The Princess Phenomenon

I began the following when my daughter was 2-3 yrs old. I put it aside because I wanted to make sure I still felt this way after time had passed. I do so here it is

Lil Miss just came up the stairs carrying her portable DVD player (we bought it for her second-ever car trip to florida and it was probably the best $30 we spent all that year)

Lil Miss: Hi mom!

Me: hey, wassup?

Lil Miss: I just doing my homework!

Me: uh….

Lil Miss: See dat princess? Dat’s me.

Me: ah, I get it now.

My daughter is very “girly”. Non-PC or not, that’s the term for it and when I use it, everyone knows what I mean; she likes pink, wants to be a princess, loves to play dress-up, likes nail polish, has an obsession for shoes, collects hairbands with flowers on them, prefers to wear skirts and dresses, color-coordinates her clothes, anything shiny or sparkly gets her vote, loves having long hair, draws homey scenes with the family and flowers and rainbows, is always on the look-out for the latest Disney Princess doll to add to her stash, et cet.

I have a very uncomfortable relationship with this. Yes, I am a feminist (first wave trying to move to third wave) and I heartily support women’s equality in all things (duh).

I am also a development wonk. Any time there’s a new article, study or finding of any kind on sociological and psychological/psychiatric issues, I am all over that like white on rice. The things I’ve learned through the years (decades, really) have completely turned my head around, though.

When I was younger, I firmly believed gender was a complete social construct, that men and women were absolutely no different and everything that smelt of gender roles was entirely induced by society. As I’ve grown and become more educated, I’ve discovered (right alongside of science) that this is in fact, not entirely true: men and women ARE intrinsically different in some ways. The sexes are generally the same but there are some key differences that cannot be explained by nurture alone. This has been borne out by the scientific method over and over and in recent years it has some basis in evolutionary psychology as well. We can not only see how men and women are different but we can begin to understand how and why those differences have been fine-tuned through humankind’s descent from the trees. So consider that by the time my daughter was in utero, I had come to a place of understanding about gender and the “roles” of the sexes. I wasn’t pleased about it (who likes hearing that  certain traits are ‘stuck” within you?) but because of my struggle against my behaviorist past I can at least accept this intellectually.

However, the whole notion that “girly” is somehow innate is extremely bothersome to me. In all my readings and study I simply have not come across anything that “explains” how and why the tendency to be “femme” exists in women from a innate standpoint. It remains firmly fixed in my psyche that “girly” is a learned thing. Perhaps some inclination to “girly” things is merely personal preference, but to go whole hog into the world of barbie and pink and frills seems to me just so… forced.

So when I knew I was going to have  a girl, I naturally assumed that MY girl was going to  be a great feminist, nurtured into embracing her “macho” self at least as much as her “girly” self. I will admit right here: I hoped and expected she was going to be a little “tomboy” (I know its an old term, look it up) just like I was. Sure, I was an extreme tomboy but I chalked that up to my lack of maternal nurturing in the early, formative years. So she’d probably like some “girly” things but I was absolutely certain she’d be more “macho” than “femme”. Knowing how society subtly pushes that persona on little girls, I also had a fairly comprehensive plan to help this happen. It involved avoiding the mainstream media, carefully selecting that which I thought to be properly progressive and feminist-friendly as well as exposing her on a regular basis to all things “boyish” with the help of my many mom-friends. Several of my mom-friends have girls too and the more we talked about it, the more I was certain that we were going to have little trouble counter-balancing the outside world’s mantra of “be a girly girl”.

Of course, like pretty much all parenting ideals, this was not going to happen the way I wanted it to.

My daughter seemed to come into the world the femmie-est of the femmes. First off, she was strikingly beautiful, for a newborn. This is not mama pride talking, this is me remembering every comment made about her looks with a lot of SURPRISE in the tone. People expect babies to be cute (most of them) but they don’t expect them to be beautiful. She was absolutely gorgeous from day one. I have pics to prove it. Nurses embarrassed themselves by saying “wow, she sure is pretty! most of the babies around here aren’t really but she is actually pretty!” -followed by a blush and an expression that said “please don’t tell people I think most babies aren’t pretty”   And they were right; most babies pass through a bizarro alien-type phase wherein features are not matching or sized in proportion before they get “pretty” but my daughter? never passed through that.  That was a little jarring, really. I have three sons before her and though they were adorable babies, they took a bit of time to stop looking like overboiled versions of Winston Churchill.

The next thing I noticed was her viewing preferences. Like my boys before her, I did not plan on her watching any broadcast or cable tv that had not been completely screened by me first. In this wonderful day and age, that is a lot easier to accomplish than when my boys were growing up. We found many fantastic kid videos on youtube, many from other countries. Well, before she was a year old, language didn’t matter to her anyway. So lots of Pigloo, Ilona Montricey, babe Lilly, Yo Gabba Gabba!, Elmo – you get the idea. She LOVED watching videos as young as six months when she couldn’t even crawl yet. I’d sit next to her on the floor and we’d watch together. I’d sing along, sometimes translate a little (just in case, you know, she was a language whiz or something) and clap her hands along… the usual mommy-kid fun. Before long, we had a nice collection of cool kid-vids for her. Very convenient when mommy wants a break.

It didn’t take long to realize she had a definite preference for pretty girls. Aside from Elmo and YGG, the girl was nuts for any video featuring “girly girls”. Our first tip was when her father was at the grocery store with her. She saw the DVD rack and leaned towards a video with Abby Cadabby on it. She’d never seen Abby Cadabby before but out of all the videos on that rack, she sure as hell noticed her and made it clear she wanted that video. So her dad bought it and we all watched.  Abby Cadabby is pink. Abby is a fairy (in training) and Abby says things like “hmph!” and Abby laughs all the time, much like Elmo but in a very high-pitched, girly kind of giggle. Specifically, Abby says “hee heeeeee!” Lil Miss, ADORED Abby Cadabby. Don’t get me wrong, she loved Elmo too, but Abby was clearly FOR HER.

Next thing you know, she’s looking at the DVD rack every time she’s taken to the grocery store. Mind you we are talking about a baby who can’t walk yet. She made very clear her preferences. She wanted pretty girls. We held firm in some respects – no barbie vids or bratz or anything remotely fake like that – but how can you say no to Dora? Dora wears pants! Dora is adventurous! Dora teaches sequential logic!

Yeah she barely liked Dora.

Next thing I know, she’s showing decided preferences for her clothing choices. Next thing I know, she’s intentionally coordinating her clothes by color. Next thing I know, she’s drawing nothing but flowers and cats. Next thing I know she’s demanding to have a princess outfit. A princess outfit? How in the world did she even know what a princess was?! I thought I was so careful!

You know where she saw her first princess? Yo Gabba Gabba. They have ONE character on the whole show who is a fairy princess. The entire show has tons of super-cool females doing really nifty empowering stuff like martial arts, rock drumming, skateboarding, marathon racing et cet but the one girl she decides she wants to emulate? The fairy princess with a wand. The princess who appeared maybe all of three times on the show. That’s all it took.

Next thing I know, we’re swimming in Disney princess stuff. We didn’t even have the movies for half the dolls she liked. Next thing I know, I find myself avoiding the “pink aisle” at every store because I can’t stomach another “WanT~! want!! WANT!” of some overpriced pink crap with glitter that catches her eye. How did she get into that aisle?” by noticing it was pink from across the whole freakin store and booking ass into it just to check it out. Why? Because she loved pink. That too, was something we had tried to avoid. Now, pink exists in clothing for kids as surely as all the other colors so its not like I was going to avoid having ANY pink. Truth be told, when she was a baby I didn’t avoid it at all. But once she was crawling age, we moved, of course, to clothing suitable for that phase which means pants and regular shirts. We stopped having pink hardly at all. She stopped wearing dresses or skirts or anything “girly” because it was impractical and most of her clothes were regifted from friends who had boys older than her. But somehow, between the learning-to-walk stage and the running stage (stage? that’s a stage? it ends?) she “discovered the joy of girly clothes.

We gave her pink stuff not because we loved her in pink (actually I like her best in black- it sets off her brown eyes nicely) but because she’d throw a holy hell fit if we didn’t let her dress in pink most times. We didn’t put her in skirts because WE loved her in skirts but because it was a way to make sure she didn’t freeze her butt off in cold weather – leggings or tights under the skirt is apparently permissible but not under a dress so we compromised. Next thing I know we’re drowning in Hello Kitty (which I admit, I like too) not because we’re such huge fans (although I think her father kind of is) but because it too was a compromise foisted upon her to draw attention away from other, less “respectable” commercial fare. (Besides, pink, kitties, what’s not to love?)

Every time I thought we had steered her into more neutral arenas (Minecraft, Duplo, Thomas the Train) she’d veer off into “girly” land again. Truth be told, it was getting ridiculous.

At some point, I really thought long and hard about the whole situation. As always, when you’re a parent, I struggled with the notion of imposing my will upon her. Was it “fair” of me to restrict her choices so much or was I trying to maintain a healthy balance in her life? Was I really working against the societal pressures to be “girly” or was I just trying to cut and paste MY values over her own bona fide desires? How wrong was it to let her indulge in the petty superficial trappings of femininity? She’s a child, barely out of toddlerdom and I’m really sitting here freaking out because of what color she wants to wear?

The turning point came when I got into a fracas on Facebook. A dear friend of mine posted something about this whole dilemma and the doors opened, of course, for internet mud-slinging. I admit to having a certain sensitivity to the accusation of gender-biased parenting, after all, that’s exactly what I was struggling with. But at some point in the throw-down, some stranger I don’t even know in essence told me I was foolish for believing my child was actually CHOOSING to be “girly”. No matter how much I detailed my efforts to avoid putting the pink on my child, I was told it didn’t matter, society was doing the dirty work for me. It didn’t take long before someone was insinuating that I was lax in my feminist duty and had more or less “allowed’ this to happen anyway.

I bowed out of further discussion. It just riled me far too much to attempt to have an intelligent exchange on the matter. After some thought, I realized something important though; the other people, the ones who were so smugly painting a huge “FAIL” on my feminist mommy-card were JUST as angry and JUST as clouded by their own ire to be really having an intelligent conversation about this subject. I briefly wondered why but overall, it didn’t matter. Because I had been busy second-guessing myself for so long and because I couldn’t really find a negotiating meadow for my concerns, it was so easy for someone else’s ire to color my own confidence. Yet their confidence was betrayed by their own volume level. Suddenly, I had every reason to trust my own choices and beliefs and no reason whatsoever to keep accepting the blows from someone else’s feelings of failure. I found it interesting how anger was what clarified the issue for me. As if the darkness of impotent rage created a silhouette for me to trace and the profile was the answer I’d been looking for all along.

And the answer in all this?

Maturity. Children Don’t have it yet.

I know, of course, society pressures us. It pressures children. It pressures adults. It sure as hell pressures parents.

But who is “society” anyway? Everyone but me?

The pressure of society radiates outward. This, I truly believe. There is some strength in numbers, sure, but the truest strength lies in connection. As connections between people moves outward, the ability to influence becomes weaker. The more you move outward in society, away from connection, the easier it becomes to make your own choices. Yes, strength in numbers -having 100 people yelling at you means more than having one person yell at you – but true strength, lasting strength? Is in the connections.

So what’s the strongest connection?

The self.

What is the strongest form of self-connection?

Self-determination.

All along, while I was obsessing over my child’s choices and the options before her, I should have been looking at her ability to make those choices. Her confidence, her self-esteem, her self-trust, all those things are what determine how well we follow our own dreams. All things being equal, the ability to make good choices boils down to the ability to know what you want, understand the options and be brave enough to choose what’s right for you. That means more than anything society yells at us.

First off, my children (at all ages) are going to make mistakes. I love being allowed to watch them do that and learn from their mistakes. It is my honor to be one of the people who can help them back up when they fall and watch them try again. It is one of the greatest pleasures in my life to be one of the people to which my children turn to in times of indecision and uncertainty. Whenever possible, though, I do my best to not give them the answers, but open the doors they need, turn the lights on and let them understand the world in front of them. Sometimes that’s meant I’ve had to pull them away from pitfalls they didn’t understand, turn them back from paths they cannot travel or maybe just warn them against consequences they can’t possibly predict. I’ve even been wrong on some occasions. Happily, joyously wrong. Those are the best times because not only have my children surprised me with their ability to bounce through rugged terrain, they’ve surprised themselves. But falling or bouncing, they’ve always been able to see that the roads are for them to choose.

So where are we with all this?

Again: maturity. choice.

All those times I felt uneasy because my daughter chose things I associate with negative context, SHE was choosing those things. If other people want to believe she was pushed or coerced or whatever that’s their baggage to carry. The whole point of my “job” as a mother has been to make sure my child chooses with the best of options, the best of knowledge and the best of her confidence. So if she chose things that society maybe pushes, those choices were still HERS. And that’s what I should have been “worrying” about all along. Except I didn’t worry about it. Because its a part of what I see as my goal anyway. I wasn’t worrying about it, I was doing it. My job, was to use MY maturity to make sure her choices were as free as I could possibly make them and allow her those choices even if I didn’t like them. Because she is a child and I am an adult. Our preferences are not going to be the same no matter what I do. Even if she was a carbon copy of me she’s still a child while I am an adult. She does not have the same criterion, the same experiences nor the same internal self-regard I do, to prefer the things I do. I like sushi, I couldn’t get her to like sushi if I dipped it in cinnamon sugar and deep fried it. This is how it is. She likes to have tea parties. The only reason I ever sit down to drink watery tea with stuffed animals is because I love my daughter but frankly there are days I’d rather roll myself in cinnamon sugar and get deep fried than endure another minute of the stultifying game she loves so much. The difference between us isn’t that my daughter has been pushed harder than I am (or was) to accept stratified gender norms, the difference is that she is a child and she has different tastes than I do as an adult and as a wholly different person. Maturity. Choice. I have one, she has the other. Between the two of us, I think we can handle her decisions about what color she wears to school.

So lastly, there’s the issue of all those other feminists who want to argue this into the ground. Yes, my daughter has often chosen to enjoy superficial things that society pushes upon girls. She’s a child and she is supposed to like superficial things. I don’t know any child five and under who doesn’t like superficial things. I mean, I tried reading Plato and Lao Tzu to my boys when they were little and it just didn’t go over, you know? Heck I could barely keep them awake with Bob Dylan lyrics.

“deep” stuff just isn’t what kids like. Why is Disney so beloved? Because what they show us is a world that is simple, codifiable and romantic. Children respond to those things because they are, well, children. And superficial things don’t have to stop being attractive either. As we grow, we add to our recreational loves, we rarely subtract. More importantly, we add as we grow, at a pace that matches our maturation. So to expect a child to appreciate adult values and mores is to expect the impossible.  I don’t want to be forever pushing my kids to act like adults because they aren’t. Its something I see people forget all the time.

Children are not looking at Tiana and Belle and Diego with love and awe because they are sharp minds, with a wonderful work ethic and plenty of charity in their souls, children look at them because they are attractive. The deeper qualities are something the children pick up on later, over time. The deeper qualities are what lead us to have long-standing respect and love for a character (real or imaginary) but it is the outward characteristics that get us – especially children – to pay attention in the first place.

This idea that little kids can only respect greatness if its wrapped in a pretty bow with sparkles is as ridiculous as the idea that little kids will only ever want to eat sugared snacks for every meal ever because they like candy. Some people grow up with some overblown expectations but most people do this crazy thing called maturing and it means that they can appreciate subtle, unseen qualities no matter what the surface looks like. This journey from superficial, obvious enjoyment to the deeper, more complex respect is a part of growing. To act as if there is something wrong with little kids because they like pretty sparkly things is to act as if there’s something wrong with them being kids. Kids also prefer stars, hearts, basic shapes, bold colors, smiles, smoothness and sameness as well as flowers and kittens. As they grow their personalities change and they find beauty in other areas they didn’t see before. This is part of becoming an individual. We are putting adult values and perspectives on kids again when we flip out so hard about the princess phenomenon. Its not the princesses versus the GI Joes, its offering everything and showing everything and waiting for their immature minds to catch up.

What matters is giving them all the options, accepting what they choose and always be ready to accept their changes. Because they will change. I doubt my daughter will ever stop loving Disney princesses – I still love Alice from Wonderland – but she will add to that love over time. She will begin to appreciate other, deeper qualities as she matures. I must be ready to accept this slow journey without judging her or myself and trust that over time she will become confident and love herself enough to not need approval from anyone. Not even me.

my daughter is now six. she still loves dressing up, playing with dolls and having an occasional tea party. She also loves Minecraft, Batman, and clashing light sabers or pirate swords

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