Who’s Afraid of The Little Mermaid?

Aged three. Make mine the Princess cup, please.

Visiting middle schools with my daughter last week has me musing about change: the upcoming changes in my daughter, in our relationship—as she relies on me less and less, on herself and her friends more and more.  I’m thinking about practical changes too: the changes in our schedule, as I’ll have two kids in two different schools in two different parts of town come September.  But as well as looking to the future, I can’t help glancing back with bittersweet nostalgia at the days of baby teeth and mispronunciations, of Dora and Blues Clues, Bob Books and Hop on Pop.   I also remember my parenting then, the things I thought were big deals: how meticulously I mixed water in every glass of juice, how white flour products hardly ever found their way into my kitchen—never, ever made it into my kids’ lunchboxes.

When it came to playthings, I was a little easier going.  Though I never bought my son a toy gun, I found it amusing that—from the time he was eighteen months old—Theo turned every object he got his hands on into one.  He’d take the letter “L” from an alphabet puzzle, grip it like a pistol and chase his sister around going: “Rahr!  Rahr!”  (Never having seen or heard actual artillery, the most aggressive sound he could come up with was the noise the lion made on Nature.)

I didn’t even object when my daughter, at three, became passionate about Ariel and the other Disney Princesses.  The way I figured: a plastic Disney Princess cup at Target cost about seventy-five cents.  If it would make her drink milk happily, why not?  I didn’t see it as anything that might one day harm her character.  (If one day she began to lament her lack of a fish-tail, we’d cross that bridge then.)

What follows is an article I wrote about two years ago, as a belated response to the Princess backlash I’d heard around the playground during my daughter’s Ariel days.   At the time, Zoe was nine, way finished with the Princesses and had entered a tomboy stage, banishing all dresses, all pink from her wardrobe.

 Don’t Throw the Mermaid out with The Bath Water

Fear not the Disney Princesses, nor their impact on your daughter!  They will pass, my young mother friend, as will the lure of Bratz dolls and even Hannah Montana.

When my daughter Zoe was three, turning four, Cinderella was released on DVD.  Everywhere you turned there were little girls in long, blue gauze dresses marked at the breast with the blond heroine’s picture.   Zoe’s fourth birthday party was a costume pageant, where she and no fewer than four guests showed up as Cindy—not to be confused with the three pink Auroras and two yellow Belles.  (Someone’s sleeping, stroller-bound baby arrived in Ariel’s seashell bikini top and tail).  It was a craze I succumbed to halfheartedly (yet another franchise, preying on children), but without too much guilt.  An Ariel cup?  No biggie.  Belle underwear?  Sure.  A Cinderella beach towel?  Well—Zoe would need cups, underwear and towels anyway; why not make her happy?

“Aren’t you concerned about the message it’s sending?”  said my friend Anne, who was writing a book on feminist parenting.  She was referring to the beauty myth laid out so eloquently by Naomi Wolf back in ’92.  The Princesses all perpetuated unrealistic standards of feminine beauty—dainty hands, feet, and noses; huge eyes with fabulous lashes; succulent lips, microscopic waists and flowing blankets of hair.  Anne, whose daughter Emma was younger—just breaking into Elmo—emailed me articles every week on how mass marketed toys undermined girls’ self esteem.

As a biracial woman whose daughter has inherited both my tightly curling hair and my brown skin, I admit, I was a little concerned.  The new African American Princess, Tiana, was years away and stores rarely stocked products featuring the darker Princesses—Jasmine, Esmeralda, Yulan and Pocahontas.  More than once I watched Zoe prance around in her blue Cinderella outfit with a real blanket on her head, simulating “Princess hair,” swinging it this way and that.   Oh, how I remember doing the blanket-head thing myself as a child;  Look, Mommy; I’m Marcia Brady!  (My generation’s reigning Princess.) Were we rejecting our real hair and identity, or just pretending for an afternoon to be something we weren’t?   Frankly, at four, Zoe was more inclined to pretend to be a pig.  I don’t think she was rejecting her species; just imagining a different sort of existence.  And isn’t imagination the place to be if you’re four anyway?

Emails from Anne kept coming: the Disney girls were just the tip of the iceberg; Bratz Dolls were next!  Worse than the Princesses, worse than Barbie back in her 39-21-33 measurement days—Bratz dolls were—and I suppose still are—eight-inch plastic renditions of big-haired teenage hookers with oversized heads, eyes and lips.  They all wore perpetual sneers, demonstrating cool—or, rather, a Brattiness that might appeal to the fashionably precocious five year old.  They were a horror, I admit, and thanks to successful marketing, Zoe wanted one.  (My emphatic NO made them all the more appealing.)  She never got one, however, and her interest quickly faded.  By the time Zoe was in first grade, Disney Princesses themselves were passé among Zoe’s crowd.  Hannah Montana held their interest for about a summer; High School Musical, about fifteen minutes.

Beginning in second grade, an aversion to all things girly—dresses, ballet, the color pink, the word pretty when offered as a compliment—had set in and persists to this day.  (Zoe, nine, is wrapping up third grade.)  Part of this is about asserting her identity as a being separate from me; I’m a former ballerina myself.   Zoe has heard me comment that she has natural dancing gifts that I myself wasn’t born with.  “If only she wanted to …” I’ve lamented, failing to make sure she’s out of earshot.  Which, of course is pressure just begging for rebellion.  Not to mention the treatment she gets from everyone who knows I used to dance.  The first thing they say to my daughter is, “Are we a little ballerina too?”

“No,” says Zoe.  “We are not.”

I haven’t the heart to stress politeness at times like these.  She is not a little ballerina, certainly not a little me.  Still, I see her dancing around the house when she forgets herself, leaping, pirouetting—riffing on all the steps she learned in ballet class when she was too young to decide she hated it.   Similarly, when we go clothes shopping, it’s the pink top she goes for first, then checks herself and asks for green.

I am proud of my daughter for designing her own code for dress and behavior.  I am proud of the individual that she is.   She loves pigs, snakes and insects; she can name the super powers of every member of the Justice League along with their back stories; she’s good at gymnastics, tennis and drawing; she runs like the wind; she’ beautiful (okay so I’m biased) and while adults tell her this all the time, she could not care less.

I confess, though, while the “girliness allergy” doesn’t worry me, at times it makes me a little sad.  I fear Zoe is holding herself to her own unrealistic standard, where skirts, pink, and dancing are off-limits, even if she secretly longs for them.  Whenever I fear that she’s cutting off the part of her that enjoys girly things, I reassure myself by remembering how quickly phases come and go.  The pendulum swings one way and then it swings back.  This applies to both my kids in terms of sleeping patterns, eating, quirky likes and dislikes and yes, style.

On a recent visit to the Gap outlet, Zoe grabbed a t-shirt and thrust it at me.  “I need this top,” she said with a grin.  Under a picture of the seven main members of the Justice League was the slogan: “I love Super Heroes.”  Typical Zoe, right?  Yeah.  Only the top was pink.

12 responses to “Who’s Afraid of The Little Mermaid?

  1. Every child is different and has his own personality. However a child turn to be, we parents will worry. I think it’s normal, but after all, we just need to help them follow their path.

  2. Though I don’t have a child of my own yet, I can tell you (since I was a kid once) that there are definitely phases. Though in my case, there were things that I longed for that just would never come to pass. I wanted to take ballet lessons (I saw The Nutcracker every Christmas for years, and just couldn’t get enough). Though I hardly remember now my reaction when I realized that I wouldn’t physically be able to take ballet lessons, I realize all the things I am able to do that I love: writing, photography, camping, kayaking. While one thing can seem limiting, there is a world of possibilities yet to be discovered. I know it’ll be exciting (and scary) to see your daughter embark on her own path (which may be similar to yours in some respects, but in others, she’ll be creating her own pure flame).

    • Amelia, thank you for this beautiful comment. Although I don’t know your parents, I hope they are cheering you on as you “embark on your own path,” which seems to be full of exploration and adventure. I so admire your zest for life. I hope my daughter takes on her future with the kind of courage you seem to have!

  3. Great post.

    My boy is seven and my daughter is nine. They’re both very much their own people. My daughter told me before Christmas that she doesn’t like pink or purple anymore. Her new favourite colours are blue and green. She’s never been into the princess trend, preferring to buy animals and creepy crawlies over Barbies. She and her brother love Justice League and Marvel. My son loves dancing and has lots of female friends (as well as male ones). I don’t want to push them into any identity other than the ones they choose.

  4. What a great mom you are, and how lucky Zoe is to have you.

    It’s so tricky negotiating the whole pop culture vs. ?what is REALLY best for kids? vs. our own family/personal standards. I remember a summer birthday party one year when my son was four; the lawn so vibrantly thick and green that many of the parents sat down on it. The birthday boy had a little sister, about a year old; the parents let me hold her, then freaked out when I let her sit on the grass in front of me, while steadying her. “She’s never been on the grass before,” they exclaimed with horror – while *I* was horrified she’d been kept in such a bubble she wasn’t given the opportunity to explore the wonderful feel of grass on her hands and chubby little legs.

    I do think it’s appropriate for parents to set standards – not allow endless hours of TV, guiding grandparents away from stereotypical gender clothing or toy choices, *if the child has other preferences.* But we have to give our kids room to be kids, to explore their own likes and dislikes. I think if we do, they’ll turn out okay.

    • Beverly, somehow I missed this great, thoughtful comment. Thank you for sharing the story of the little toddler at your son’s birthday party. I think it is sometimes really hard for parents to let go a little and give their children room to explore, make mistakes, fall down etc., especially with their first born! I agree: give them space to be who they are.

  5. Great post! My grandson is almost 8 and he does typical “boy” stuff, but he also plays with dolls if he wants. I thinks parent’s shouldn’t direct what their child plays or not plays with.

    Thank you for stopping by my blog.

  6. Great perspective.
    You say not to worry because kids grow out of phases very quickly. But sometimes they don’t! A few years ago I went to a 50th birthday party, an elaborate affair in a hotel ballroom with several hundred guests, and the centrepiece of each dinner table was a flower arrangement in the middle of which stood a Barbie doll, each doll dressed in a different couture outfit designed especially for her. At the end of the evening guests were encouraged to take their table Barbie home. So even adult women have these obsessions.
    The Hello Kitty phenomenon is another example – the main buyers of Hello Kitty paraphernalia are adult women, and the manufacturers (Sanrio & others) focus heavily on high-end themed products (diamond wristwatches, etc.) to appeal to this demographic.
    I’m no psychologist so I wonder what happens to some girls as they grow up that keeps them locked in to these age-inappropriate obsessions.

  7. Yes, this does happen. If it is a true obsession, and these women are stagnated in their little-girlhood, there’s something to be worked-out there. Something that didn’t get resolved identity-wise. (If on the other hand, it’s about collecting–either to sell on Ebay or to put on display as kitch, I think that’s ok–if a little quirky.)
    I was thinking about that stage in a girl’s development where she is either going to hold herself to princess/barbie standards of feminity, or allow herself to be an individual. It is a good point that there are many grown up women who have not done this!

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