Gender Stereotyping: Princesses are the Least of My Worries

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“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.

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“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.

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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.

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23 Responses to Gender Stereotyping: Princesses are the Least of My Worries

  1. Growing up with my older sister (same parents, same household / values etc) was an eye opener as we are completely different. She played with Lego, Star Wars figures, loved machinery, mechanics and all things considered ‘male’. I played with Barbie, My Little Pony, loved pink and princess stuff, but also really enjoyed the ‘male’ things my sister liked because she was my hero growing up (although I always had to be the bad side of everything and lose). I remember my sister being very frustrated that when she wanted a telescope, the one for girls was pink and sparkly and did not have the same high-tech specification the one in the ‘boys’ aisle had. She could not understand (and still does not) why the girls stuff had to be pretty and less useful/powerful than the boys version. My parents decided that we already knew how we were going to be and let us play with what we liked and encouraged our expolration of the things we enjoyed. I think it is great what you are doing with your daughter and have enjoyed reading your thoughts on this.

  2. I’m not a parent, so I may be being far to blithe given that I only have to deal with this stuff third-party as a teacher or as an aunt. However, ultimately I think children will make their own choices. Sure, there are outside influences, but I think being militantly pro- or anti- anything is more damaging than letting things ride. Feminism, to me, is ultimately not about doing the same as men do – but it’s about having the *opportunity* to do so if we so choose.

    The thing that is most telling here, to me, is the first picture in this post. Sure, she’s wearing pink, but look at her body language and the determination on her face. This is not a girl who’s going to let herself be walked over by anyone.

    • TrailingHusband says:

      That’s true, although I have to admit that our circumstances allow us to be so laissez faire. Carla has a bread-winning mother and should, unless we mess up mightily, have ample opportunities in life. It might be that in another family in another situation a daughter might benefit from a stronger direction to reject passive role models.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I never thought of people having that kind of problem. My little boy had a pair of red glitter shoes when he was three. Loved them. Wore them everywhere. On the flip side, he would never get any kind of flak for wearing boy’s clothing and liking boy things. I don’t know how parents handle having little girls in this day and age. It truly seems that little girls are going to be judged for anything they do. Like girl toys? OH MY GOD I CAN”T BELIEVE YOU ARE FORCING HER INTO THAT STEREO TYPE! Like boys toys? OH MY GOD< HOW CAN YOU LET HER PLAY WITH BOY THINGS, SHE'S A LITTLE GIRL! God bless you sir, you are a stringer man than I.

  4. bravenewmalden says:

    It’s the pink with orange that I have an issue with in that first picture!

    Seriously, I think this is a well-argued post that chimes with the memories I have of my two daughters when they were growing up.

    The younger one was into the colour pink, anatomically impossible Barbies, horses; pink, glittery horses, and horses with long, flowing manes being ridden by naked Barbies. I can see the attraction there. Although she still entertains quite old-fashioned views when it comes to gender stereotypes (informed by the media she consumes, no doubt), the love of pink and horses etc has totally disappeared.

    The older one is Georgia.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Same shit, different blog. Girls are girls and boys are boys. When the time comes they’ll tell you who they are and no amount of modern post 80’s consumerism guilt will have changed their minds. Being an overapologetic male neo feminist isn’t doing her any better. Do you know the elephant in the room is? Its religion. You want to talk about the shit they surreptitiously hide in your children’s material it’s that fairytale. Princesses are at least based on a romanticized reality and at worst celebrate feminity and grace. Much like being a knight celebrates heroism and violence. They sneak religion in to as much as they can at an early age because they know that’s when your kids are most receptive to believing in fairy tales. At least with some bullshit princess cartoons she can outgrow it, realizing it was pretend. The religion message just gets louder and more opressive with each passing year. Evolving from simple stories to doctrine in a brain washing system perfected over millenia. Are those princesses picketing soldiers funerals, spewing hate messages? Are those princesses killing others in the name of Rapunzel? No it’s fucking religion. That’s the fairy tale every parent should be concerned with in a modern world.Who is it that is methodically working to disenfranchise women, remove their rights and encourage their ignorance? That’s right kids, it’s religion. Religion fundamentals in government posts removing science from classrooms and text books, sitting around in their all male meetings determining the legal rights a woman has to their own body. Punishing women for being raped and discouraging them for speaking up. Letting them die rather than allow an abortion, throwing acid in their faces rather than let them receive an education. So if you’re worried about your daughters development, worry about the zealotry they are exposed to the second they stop holding your hand and are allowed to blossom on their own. Disney just wants your money, God wants your soul.

  6. This is ridiculously well written and a really nuanced discussion of a complex topic. I really appreciate that you allow the complexity to survive, even though you’re asserting a position. Very skillful writing.

    Beyond the style and structure, I’m sympathetic with your conclusions. My little boy runs both sides of the fence, from princesses to motorcycles, and my only interest is in giving him what makes him happy, fosters his creative storytelling, exercises his imagination, etc. The more sweeping issues will work themselves out later, I’m confident, as long as he doesn’t get caught up in the small talk.

  7. Laura Dodsworth says:

    Measured, interesting and thought-provoking. I’m sure Carla will grow up fine with you two as parents.

  8. Anonymous says:

    And yes Craig Ella (now 10) did grow out of pink somewhere around first grade! In fairness was never that into ‘girly’ toys but she just wasn’t that into toys full stop! What I find more of a mind bender, is, now Jodie (6) is really into Monster High, all still very girly in its own way but kind of dark too?! Anyway I think if a child feels loved, valued and respected for who they are they will flourish. And no we can’t get away from the stuff that’s thrown at us, maybe teaching the difference between fantasy and reality is vital – at every stage of growing up (when pop stars replace Barbie dolls)

    • TrailingHusband says:

      If you’re going to be anonymous, Jan, at least do a sweary rant about religion! 🙂 I agree that dispelling the myth that a Prince is going to come along and solve everything is good practice for breaking it to kids that they’re probably not going to win X Factor either.

  9. Jason says:

    My 3YO son volunteered to be the guinea pig for “dress-up” that my 7YO daughter and friend subjected him to. The dress from Disney’s Tangled, and a crap load of make-up later, he was dressed to kill. I have the snapshot to prove it. This kid is VERY comfortable with you he is.
    The next time the friend was coming over, my ‘Lil Man got wind of it and looked at me with a concern to his brow. He murmured, “I don’t want to dress up like a girl again.” Like I said, he’s comfortable with who he is. Dress or not, he’s my ‘Lil Man, and I’m proud of him.

    The Cheeky Daddy

  10. Karl Webster says:

    Excellent stuff, Elton. You are a thoughtful and intelligent parent and your kids will be fine. And if that perfect forehand is anything to go by, Carla will make you a lot of money on the tennis circuit, so you’ll get all that tat-money back, and be able to buy tat of your own, and the circle will be complete.

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  12. Pierre says:

    First awesome post! I can’t agree more that is was a pleasure to read.

    However I need to address Mr or Mrs. anonymous’ hate of Religion.

    Look I get it. People out there are idiots. Sadly, all media showcases the crazies of both sides. Moderate’s and people who tolerate are just not interesting and will never make your local news.

    What you speak of is not religion. It’s people, evil people who use religion as an excuse for their idiocy. Fundamentalists? I think you mean extremists. Westboro and these other psychos are not part of my religion ( that would be good ‘ol love your neighbor, DON’T judge others, and love God Christianity). Which frankly is no worse than Love the Earth, Love people, and Recycle.

    I don’t blame religion, I blame people. When it comes to most things in this world that people get riled up about, typically it is extremists and zealots that ruin it for the majority.

    In regards to the Bible and feminism, there are as many stories in there about brave women who lead, believed and died for causes as there are rules about a woman being subservient. There are also plenty of scriptures placing women and men at par as equals. You need to make your own judgements and your own inspection of the word to truly pass judgement. reading it as a snippet, or highlighting a controversial verse is just too easy. I am sure this post will just infuriate you, and frankly I don’t write it for you. But if you feel that tearing down religion is the best response to this post, then i would like to take a moment and try to give a different perspective before someone believes that what YOU write about religion is the only truth or perspective available. It definitely is not.

  13. I was going to do a preachy rant on religion, but somebody beat me to it. So I’ll do this instead.

    First, this was very well written. As Brian said, you have a stance but gave the opposing viewpoint some room in your argument. Very well handled.

    Second, my daughter was born a year ago and I took advantage of her newborn ability to make a fist by putting a little mini football in her hand. It is a very cute picture that I was proud to have pulled off at 14 hours old, but my sister told me I needed to watch out for stuff like that. The implication was that I shouldn’t be forcing boy stuff on her as a girl. When cooler heads prevailed, I knew she was more concerned with making sure Mabel didn’t think daddy would have rather had a son and I get that completely. But I also don’t want to blindly enforce gender stereotypes because that’s what society and Disney and apparently Christians (or whatever that guy was talking about) tell us either. We even tried to avoid pink clothing. That lasted about 4 days.

    I’m sure I’ll need to address this more as she starts to have and express opinions, and I hope I remember to look up this blog post when that happens. Thanks for tackling this issue and good luck.

  14. Jonathan says:

    I enjoyed reading this. My take on things is that if we allow kids to develop their own interests and let them know things like being a girl doesn’t mean that you can’t / shouldn’t play football and that being a boy doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t enjoy cooking, then so what if they end up choosing to do things that are somewhat stereotypically associated with their gender.

  15. Adrielle says:

    Thanks for sharing, I enjoyed reading about how you are handling living in a community that doesn’t really know or support your values. That’s something I worry about as a trailing spouse, but you’re helping me feel like it’s not the end of the world.

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