Tuesday, 19 November 2013

On Raising A Daughter, Part V: Not Sure Where I Stand on the Princess Thing

If you've been following along, I've been doing a series of posts about things I think that Dan and I need to keep in mind as we parent our sweet LB through girlhood, the teenage years, and eventually into womanhood. For the record, I haven't compiled a list of every stereotypical issue that might be encountered, but rather I'm just writing a post here and there when an idea pops into my head. I've already done one post establishing why I think it's important to do this series of posts, another on how LB doesn't need to follow societal norms re: marriage and last name, one on how I hope she isn't so insecure that she is threatened by, therefore unkind towards, other girls/women by default of them being girls/women, and the last one on hoping to install in her a sense that her definition of beauty is hers alone and it's enough.

Nothing earth shattering, but all still ideas that I feel are important.

The next topic that has entered my radar is the princess debate. I could also encompass the pink debate into this topic, too, but maybe I'll leave that one for another entry. But in speaking with other moms and watching articles pop up here and there, the princess culture that saturates girlhood is something I'm interested in and to simplify things a bit I've boiled the debate into two camps, which are: (1) "Eh, who cares. Don't over think it."; and (2) "You ignoramus! You gullible fool who is easily ensnared by society's gender trappings. YOU MUST CARE ABOUT THE PRINCESSES otherwise you are setting your daughter up for a lifetime of romantic folly and gender entrapment. Do the world a favour and get spayed!"

Recently I've been reading Born Weird a novel by Andrew Kauffman, who's Canadian (woot-woot!) and the book centres on a group of fictional siblings who have all been "blursed" (blessing which is a curse = blurse) by their grandmother with attributes that should be beneficial but are actually damning: one sister is never lost, one always has hope, another forgives instantly, etc.. I found this amusing because I think my blurse might be that I can always--without fail--see other people's point of view. Sometimes I just don't want to, but I can see it, I try to understand it even if it frustrates me beyond measure, then I get really annoyed when speaking with someone who could care less about someone else's point of view if it doesn't jive with their own. When sitting in the audience watching the princess debate, I can see the point that both speakers are making, but it doesn't help me personally wade through the issue on my own.

I have a giant book of fables that is old, old, old, and there are 365 fables within the book so that parents can read their child one every night before bed. These are fairly original fables (think Brothers Grimm styling) in that some are violent, horrible fates befall the wicked, but also some are quite sweet. I've been weeding through them as I read to LB, but one thing I have noticed without fail is that in every single story the women are always described as beautiful.

And that's it.

The men in these stories have attributes like being handsome, clever, brave, or cunning, and they are princes, kings, farmers, blacksmiths, etc. The women are beautiful, they have no occupation other than sweet princess or wicked queen (also, why is the queen always wicked?) and they serve only as a figure for the men to rescue. This is where the princess debate begins for me: the damsel in distress.

The woman who can't save herself.

Who is only beautiful.

Who is passively waiting for her 'prince'.

Her true love.

These very, very, very old stories are the princess-lore foundation upon which Disney has built its commercialised kingdom, and this is where my objection lies: none of these 'princess' traits of beauty, helplessness, and pining for love are what I want LB to preternaturally and subconsciously build her female identity on, and as a result I can understand why many parents want to shun the Disney princesses altogether.  However, in the world of make-believe I also firmly believe that putting on the character of 'princess' can be quite harmless in and of itself as long as the child's imagination isn't stunted by what someone else has told them a princess should be. (See? Both sides.)

What about Elizabeth, our favourite paper bag princess? Not joking, it is one of LB's favourite stories. She constantly wants me to read it to her, and it's a good story. Clever Elizabeth outsmarts the dragon to rescue her prince, and then in very PG language tells Ronald to bugger off when he accuses her of not looking like a princess. The final page shows her gleefully skipping alone into the sunset.

It's a strong story and it's a strong character who happens to be a clever princess.

I also acknowledge that the stories of the paper bag princesses of the world are not told as often as those of the Disney princesses: Ariel gives up her voice so Prince Eric can see her, Belle has a serious case of Stockholm Syndrome in Beauty and the Beast, and Cinderella requires a man to get her out of the attic. So, yes, this is where the water gets murky for me because what the Disney princesses represent is also present in so many other areas of society, too. In one of our local department stores I was browsing the sale racks of their kids' clothes hoping to score something for LB to grow into for next summer, and I was horrified at the messages on the t-shirts. They were written in English, and most of them went along the lines of 'Mummy's shopping partner' and 'Daddy's angel' and 'Pretty princess'. Honestly it's repulsive because in a nutshell these messages are the fairly standard expectations of femaleness that we're literally supposed cloak our daughters in: women shop, we're sweet for the men in our lives, and we're pretty.

And that's the Disney princesses in a nutshell: they are sweet, beautiful, and pretty helpless.

Yes I know this is where I'm supposed to point to Merida, the wild-haired redhead who competes in the archery competition for her own hand in marriage, but the message gets lost when you look at the competitors: there's not a single stereotypical 'prince charming' in there; they are all exaggerated freak shows. Then the story carries on to her having a quarrel with her mother and turning her into a bear.

It's a start but it's not great, honestly.

I don't want to limit LB's imagination for play and I also don't want a subconscious message that's dazzlingly packaged to influence her, either.

I guess my plan at this point is to muddle through it, without being too strong-armed. Will we let LB watch a Disney princess movie? Yes, most likely. I'm not leaning towards the 'create a limited exposure bubble' tactic on this issue. I'm leaning towards the idea that I'll watch the movies with her and make a comment here or there about how the story seems a bit silly and maybe ask her to imagine what she would have done.

Honestly, not sure.

Anyone have their own thoughts on the princess debate?



Nicole said...

Hey Cait. Saw this vid and thought of your post...


Caitie said...

Thanks for sharing, Nicole :) I've seen it floating around too, and technology/science toys are something I want to talk about when I do a future grumble post about those hideous Bratz and Monster High dolls! Haha!