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.