Given my 3-year-old daughter’s obsession with princesses and all things pink, I’ve added another controversial mom book to my reading list (which I must admit is growing longer than I can keep up with these days): Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter. In a nutshell, Ms. Orenstein blames toy companies Disney and Mattel for introducing our very young daughters to princesses, Barbies, the color pink, the fabric tulle, and a whole set of dangerous concepts that (according to Ms. Orenstein) will likely produce a generation of oversexed, self-conscious females who place an inordinate amount of importance on attaining society’s ideal of beauty.
(Disclaimer: since I haven’t yet read her book, I’ll call this post a “pre-review” based on Ms. Orenstein’s essay in The New York Times, as well as reviews of her book and commentaries on her theories.)
Like Ms. Orenstein, I was taken aback when I was first exposed to Disney’s oversaturation of the little-girl market (is that a marketing term?) these days. My own little-girl experience was much different — born in 1978, I remember playing with baby dolls, teddy bears and Hot Wheels, and dressing up like a cowgirl/witch/ballerina/movie star (all at once). I wasn’t exposed to princesses until much later, and never really cared for them.
N, on the other hand, began receiving Disney princess products as gifts within a year of her birth. By age 2, she had fallen deep in love with all things princess (Ariel is her favorite), despite having only seen a couple of princess movies a handful of times (mainly the modern ones, Ariel and Tiana). She now has a dress-up bag full of fluffy tutus, sparkly tiaras, plastic princess shoes (she can walk in heels better than I can!) and magic wands. (There are also hats for dressing up as a witch, a cowgirl and a pirate, but those don’t get *quite* as much use as the princess stuff.)
Naturally, I began to question whether all this exposure to princesses was a good thing or whether it could potentially harm N’s self-esteem down the road. Would N become obsessed with external beauty? Would she buy into the idea that only a prince can make a girl truly happy?
But as G and I watched N play with her Ariel and Eric dolls (and other princes and princesses and Barbies), we quickly realized that she was acting out stories from her imagination. Hands down, her favorite activity is making up stories about the characters, roping in mom and dad when she can. The most frequent refrains heard around our house are: “Mama, you be Eric and I be Ariel,” and “Dada, make Eric talk.” G and I think that the characters are a great way to exercise her imagination every day; we participate and challenge her to make up actual plots and plan out the actions and motives of each character. We encourage her to think about what the princesses in her stories do for a living — for example, the “Lollipop Princess” (she makes lollipops), the “Book Princess” (librarian or bookstore owner), “Baker,” etc., etc. And I usually throw in a couple of gratuitous feminist lines (“Oh, she doesn’t want to hang out with her prince right now — she wants to go play soccer with her friends”). And of course I suggest that the princess save the day and rescue the prince from imminent doom when necessary.
But we let N be a kid and like what she likes. N likes princesses and she likes the color pink; we are not going to take that away from her or say she can’t have it. That said, we also encourage her to have a variety of interests, and she does: she likes dinosaurs and pretending to be “Dino Dan”; she has watched the movie “Cars” way more than any princess movie; and she loves books (not just princess ones, either).
I think Ms. Orenstein’s argument rests on a false premise that somehow the stuff we buy or listen to or watch on TV necessarily becomes a part of who we are. There are many people in our culture who buy into that theory; these are the same folks who denounce violent video games and suggest that they prompt aggressive behavior.
I’m just not one of those folks. I believe that parenting is the overwhelming factor in how kids turn out, whether we’re talking about boys who play violent video games or girls who like princesses. I believe that confident daughters are the product of loving, accepting parents who believe in their girls and encourage them, and that any attempt to blame pop culture for how kids turn out is passing the buck.
I believe that I can have a positive impact on N’s self-image by talking to her about girl stuff. It’s not always easy to do and I have to figure it out as I go. For example, this morning, as I was putting on my makeup for work, N stood next to me in front of the mirror, applying her Princess Tiana lip gloss. I realized that we were doing the same thing and decided to have a frank conversation with her about it — which made me stop and think for a moment about my motivations for applying makeup in the morning.
“N, I want to ask you something,” I said, getting down on her level. “Why do you put on lip gloss?”
“Because I like it,” she said.
“Well, that’s why I’m putting on makeup — because I like it,” I replied. I hope that’s the right message — that I’m not applying makeup for anyone else’s benefit other than mine, because I like to. Simple, but true.
One final point on The Great Pink Princess Debate. The other thing G and I have noticed about N’s imaginary play is that she is seemingly an incurable romantic. In her stories, more often than not there is a role for the prince. Occasionally he’s a bad pirate, but most of the time he wants to marry the princess. Sometimes they are thwarted by a bad witch, but they mostly get together in the end. Should we worry that N is getting hooked into the idea that women can only be happy when they have found true love?
In my opinion, no. I think the feminists (and I usually count myself one) are misreading young girls’ romantic inclinations. I think N sees a loving, affectionate relationship between her parents and wants to pretend she has that too. When N watches us smooch on the couch, she sometimes says in a sad voice, “Who’s gonna be my prince?” Through the feminist’s lens, this comment should set off all kinds of alarm bells. But I believe it’s the most natural thing in the world — that a young girl would romanticize her parents’ loving relationship and want that for herself someday. Pardon me, fellow feminists, for suggesting this, but aren’t G and I as parents doing something right here??
That said, I’m constantly critiquing my parenting (and especially mothering) techniques and wondering how I could better meet N’s developmental needs of the moment. Ever since we learned we’re having another girl, I feel like we’ve doubled down and the stakes are even higher for raising confident, competent girls who will be able to handle anything life throws their way in a world that we as parents can’t even imagine right now.
In the meantime, we’ll keep all that pink fluffy tulle and the princess shoes for Little Sis, as I am pretty darn certain that when she gets ready to wear them, her Big Sister N will be on to the next phase — probably Tinkerbell, “fairies with attitude” and the color purple!