No matter what you do you will never escape them. Even if you raise your child completely without television (and I know some folks like that, but lets just say I disagree–all things in moderation and unless like the idea of your child being a social outcast, it probably better that s/he knows at least a little bit about cartoons) and you never take her into a toy store, still you will be stalked by the princess posse. And let’s just dispense with the use of the male pronoun right now, because, while I’m sure there is a boy’s equivalent (superheroes maybe?) to the P posse, there an underlying issue boys don’t have to deal with. I’ll get to that in a moment.
The princess posse has dressup costumes, dolls, board games, dvds, cereal, candy and even vitamins. The princess possee (and I might begin to include Barbie and her various incarnations here–mermaid, fairy, dancing…you guessed, princess) is, as one might say ubiquitous. You will not escape them. I’m guessing nearly every little girl has their fairy/princess/mermaid phase–right after weebles, but right before horses. You will not escape.
Once I professed mightily that my child would not wear so much pink, nay any pink at all. I was determined to breastfeed for 50 years and only feed completely organic food (even better if it had been grown by differentially abled refugees from despotic regimes) And NEVER would I allow a barbie or a Disney princess to cross the threshold of my feminist home.
Well let’s see. The Bean never got a latch and I didn’t make ANY milk ever. They don’t make a lot of little girls clothes in any colors BUT pink and black shows messes way to easily when one is still spitting up the dreaded formula (though now that she’s “being spooky,” like mommy and daddy used to be she has started asking for black dresses) She is primarily a vegetarian and will eat nearly any weird food we put in front of her, though of course she still must have a peanut butter sandwhich once a week and will not eat “white foods.” And her first barbie looked like a glittery purple fairy and was given to her by a much beloved grandmother (it’s ok Joyce, really it is). So maybe 1 out of 4 if I’m feeling generous towards myself.
She ignored Barbie for a year (and we put it away when she didn’t immediately grab it and begin swooping around) in favor of Thomas the tank Engine and Big Machines that dig a lot of dirt. She was more interested in getting and staying muddy than putting a dress on anybody including herself.
I’m not quite sure what changed. We’ve long read her fairy tales and I’ve told her my own made up stories about fairy cats and mermaids and the lady that lives in the moon. She did rediscover the video cabinet and with it our own copies of Lilo and Stich and Fantasia. Of course a little girl at her preschool had tinkerbell on her shirt and her cousin loves to play dressup. So somewhere in all that, no matter how we made sure she never saw an advertisement during her limited tv and video viewing time(and really I’m not pretending here, we’re a reading family not a TV family, but I don’t think TV is evil–just that there are more enjoyable ways to spend most of your time). Still the princesses entered her consciousness. And she got gifts of dolls and dresses and asked so sweetly to see Snow White, the Little Mermaid, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Mu Lan that well….we caved.
J and I realized we hadn’t seen many of those movies since we were kids and perhaps we were just condemning them out of hand. Neither of us are prone to be politically correct and like to make up our own minds so we found the movies. On ebay and from friends, at Target and Amazon we found them. Some were not easy. Something called the Disney Vault regularly pulls their movies from circulation in the attempt to create an artificial demand. Taiwanese bootleggers solved that one for us and at a quarter of the price. So while we circumvented being manipultated by Disney, ultimately we were um..manipulated by Disney.
Hey at least we didn’t pay them for it.
The Bean fell for princesses and fairies hard. Every outfit needed wings and a wand. She couldn’t watch her movie without being in a princess dress like the princess. And in trying to be good parents and never just leaving her with the TV –we logged some hours in princess land. J and I believe that one way to limit a child’s tv viewing is to make sure a parent is watching with the kidlet. That way you can explain things and when you have reached your tolerance level with kidtv–well then you shut it off and do something else. Since an adults limits are lower (well ok, most adults I admit to liking some kidtv)your darling child ends up watching less tv. And it works. We’re also around to make sure she doesn’t see any commercials and we’ve talked to her about the fact that commercials are trying to make you feel bad and buy things you really don’t need–now if only I could learn that lesson about lipstick things would be perfect).
Enter stage left the princesses: Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Belle, the Little Mermaid, Jasmine and Mu Lan. Oh yes and I think they’ve added Pochohontas and are even trying to make LILO into a princess (and I love Lilo. I gave birth to a little Lilo and she is the antithesis of what you think of when you think of princess)on DVD and in Doll Form, in costume and chalky vitamin. And when she plays with her little girl friends sometimes they play princesses. And handme downs sometimes have a tinkerbell or two on them– wait I think she’s a princess too now. And my once hairy legged, womyn self rebelled. I was drowning in a sea of pink dresses and plastic tiaras.
To be perfectly honest I still like the fairies of Fantasia. I’ve always loved that movie. Night on Bald Mountain was my favorite when I was little and it still is now. I liked Tinkerbell–nothing would have gotten done without her and she had a temper.
I’d wondered about how Snow White would seem after so long and I hadn’t seen The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast or any of the others until Lilo and Stitch. I wondered how Disney could deal with the feminist nightmare of The Little Mermaid and where would the sexual subtext of The Beauty and the Beast go .Pochohontas is just freaking strange and so far removed from any historical truth I wish they hadn’t even used her name and Mu Lan what was this MuLan business?
Many fairy tales had gone horribly awry by the time Disney got ahold of them and they of course only furthered the destruction. Original versions of many of the stories we hold dear, and others with even stronger female protagonists, have had all their teeth removed. Written and rewritten into pablum and predictability. Girl is brought low by circumstance, girl is nice no matter what, girl is tortured some way, boy rescues girl and they live happily ever after. These girls and princesses don’t DO anything, things are done TO them. Snow White, with the exception of the dwarves, is deeply unwatchable and sends the frightening message that it’s a girl’s job to clean, sing, scream and wait. Cinderella isn’t much better. She turns the other cheek so often she’s got no bone structure left. Sleeping Beauty, well I’m not even sure what to do with that mess. She’s a cipher, kept in waiting until she pleases her parents by marrying the hero they always intended for her to marry. The message in all these movies is to wait and be kind and a handsome prince will rescue you. The only interesting women in any of these movies are the villainesses and they are wonderful scene chewing masterpieces of nastiness. But not quite what I was hoping for as an exemplar for the Bean.
So we started watching.
I have to say I like Mu Lan. She’s an asian tomboy. That in itself is wildly subversive. The fact that she can fool the entire patriarchal structure with a barely adequate swagger but a more than adequate mind is a wonderful idea. She understands she’s not going to make it in the marriage mart and the movie makes us understand just how much of her life is socially constructed and restricting as she tries to walk in her overly complicated Kimono. In the broad brush strokes of good and evil, smart and bumbling that characterize most Disneyana most of the men are quite silly and she easily outpaces them in the brain department. When she goes on to save the Emporer, leading her male compatriots and risking her life–well it just feels GOOD to finally have a female hero. I’m not really sure I want to use the phrase heroine, which doesn’t seem to carry the weight of HERO. I want my daughter to be a female hero–with all the swagger, bravery and brilliance that literature and movies give us. Not a self effacing heroine, which is how the word rings for me. I have to think on this bit some more because while I do want her to grow up kind and giving I also want her astride the world like a colossus.
Anyway–it’s disturbing I can’t find a MuLan doll in her soldier’s uniform. Why is her hair long? Where is her sword? That bothers me. Why have I yet to see a toy book presented with Belle? And god WHY is Lilo being turned into a flouncy princess? She’s a tantrumming, devious brilliant little tomboy with a decidely over active mind (Smudge controls the weather!) and I want her to stay that way. Please Disney take away her wand and let her keep her doll Scrump! The little Mermaid actually does rebel against the narrow minded prejudices of her father and his undersea patriarchy (because it is really, where is the MOM in all of this, why where is the mom in nearly ANY Disney movie?)and unlike the original does regain her voice and with it her heart’s desire (maybe not just to marry the prince I like to think, but to dance and walk on land). And Belle wants adventure and likes above all things to read. Even with the strange addition of Gaston (though his song is hilarious) and the entire lack of the sexual subtext (of course it’s Disney) Belle still remains true to herself and somewhat independant.
So how do I reconcile what I know of the literature and what I know of the manipulation and marketing with my own young daughter’s lust for the princess and fairy? It isn’t easy. But much like talking about belief (or lack thereof) in God or magic, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny,the subject of Death and even sex–well, I give her just as much extra information as she can handle. When she asks me why I don’t want to watch Snow White, I tell her. “Bean, you know she is very kind to the little animals and the dwarves and they are funny, but I think she would have had a better adventure if she’d gotten a horse and ridden off on her own.” Then we make up our OWN snow white story and by then her desire to watch it is past. We try and keep the fragile passive princesses out of rotation, but when they must be seen–well ,I’ll talk back to the screen (and say c’mon girl, get up and go see what’s out there, that’s what smart strong girls do!) and I talk about how she doesn’t have to wait for a prince at all–she can do all that on her own. As she gets older we’ll explore the complexities of these stories and I’ll add in the different literary versions–The Grimm’s tales and perhaps even a little Cocteau. A bit more with each growth in grey matter. It doesn’t seem right to me to give her the nuts and bolts of sex, death, religion and literature at her young age–some of it is too intense and scary and my job as a parent is to know not just what to teach her but *how* to teach her. Give her enough fantasy and enough fact and let her make her own determination. I want to raise a logical kid, but with an imagination. I want her mind to poke holes in the stories without destroying the fabric that makes the fantasy enjoyable. It’s a fine line to walk, but if you find one in parenting that isn’t I’d appreciate it if you’d let me know where that one is.