”
She is special. And white fluffy Easter dresses are just normal Tuesday attire in this house. Occasionally, I get her to wear something less formal for school or the park. But the moment she comes home she rips off her pants and slips into something a little more formal–A princess Belle dress with gloves, perhaps.
I suppose I could regulate princesses more carefully. I could return every Princess™ that entered our home from well meaning grandparents and doting aunts, but I am not going to. Because I don’t think princesses are the problem. I think we are the problem.
We still live in a country with a gender pay gap, but that’s not Rapunzel’s fault. There are deep gender divides in this country about sex, division of labor and healthcare, but we can’t pin that on Snow White. The commercialization of everything pink and everything princess, becomes and easy scapegoat. It’s so much easier to say, “Blame Disney!” than take a long look in the mirror and examine our own biases.
In her essay in New York magazine, Yael Kohen wrote:
“And what’s wrong with girly, anyway? Rolling our eyes at pink feels like another way of treating female culture on the whole as a niche interest, somehow secondary to male culture — a.k.a. the mainstream. And when it comes to our toys there’s an implicit message that the pink doodads are only second best to the tough dude versions in black, camouflage, and blue. (A boy dressing up like Iron Man, a narcissistic arms mogul turned superhero, won’t be seen as nearly as silly as a girl wearing a Queen Elsa costume, even though they play to the same fantasy impulses). If we’ve made pink the most visible representation of girl culture, and also treat it as a symbol of frivolity, then we’re unwittingly telling girls (and boys) that the girl world isn’t important.”
I believe the same thing about princesses. By denigrating princesses we are in fact telling our daughters that what interests them isn’t important. By foisting the world that is traditionally boy on them instead, aren’t we telling them that “boy things” are okay, but princesses aren’t. And since when is a toy gun less dangerous than a tiara? Lately, my daughter has been turning all her wands into guns and walking around saying, “SHOOT! I SHOOT YOU!” But I’m not going to stress about that either. For children, fantasy play is just that, pure fantasy. My blonde-haired, blue-eyed daughter identifies herself with Belle and Mulan more than Rapunzel or Aurora. Why? Maybe the dresses? The side-kicks? Who knows. But what I do know is that she understand the fantasy and the reality a lot more than I give her credit for.
It’s easy to make Belle and Cinderella culpable for our societal shortcomings, but the truth is, they aren’t the disease they are the symptom. Gender bias doesn’t begin with crowns and gowns, gender bias begins within us. A study done by New York University asked parents to guess the incline of a slope that their 11-month old babies could climb. The study showed that while both girls and boy babies had the same level of physical ability, parents vastly over estimated their sons’ abilities and underestimated their girls’ abilities. Think you are too smart for this inherent bias? Think again. A study done by Yale University had male and female scientists rate the competence of a job applicant. The scientists were given the same application, the only difference was half had an application with a female name the other half had an application with a male name. Overwhelmingly, both male and female scientists favored the male application.
Ultimately, gender bias begins long before you child sits down to watch “Sleeping Beauty” and yet, Sleeping Beauty is what we wring our collective hands over.
A whole generation of girls (myself included) were raised obsessed with princesses and somehow we came out okay. I remember spending hours trying to flip my hair up out of the pool water so I could be like the Ariel singing, “Part of Your World” to prince Eric. I know more Disney songs about love than I know Shakespearean sonnets. But that was just a phase. Much like my Nietzsche phase when I wore all black and took long walks with my journal contemplating how superior I was to all the other riff raff of High School. Or my Bronte phase when I wore tight buns and wanted to walk the windswept moors of England so bad I cried. It’s just a phase. I didn’t become the Übermensch and stab anyone any more than I married an abusive man with a wife locked in an attic.
In her essay on Slate, Allison Benedikt wrote, “The pink phase will pass like anything else, and if it doesn’t, well, then, you have raised a human being who really likes pink. Which is the same as raising a human being who really likes green. The meaning of the color is what we make it mean. By steering our daughters away from the pink aisle to subvert dangerous gender norms, we’re reinforcing them.”
The truth is for children princesses and pink, they are just things. It’s we adults who imbue them with meaning. But instead of crucifying all things pink and princess on the cross of our collective feminist anxiety, maybe we ought to reexamine our own attitudes and deeply held beliefs about children long before they can even reach for that wand.
PS For more reading, I really liked this article.