I looked across the paddock last week to see both my children standing on top of the chicken house, jumping up and down in their own revelry. I had to smile, as it looked so incongruous. They were dressed in their fanciest princess outfits – one Cinderella, one Elsa. They had smudges of poultry poo across their silky torsos, tulle caught on stray wires. They are brave climbers and dedicated builders, they are fierce in battle and verociously loud. They race the dog through puddles, slide down mud hills, ride their bikes through cow pat… and they do it all in tiny royal ball gowns.
I never, ever thought I would be parenting a princess or two. But I’ve come a long way since my ban on Barbie and my pride that we didn’t have a single dress in our daughter’s wardrobe. I now relish the royal games we play and beam with joy when I see my youngest child struggling into another princess dress to go on top of the first, and with an extra tutu tucked underneath. But I do understand that belly squirming anxiety that our children are being shaped by values that are ugly and toxic – disguised by glittering tiaras.
I’ve come to believe we have less to fear about princess culture and more to fear about rejecting something so important to our children.
So here are some thoughts- I’m not advocating a blith acceptance a la Lego theme song Everything Is Awesome (“Allergies- they’re awesome! Pathetic female role models – they’re awesome!) but rather an analysis* that is child and relationship focused.
*if an analysis can be written on a bench outside the library using the free, slow, wifi
Good princess vs bad princess
Not all princesses are created equal. I admit that there are plenty of stories out there of the passive princess, the one who is forced to marry against her will and do other things that are a shocking portrayal of consent and body autonomy. Early on in my parenting I actually used to get out scissors and glue and edit tales like the Princess and the Frog, and replace “princess” with “prince” and “got married” with “became besties forever”… these days I am more likely to instigate a conversation with my children about why the father thought it was okay to make his daughter sleep with a frog.
But there are also a stack of amazing princesses! We have watched Brave about 187 times, and Frozen about 393 times, they are brilliant films with awesome female heros in them. (There is also some good feminist critique of both of those films, but how it is experienced by young girls, for me, is the most compelling. Read a cool story of that here.)
Talk about it
Fairytales and Disney movies provide heaps of material for discussing gender roles through history and how things have changed/ are changing/ still need to change. Conversations stick in a child’s mind. They will love sharing their opinion and hearing some insight from you. That is, if you are coming from a place of connection, rather than disapproval. They will pick up on you trying manipulate their likes and likely to be saddened if they feel you deep down hate something they are getting a lot of joy out of. Which leads me on to what, for me, is the most important thing…
Let’s love what our children love
I have spoken about this before, in regard to ipads. I am big on learning to love what our children love. It isn’t hard to do, because joy is contagious, and once we learn to love something alongside our children we open SO MANY doors to connection. I read in the recently published parenting book All Joy and No Fun about how little “flow” parents experience at home with children. (Flow is that lovely state of being so completely into something that time disappears.) It made me spend some time monitoring my own experience of flow at home. One of the times I really experience it is playing Barbies with my girls – untangling their hair, sewing princess dresses for them- this was a huge shock for me, considering how much I used to HATE Barbies as a mother. I swore I would never own one, any that came into my home (usually by way of my sister who is a right stirrer) I’d find a way to get rid of it. Slowly, as I have become better at seeing my children and being with them, I’ve come to discover that there is very little we need to be afraid of, and that disconnection, rather than barbies or princesses is really the thing to fear. Imagine if I hadn’t come round to this idea – I’d be depriving my kids a lot of joy, and even myself, the experience of flow in the home.
Trust the learning
Sometimes it is hard to gather what out children are learning when they obsess like this. But be assured that they will be learning HEAPS – it is a child’s only setting! (And also, question the word “obsess” – it is pretty negative even though we tend to admire focus in adults!) The potential for your child to be learning about power and responsibility, clothing and fabric, history and culture, royalism and democracy is enormous!!
There’s a thoughtful analysis of what is going on for children going through a Princess phase here in Psychology Today. “In clinging to pink and princess culture, perhaps a girl is celebrating and acknowledging a variety of things: her gendered body, her generative capacities, her ability to captivate and mesmerize (as all children can) as well as her place in the surrounding culture.” I have read that young girls go through a massive yearning for dresses between 3 and 5 because that is when they are trying to figure out what it means to be female. They soon learn it isn’t much to do with wearing skirts, and the phase is sucesfully navigated. I believe we can support them through this by seeking out amazing skirts for them while discussing sex and gender and transgender and identity…!
A leading female role
Have you seen any of the Princess Barbie movies? You’ll know that Princess Barbie occupies a pretty important role in her society. I used to run ahead in the video shop and put all the Barbie movies on the top shelf so I could say to Ramona “Choose any film you like!” and know we wouldn’t be coming home with a Barbie. It came to a head one day when I was kneeling in the aisle of Blockbuster, my four year old clutching a Barbie dvd that I hadn’t spotted to hide, saying patiently “I know Barbie is an idiot, but I love her!” I was so scared of Barbie! But I didn’t really know her! I realised I was giving the impression that it was okay to call things we are scared of/ don’t understand idiotic. So we got that movie, and as I watched it I was impressed by Barbie’s strong, kind character and was relieved to find a bunch of movies where females had leading roles.
Almost every single kids film we had otherwise got out was filled with male-only characters, with females being very rare, and if featured at all, tending to be love interests. Of course, we also talk a lot about the characters in Barbie who were obsessed with clothing and make up who tended to nearly always be stupid and ditzy. (Noone here is saying Barbie movies are directed by feminists!) Please see Sacraparental’s excellent posts on the Maisy Test for more on non-misogynist kids films.
I recently enjoyed the argument that Princess Culture has been going on for two decades, and what we have now is a situation where women are more likely to pursue higher education, and graduate, then men and perhaps this is because they’ve grown up in a world where little girl’s likes have been catered too, where they have, as children, played leading roles.
How about reframing princess culture as being pro-women in leadership, celebrating a space that females occupy successfully?
I can’t help but wonder if our problem with princess culture is ever so slightly sexist, with roots in a patriarchal society. Bear with me. Do people have a similar problem with their male children wanting to be knights all day? Violent, sword wielding, massacring knights? I don’t hear about it much, if it is a thing. Why are we so bothered by the princess thing? Is it because we live in a society where a woman is undermined constantly, where whole sections of society are cut off to her, that this one role she can inhabit because of her gender, one that is exclusive to men, is slammed for not being good enough?
The problem isn’t so much with princesses, pink, gowns…
For me these days it is more that things (colours, roles, clothing) are exclusive, based on gender. A dress is an amazing thing. To feel it swishing around your legs, flowing out when you dance. And who doesn’t want to wear a crown and point a sceptre and boss everything around? But let’s not allow it to be just the realm of girls. Dresses are for everyone! (Read Freedom Kids on this) Pink is for all! Trucks aren’t operated by a penis! Speak up to marketers who claim otherwise! Rant and rave against those who want to make certain colours and toys exclusive to any gender! Power to the people!
A love of clothing isn’t necessarily dooming your child to a life of oppressive objectification or materialism
I LOVE CLOTHES. Love, love, love clothes. I have loved them all my life. I wonder if this was worrying for my mum when I was a kid. I can remember being 7 and having a crush on a boy and going home to put on my neon tutu (it was 1989) and then swishing around in it in front of him and being completely delighted when he noticed it and said “nice skirt”… that should be worrying, don’t you reckon? I went through a phase when I was 21 of being so disgusted with my love of clothes that a friend and I went on a clothing fast together and for 3 months allowed ourselves only 5 items of clothing. A jumper, two pairs of trousers, and two tee shirts. I wanted to tackle what I saw as a deep set materialism in my life. It was quite a fun experiment, but if anything taught me that my love of clothes, of wild colours and different fabrics and playing with styles wasn’t inherently bad. In fact, it bought me a lot of joy. History tells us that homosapiens have always done this- it is one of the distinguishing things- that we carve beauty into objects and embroider clothing and dye furnishings. We don’t have to fear that our children’s talk of beautiful clothing and desire to change into different skirts 60 billion times a day is going to mean they will be an insecure adult who can’t leave the house without a full face of Maybelline. I hope I am a good example here – like, I LOVE CLOTHES (did I mention that?) I have a pair of sequined shorts that I sometimes where around the farm just to cheer me up, but at the same time, I care so little about other people’s opinions that the others day this conversation between my husband and I occurred:
Tim: Er, are you going into town like that?
Me: Like what?
Tim: With your henna on your hair?
Me: Yeah, cos it needs to be on for four hours and I put it on and now I want to go into town.
Me: What’s the problem?
Tim: It looks like you have poo all over your head?
Me: *drives into town*
So, y’know. Humans are complicated. I bet you a million bucks that if you are consciously building your child up and letting her know that insides count more than outsides she isn’t going to grow up with an oppressive mantle of beauty upon her.
Nurture your child’s faith in herself
The thing that will most likely make your child sway with the winds of a consumerist, objectifying society, rather than the stirrings of her heart is if she learns not to trust herself. If she feels undermined in the things she loves, if she feels your approval is conditional on what YOU like, if she gets the impression that her opinion is dubious.
So be conscious about what is in your home, talk about things, buy books with kick-ass princesses in to sit alongside the Cinderella she found at the library, ask big questions of corporations that attempt to make any one thing exclusive to girls or boys, address your own insecurities about your body shape, analyse the latest Disney flick with your parent friends, but do, do, do allow her freedom of mind and heart. Instill in her a great faith in herself.
Revel in princess culture
Have you ever dressed up as a princess? No? Get thee to a second hand shop immediately and buy up a ball gown! Nothing beats hanging about in the house looking ridiculously opulent! Buy all the tutus. Sew capes. Watch Brave and Frozen and download the soundtrack. Weave crowns of daisies. Enter into the imaginative world of your children. Whittle swords with them. (We are nearly always warrior princesses.) Keep talking about all the models of “princesses” out there.
This too shall pass
It will pass. You might even be sad to see this phase leave, because you’ve now begun having SO MUCH FUN with your kids! But trust in the fact that very few adult women actually want to be rescued by a man, and even fewer want to actually be a princess.
Trust in yourself, your model as a strong, creative mother or equality loving father. Trust in your children, that this phase is important to them. This princess thing won’t last forever with your child, so find joy and connection in it while it does.