“I’m the princess and you’re the prince. So we have to get married.”
It is of no concern to Carla that her favorite tennis coach is already married and six times her age, but it is apparent to me and everyone else on court that her small talk needs some work. More urgently, though, it’s a reminder that there’s an elephant in the room and it’s one I’ve been surreptitiously feeding for years with princess-themed DVDs, books and merchandise.
I talk and write about gender politics as little as possible, because fundamental disputes about where the battle lines are drawn and which side everyone is really on render discussions about sexism more hazardous than most. If you’re not staking out a position that deliberately baits the liberal feminists, the radical feminists, the eco-feminists, the cultural feminists or the increasingly vocal proponents of the Men’s Rights Movement, then you’ve most likely discovered a sweet spot that will earn you a simultaneous kicking from all of them.
A simple example in this context: you might seek to counterbalance the pink passivity that’s foisted upon girls from birth by encouraging your daughter to wear blue and play with boys’ toys instead. But how do you do that without devaluing what is perceived to be feminine and implying that it’s better to be male? For a dozen intellectually robust yet contradictory solutions to this dilemma (and many others), I refer you to the feminism discussion board on Reddit, with the caveat that if you intend to actually participate then be sure to first become well-versed in its recommended ‘introductory’ list of studies, histories and classic works on feminism.
Rather than get into all that myself, however, I remained in a state of comfortable denial about it, or at least I did until a particularly incisive post about Disney merchandise from the always-entertaining The Kraken Wakes (warning – content and language are ‘parental advisory’ in every sense of the phrase) moved me to give this some proper attention and decide where I stand.
“Unless you’re shagged and shod you’re nothing”
The first thing to bear in mind is that we live in South Florida, and my experience of our niche of South Florida is that attitudes to gender roles are generally about 30 years behind some other places we’ve lived. And when it comes to how these attitudes apply to children, you could possibly push that back another couple of decades. Of course there are exceptions, and there are many wonderful aspects to the values and way of life here, but the fact remains that the extreme conformity to media-driven aesthetics is as evident in the girls as it is in the moms, and to a lesser extent in the boys and dads too.
We live in a place where I have good reason to believe that some otherwise ‘socially liberal’ moms would cast judgement about a weight issue and short haircut on a girl, for example, or non-conformist choices of clothing and activities by a boy, and take precautionary measures to protect their own from such deviant influences. The consequences of straying too far from accepted norms could be very real for my kids, and I would never sacrifice their social opportunities on the altar of political correctness, or any other altar for that matter. Frankly, a stay-at-home-dad below retirement age brings enough narrow-eyed suspicion on the family as it is.
The second major consideration is that Carla really loves this stuff. Even if it is an imposed gender construct, it makes her very happy. Recently, I had to decide how much the tooth fairy was going to pay out for a first tooth. I opted to go low partly to limit the amount of new hair accessories and lip gloss that would be scattered around the house as a result. Carla is also beside herself with excitement about being invited to a Princess Spa Party and I probably would have organized one for her if I’d thought of it first. I might draw the line at hosting one at the Barbie Dreamhouse on the grounds of taste alone, but I wouldn’t have a problem with her attending one there either.
So what about the long term damage that all this will do to Carla’s self-image and aspirations? The short answer is that managed properly, I don’t think there will be any. I don’t dispute any of the criticisms leveled against gender-specific toys or deny any of the flaws in Disney stories or characters. I am, however, reliably informed by those with daughters older than mine that the color pink is suddenly rejected by many girls around the first grade, and I’m sure most other childish attachments can be just as freely cast aside as part of growing up too.
If anything, Disney facilitates the process by distilling these delusional ideals into easily-disposable caricatures and bundling them with fantastical anachronisms such as transmogrifying horse-drawn carriages and talking candelabras, to the point that they are completely divorced from any association with real life anyway. Between that and having a live-in female role model that works full time who has never been reliant on a prince or fairy godmother, I think Carla can enjoy these things as much as she likes now while paying little or no price for them later.
For my part, it won’t serve Carla if I censor or cast judgement on the prevailing values that she is immersed in every day, even if they do lead to a fixation with princess stories or accessorizing. What I can do is help her become aware of the arbitrary and potentially limiting nature of gender stereotypes as her ability to understand such things develops, together with the risks of non-conformance so that she can make her own choices and be responsible for her own destiny.
When it comes to improving her small talk, however, she’s on her own.