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When my son was born, elated as I was, I was the teeniest bit disappointed about not being able to buy the adorable, sparkly dresses I saw in the girl’s section. But I embraced my boy-dressing mission and over the next 3 years, gained a new appreciation for stripes and plaid. So much so, that when I learned my second baby would be a girl I became nervous about how I would find clothes I liked to dress her in (this was a pregnant person kind of anxiety and cannot be adequately explained in rational terms — sufficed to say, with hard work and perseverance I was able regain my will to buy clothes for my daughter). What would she wear? I no longer felt the dresses were so cute. I thought they were garish and oddly sexualized. Why on earth, I wondered, does the world treat little girls like cupcakes instead of people?
When my daughter was born, I was adamant that we were not going to be a princessy kind of family. I shunned pink — clearly a signature princess color, and sparkles — the princess gateway drug. I opted for neutral, wooden baby toys, avoiding the unnecessarily gendered versions of stacking blocks and rattles. My daughter did have the kitchen set I’d given her brother for the opposite reason as a toddler, which, he admittedly used primarily as a means of climbing up on the actual kitchen counter. But in general, I tried for toys that encouraged exploration without a gender signature.
Yes, I knew what all my friends with girls said, that no matter what you did, princessness seeped into your world until suddenly your chic, mid-century living room was awash in a sherbet swirl of pastels and throw pillows adorned with sequined curly typefaces, but I didn’t believe them. And for a while, I was in charge, and all was well. My daughter was a happy, healthy princess-free baby, blissfully exploring her world in chic, simple clothes with only the slightest tasteful hints of pink. But then she started to talk.
The “p-word” wasn’t her first word, but it wasn’t long before it spontaneously entered her burgeoning vocabulary. The first time I heard her say it was in reference to a little doll that came in a Happy Meal she began referring to as “my princess.” After that, princesses came into our conversation and our house with alarming frequency. She started telling us that she was going to have a princess party for her third birthday, which was 9 months away. Without a real princess toy of her own she resourcefully transformed other toys into “princesses.”
Ladybug, princess, what’s the difference when you can sparkle?
A friend at work passed along a “Pretty Pretty Princess” game that her daughter had outgrown. Soon we all found ourselves spinning a wheel to choose from a pot of colored princess accessories (the winner is the first to have a full matching set — just like in real life!). Since she still consistently sported a dirty face and professed an enduring love of running and jumping I didn’t see much harm in any of it.
But something else was happening that I felt powerless over — I was encouraging her. I felt suddenly compelled to buy her a set of princess dolls from ToysRUs. I started saying things like, “princesses like brussels sprouts” at the kitchen table and princesses let their mommies brush their hair (she returned with princesses don’t have pockets or wear tights).
And even though I knew I was partially doing it because it made her happy and partially doing it because I actually liked it, I still didn’t feel totally comfortable with the whole idea. I found myself in a princess grey area, if you will. I’d get weirdly enthusiastic about it one moment, and then pull out a train set and make her play with it the next. While she, blissfully unaware of my inner turmoil, just went right on liking what she liked: princesses.
Then came Halloween. She made clear early on what she wanted to be. I ignored her and showed her a ladybug costume I’d been given a few years earlier, that was now just her size. “Don’t you want to be a ladybug?” I asked, and when she saw the red polka dotted poof skirt and sparkling wings, she was happy to agree. Ladybug, princess, what’s the difference when you can sparkle?
A princess doesn’t have to do a damn thing to be a princess. And I don’t like that at all.
I moved forward with the ladybug plans. But the costume didn’t include a top, so she’d need a black leotard. I began the search, and then I started looking for some red Mary Janes to match, and if she had the Mary Janes, she’d also need some red and black polka dot tights, and by the time I’d tallied up how much this “free costume” was going to cost, I was at $60. I spent days searching for cheaper components (when I get obsessed, I get obsessed), but wasn’t having much luck and the whole thing was beginning to feel ridiculous — even to me.
And then I happened to be looking with her brother on Amazon for his costume. And in the search, a particularly cute blue princess costume popped up. It cost $20 all in. I pretended not to see it. But I couldn’t get it out of my mind and later, when I was alone, filled with shame, I went back to look again.
I may feign bafflement, but I know exactly what all of these little girls like about princesses. And boys too — for that matter — as my son famously stated, “just because I’m a boy doesn’t mean I don’t want to sparkle!” We like princesses because they are fun. Frills are fun. Sequins are fun. Who doesn’t want to look outside what you feel like inside on your very best day? Who doesn’t want to surround themselves in bright beautiful expressions of frilly, fantastic joy? Who wouldn’t rather be a happy bright cupcake than a miserable human being?
I get it, but I still have reservations. The insistence on the color pink — muted and candy sweet, the shiny stuff that draws your eye but offers no substance, the fixation on clothing and appearance over thought, the very implication of subservience in a title you can only earn through marriage. And where else in our culture do we encourage kids to imitate a group of people whose title we also use as an insult?
Boys don’t have these role models. Superheroes don’t care what they look like. Superheroes are self-made. Superheroes don’t have the option of finding another super hero to go out and solve crime for them. If you don’t take care of business yourself, you’re not a super hero, you’re a guy in a leotard. But a princess doesn’t have to do a damn thing to be a princess. And I don’t like that at all.
Except for a no-Barbie rule — that my parents gave up on when I was around 10 — growing up, my sister and I had all kinds of toys. No one told us girls couldn’t do anything (except an early friend Andrew who correctly told me they couldn’t pee their names in the snow).
As a young woman, I found myself looking at the men I dated as an easy way to avoid making my own decisions or forging my own path.
We were never told to shy away from science or math or making our own decisions. On the contrary, we were told we could do and be anything we wanted. My sister, who used to make up songs about princesses in her room when she didn’t think anyone was listening, actually did grow up to be a scientist. I was a kid pre-princess mania, but I liked the idea of Cinderella and Snow White, and I know they came into my imaginary play quite frequently.
But I also struggled with confidence as I reached adolescence. I also tended to let the boy in the room decide. As a young woman, I found myself looking at the men I dated as an easy way to avoid making my own decisions or forging my own path. If I could just get a successful guy to fall in love with me, I wouldn’t have so much pressure to prove myself — I’d be successful by proxy. Not unlike a princess. And I found myself looking at my dates not just for love, but a rescue from having to take responsibility for myself.
This kind of thinking ultimately lead me to marry someone who posed as a prince and turned out to be quite the opposite. Now, all of this was contrary to everything I’d ever been told, but I got the idea from somewhere, and I’m pretty sure that somewhere was a constant barrage of subtle societal messages that my parents had zero control over — even with the Barbie ban in place.
The cult of princess worries me in that I believe it stems from the same part of our culture that tells girls there are alternatives to relying on yourself. That being pretty is all you need. That if you find your life frightening, as a girl, there are ways to avoid facing it.
Nothing hit the mark until we turned the corner and found ourselves in the Barbie section.
These may have been my hang ups, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to encourage anything that passes them on to my daughter, including surrounding her with symbols of female oppression and encouraging her to emulate them.
And yet, my strong, smart, opinionated, determined little miss wants princesses. And as much as I want to do everything I can to help her grow into a smart, self-determined young woman, I also really like giving her what she wants — just as my mother ultimately relented and, in the twilight of my childhood, let me have a Barbie.
After my son had chosen and ordered his ninja-snake costume, I spent the next few days secretly looking at the blue princess dress on the computer, longing to show my daughter, but holding back. She was happy with the ladybug idea, why couldn’t I, in the over-sung lyrics of a certain ice princess, let it go? And then, one day, I was cuddled up next to her reading a bedtime story and I looked down at her sweet little face and heard my voice asking, “Do you want to be a ladybug or a princess for Halloween?” And she looked up at me, her big eyes even bigger with excitement, “A PRINCESS!” she said definitively and I said, “Okay.” and then I showed her the dress on Amazon and she loved it and we both got excited and she started dancing around the room singing “I’m a princess, oh yeah, oh yeah.” And I danced and sang with her.
On Halloween she was a picture perfect princess, for about 10 minutes. And then trick-or-treating began and she started running, got candy in her hair and chocolate on her face, and tore the hem on her dress before tucking it into her pants so she could run better. And that was when I came to an uneasy truce with myself. Because I realized that for the moment she doesn’t carry any of my princess baggage. She just knows that princesses are fun, like running, like trampolines, liking picking up bugs, and climbing trees and being a kid.
I spent the next few days secretly looking at the blue princess dress on the computer, longing to show my daughter, but holding back.
I guess when you don’t know that part of being a princess is staying in your place, there’s no reason you can’t be a princess who takes charge of your own destiny. So I’m letting her take the lead on this one and decide what princesses are for her. If I’m going to help her be her own woman, I’m going to start by letting her be her own princess. And I’m going to watch out for the subtle messages she’s getting from the world around us, and I’m going to do the best I can to make sure she sees them for what they are.
Last week, after her princess birthday party, I took her to Target to pick a gift with some money her grandmother sent. We walked up and down the aisles of the toy department looking for something that interested her. Nothing hit the mark until we turned the corner and found ourselves in the Barbie section. Her face instantly lit up and she said in a breathless whisper a simple, definitive, “Yes.” We came home with a light up Galactic Barbie Princess costume and matching doll. And then I rented the Galactic Barbie movie for her.
She watched the movie in the costume, holding the doll. Her brother watched it too — he was the one who asked the next day if they could watch it again. I must admit, I was pleasantly surprised with the message of the movie, which though a bit canned, was surprisingly in line with my ideas on raising a self-determined, capable young woman.
I still think princess as an idea isn’t the best one to aspire to, and I hope as she grows up, she will learn to look past glitter not only to ask for more but to expect more of herself. For the moment, though, I’m letting my princess call the shots. She also says she wants a buzz-cut like her friend Mason’s. So, maybe she’ll be okay.
Katherine Mayfield is a doting mother of 2 who writes junk mail (among other things) for a living. Someday she hopes to write a really awesome fantasy book for kids; until then, she blogs at reallifecatalog.com.