Saturday, July 14, 2007

Some day my self-esteem will come

This picture sparked a conversation between me and my pal, D., and we agreed it might be fun to talk it out on our respective blogs, so keep your eye on DeBordian Perruque for his take on the issue. My response to this pic is, “It's cute, but...” I've got a problem with this Disney Princesses Craze.

It seems that not a trip to the grocery store passes that I don't see a young girl regally riding in her shopping cart carriage, or throwing a fit in the middle of the aisle, made up in full princess regalia. Now, there's no way of getting around this – it must be said: I am getting old. A couple of monumental events have recently taken place in my brain to alert me to this fact. The first is a growing outrage to the ubiquitous exposed midriffs and short, short skirts of my fellow female clothed persons, and the second occurred about a week ago when I saw a couple of kids playing on a slip-n-slide. A slip-n-slide, you may recall, is that ingenious piece of plastic you spread out on the grass, wet down with a hose and then run and throw your body on, in an attempt to slip and yes, slide, to the other end. “Jesus Christ!” I thought. “Those kids are going to ruin their knees!” And then I knew it. I'm old. So, please keep in mind that when I say BACK IN MY DAY I don't like it any more than you do. But back in my day, we didn't wear costumes to the grocery store. We wore them on Halloween.

I was thinking about this phenomenon of the new work-a-day costumed child and it occurred to me that back in my day, if one had a special outfit for Halloween, it was because one's mother slaved over the sewing machine in her free time to make it. And she wasn't thrilled about you wearing it to school and then traipsing all over the neighborhood in the dark, potentially ruining her hard work. Plus, your little sister would need to wear it next year. These days, you can buy a princess outfit for $14.99 any day of the year. I have to admit, when this merchandising started coming out a few years ago, I thought, “If I had a daughter, I'd dress her in that so fast her head would spin!” But as my friends started procreating and I forayed into the children's sections to buy presents, and noticed the gender divide between “girls” things and “boys” things (I'm talking about the INFANT section) I starting questioning my attraction to these little pink outfits.

The Princess Craze bothers me for a couple of reasons – the first is that it's so consumer-based, and worse, it's Disney consumer-based. What people are literally buying into is a pretty insidious brand of femininity. Cinderella “gentle and soft-spoken” (according to the Disney Princesses website) had a small shoe size and won that ultimate prize: marriage to a prince. Snow White had a “pure, lovable nature”, was put into a deep sleep and kissed awake by a prince. Ditto for Sleeping Beauty. Finally late-20th century princesses like Belle and Ariel get descriptive markers like “headstrong” and even remain conscious throughout most of their movies, but the narrative remains the same. The sweet, trusting, beautiful, beyond thin, young woman suffers the injustices of an evil (generally ugly, fat) so-and-so and then gets saved and marries the handsome prince. Reinforcing the white (with very few exceptions), hetero-normative stereotype is a $3 billion dollar a year business, and presents a fairly ridiculous set of role models for children. In a consumer-based society like ours, do we really need one more piece of crap with a dubious message? (for sale: a pink Disney tv: “Perfect for your little princess' royal television viewing.” )


Perhaps you're wondering why I think thin, gorgeous, nice, trusting, pure, gentle, soft-spoken role models are ridiculous role models? Sure, those are nice qualities, but they're not really useful, and they can be harmful goals for girls. Peggy Orenstein writes in a 2006 article for the New York Times:

There are no studies proving that playing princess directly damages girls’ self-esteem or dampens other aspirations. On the other hand, there is evidence that young women who hold the most conventionally feminine beliefs — who avoid conflict and think they should be perpetually nice and pretty — are more likely to be depressed than others and less likely to use contraception. What’s more, the 23 percent decline in girls’ participation in sports and other vigorous activity between middle and high school has been linked to their sense that athletics is unfeminine. And in a survey released last October by Girls Inc., school-age girls overwhelmingly reported a paralyzing pressure to be “perfect”: not only to get straight A’s and be the student-body president, editor of the newspaper and captain of the swim team but also to be “kind and caring,” “please everyone, be very thin and dress right.”

The Image is so powerful. I grew up playing with Barbies, and I can tell you, daily admiration of something that thin and long-legged can really skew a person's vision of reality. Girls today are faced with a media onslaught that's got to be at least 10 times worse than when I was a kid, and I just find it hard to believe that they're going to have the tools or the maturity to deal with these issues (I know I didn't) And I truly don't understand why parents are perpetuating this craze (I mean, they are, after all, the complicit consumers.)

Regarding the young feminist in question, please don't misunderstand me – I know that a Feminist “looks like” just about anything, and I love playing dress-up as much as anybody (see my post about the Harry Potter opening). I'm just quite concerned about the future. I wish that my little sisters of the world had better role models than I did, but I don't think they do. And, no, I don't like those Bratz dolls either.

26 comments:

Lyman said...

I feel the same way about all of the awful Jane Austin books/movies my wife loves so much. Except in those cases its almost worse; the poor pretty girl finally gets validated only when she finds out she is indeed of "noble" blood and can marry the rich guy.

Special K said...

Ah, I wrote about the Austen phenom. on my book blog recently - you may be interested:
http://wellread1.blogspot.com/2007/06/something-very-dreadful.html

Special K said...

try that again: something very dreadful

Kathy said...

Oh, I'm just rubbing my hands in glee as I prepare to hold forth...

Pardon me and understand I mean nothing racist but Bratz = Ghetto Barbie. We have a few rules around which there is no relenting: NO Barbies, NO Bratz, NO Barney (he's an idiot), and NO licensed material of any kind.

So first and foremost, we're anti-corporate indoctrination---let's play without being branded, thanks. Second, beyond the really bizarre body image questions surrounding Barbie, there's really nothing you can "do" with her beyond changing her clothes and faux-feeling up Ken or other Barbies. Has limited appeal in my book and girls' role play really should include more than fashion and making out.

My girls don't miss Barbies. They sometimes play with their friends but it no longer registers as something they're missing. We are big advocates of Groovy Girls which we refer to as the "anti-barbie" and my girls love, as do I.

The costuming thing is a bit much for me, too. I made Haley and Anna the most adorable satin capes with little pansy buttons for closures to facilitate the imaginative play; they were heavenly. Otherwise we stayed away from costumes or jammies that looked like costumes. We are small children, we are not actually princesses although we certainly have princess-tendencies. The one exception would be little Lindsay who desperately wanted to wear her witch costume far longer than Halloween and I was so amused at being out shopping with a cute little blonde witch that I let her do it. But I made her wear the hat,too.

So yeah, all of these things do matter in the development of image and esteem. Disney princesses are pukey and we try to balance our exposure to them with more appropriate girl-models.Its tough; the Disney stuff is ubiquitous.

I have to say it has singled me out among parents in our neighborhood, I'm always asked to remind them if Barbies are no-no's. Yes, yes. yes. No.

Special K said...

That's very impressive, Kathy! I honestly have never heard of any other parent that guards their kids from all licenced material. I can appreciate that it must be very difficult. Like, sometimes I'll be shopping for clothes and wandering around aimlessly thinking, "There must be SOMETHING here that doesn't have the damn brand written across the chest..." Thanks for your comment!

Kathy said...

Ha! Try to avoid branding AND dressing your 7 year old like a little baby hooker at the same time and you will have an even harder time! I'm afraid we're heavy on Gap, Target, and Land's End around here. Thank god we have one neighbor who feels the same so our daughters don't feel too left out on the sex-appeal score...

Devin said...

Hey, my response finally up here:
http://utopian-camorra.livejournal.com/96505.html

Another thing that I'll add to it, in my re-reading of both of our arguments, is that I also am unconvinced with your assessment, "I wish that my little sisters of the world had better role models than I did, but I don't think they do."

I think there are more and better role models for women, girls, heck -humans in general- all of the time, and while there also may be more examples of bad or insidious role models , it's of course up to the parents to decide what are the proper messages for their kids to be exposed to. But I like living in a world that has "Dora the Explorer," "Shrek", and recommendation websites like this:
http://dogsandjen.org/jen/feminism.shtml

All of this isn't even mentioning the stuff for teens & tweens like "Veronica Mars," and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") that works hard at subverting the old tropes about gender.

Anonymous said...

I had a son that wouldn't wear a brand name except when he was young he had every underoo they made and some big corporation got that money but it was worth it. It built his imagination, he had fun playing alone as Superman or Chewbacca and of course Yoda. Dress up is for the imagination and adults read all of that real picture stuff into it but kids don't. They just feel special and have escaped in their imagination to a land where they are the best thing going. If they want to be a princess they can find anything to put on that will take them there. It's just now it's easier to buy stuff as not that many mom's make stuff now a days (Kathy's mom made Lyman's cape). Kathy's kids are lucky as she does. Mine had store bought underoos and yes we went out in public in underoos and a cape. Plus I want to be Barbie the bitch has everything.

Donna

Caitlin said...

I love that photograph!
When I was a kid, my mom refused to "gender-type" me or buy me branded items. I didn't miss Barbie or Cabbage Patch Kids for the most part, but you can bet your ass that I wore costumes every-which-where.
I loved being a princess when I was a kid. I wore my mom's old slips and my dad made me a hennin (awesome pointy hat with wispy scarf that in retrospect looks like a souped up dunce cap), and a wooden sword, and I was ready to kick ass. I agree with you to some extent that Disney Princesses(tm)are steeped in badness -- although as you briefly mentioned, some of the latter day princess are much more progressive, specifically Belle, Mulan, and Jasmine -- but I don't think kids really think about the inherent politics or message. What's meaningful to them is playacting, and pretty dresses. I agree with you that Barbie is a horrible role model, and that Disney Princesses as they are branded are somewhat insidious, but I don't think its bad for little girls to want to be princesses, or to dress up. There are great princess role models in fairy tales, just as there are bad ones (kinda like life that way).
Those tired old stereotypes have always been (girls should shut up and act pretty) and will probably always be there, but remember that there were good ones too. Remember playing Little House? How about Annie Oakley or Princess Leia? Jo from Little Women? Now there are even more, I think.
I think childhood is largely what the parent makes it, and I firmly believe that it is the parent's responsibility to familiarize themselves with youth culture, and weed out what they don't like.
I also believe it is important for the child to form their own opinions about things. I am still working on re-claiming the color pink for myself. No joke. My mom was one of those super judgemental "feminists do not wear make-up, shave any part of them, or wear high heels" types. I fear my sister is following in her footsteps. I consider myself a feminist, and I love my heels, makeup, perfume, and all other things girly. Except the thong. I simply can't get behind that.

Special K said...

I can't get my behind into that either. (:

Kathy said...

Raise your hand if you can't get behind the thong!!!

In revelation of my overzealous anti-barbie-disney princess-ness, when Haley was young, a gentleman friend of ours (lovely, well intentioned, very attentive, non-parent) gave to her a set of abridged Disney stories. Among them, The LIttle Mermaid. As we were all reviewing them with her, I said, "yes, Ariel is pretty honey, but just remember that real women don't really have bodies that look like that". To which my good friend dead-panned, "or fish tails, for that matter".

So yeah...I could lighten up a little, I guess.

Carrie said...

I am going to jump in here with Donna. I don't think little kids think that much about their toys. Boy did I love my barbies and cabbage patch kids, but I didn't want to be them. I knew barbie was made of plastic and cabbage dolls had yarn for hair. I think the toys become more dangerous to self-esteem and gender role distinction with the movies showing the toys as characters. We didn't have those kind of movies when I was little like today.

I'm telling you, as the mother of a boy, it's not much different when little guys. I have a hard time trying to find clothes or toys (not that I'm buying many toys yet, but I have to tell Lyman to put the dolls (action figures) back at Target showing him the part on the package that says 6 and up) that don't show images of trucks, trains, every sport or tool kits. The most hillarious sleeper we have is blue and white with a hammer and screwdriver on the front that says "Daddy's little Helper", yeah right!

I guess the clothing industry thinks the next generation will only have anbitions for trucking, rail roading, professional sports, and home repair. I know we need plummers and truckers, but surely something else could be represented on the clothes. Mostly I look for fun prints, abc's or animals. Maybe Milo will be a zookeeper!

Special K said...

No, I didn't want to "be" those things either (how could a person be Barbie anyway?) - that's what I find quite disturbing about the Princess thing is that little girls today really seem to want to BE the princesses.

Obviously the kids don't put this type of analysis into their toys - I simply wonder why more parents don't.

Kathy said...

well, its not a matter of what desires it creates in the child---its a matter of what it does to their perception of how the world looks and what might be expected of them.

You know, I was just wondering what Don might think...his opinion might be enlightening...

Dan Telfer said...

I'm not convinced there's any role models kids really pay that much attention to other than their parents... until their parents ignore them. If your parents are really involved in your life, you're going to learn your gender/economic/political views bounced off their point of view. If they ignore you, you turn to pop culture. My parents obsessed over everything and though it exhausted me, I felt I had a very clear idea over what was fake and what was genuine.

My biggest pop culture influences were the X-Men, but I couldn't tell you what values they taught me.

Special K said...

Kathy - you kill me! (:

Amber said...

What the hell are Bratz?

Anyway, I can't agree more about the of insidious nature of the princess crap. I remember loving the princess Halloween outfits as a kid, too, and I don't think there's too much wrong with the fantasy in itself for kids. But really, the expectations and myths that the princess cartoons and movies and stories, etc. set up for little girls is tragic...be weak, be beautiful, be "pure" (oh my god), wait to be saved, it all ends happily. I think that it can take a lifetime to shake this off, if one ever can, and it has real implications for happiness later in life. Like that "Princess and the Pea" story...what the heck IS that?? I really wish somebody would have read me the story of the tough-skinned intellectual girl who lived her life in a group house with friends and dedicated her time to social causes...i think that actually might have saved me some confusion.

Devin said...

Hmm. I don't think my message has been very clear. So let me re-iterate:

I think what matters is the message you AS A PARENT are sending the kid about (in this case) being a princess. Whether or not the kid is understanding and/or internalizing a narrative of meekness or helplessness is your responsibility as a parent, because it is up to you to expose them to stories that reflect your values. For example, reading them "Princess Mayblossom" or "the Princess and the Pizza" rather than the "Princess and the Pea."
My point was that just being an anti-princess parent is probably is not a battle you'll win, but changing the message (as I think the picture that started all of this does) is something that can make a real difference.

Melody said...

I wrote a long post, lost it, then scanned the comments and I just second what Devin said.

Lindsaypw said...

Oh gosh thank goodness someone else has noticed this. I think this whole princess thing starts at age 2 and carries on into their later 20s!!! I've seen teenagers buying and wearing crowns, getting Princess tattoos, and wearing shirts and jewelry with princess on it. It drives me BONKERS!!!! I work at Lowes and there's a lamp on sale in the front of the store and it has four princesses on it (not to mention it's entirely plastic and has little sparkles on it). Every time a little girl passes it she grabs it and begs her parents for it. Fortunately not many let them buy it. My daughter will NOT EVER be given anything princess and she will know that princesses are nothing more than people who think they're privileged just because they're born in a certain family. Hopefully my kid will be smart enough to just put away the princess and pick up some legos or something.

Kathy said...

I think Devin, and the others who have said that parental influence is more important than the indoctrination of the evil corporate forces, are correct.

The issue is that its an easy out---parents are busy people; increasingly both parents work. Devin did say in his own post that it becomes a matter of convenience. As a parent, I can tell you that our biggest priority, and one that is exceedingly difficult to maintain, are family dinners---time together to check in, react to what's happening, discuss family standards and expectations.

Still, there is so much media bombardment around physical images that both Barbie and Disney princesses contribute to---that's much more difficult to address with parental influence--its just ubiquitous.

And since we've taken up costumes a bit, I'd like to mention about Halloween costumes. Perhaps I'm old; no I'm definitely old, but dude! Halloween costumes are supposed to be SCARY---ya know--the whole trick or treat routine? The All Hallows Eve...? OOOOHHHOOOOHHH--spooky ghosts and witches? What's up with princesses and football player costumes? This Mommy doesn't play that, either. Halloween costumes are to be scary, not elaborate "dress-up" exercises.

Maggie said...

I sometimes wonder if we don't give our kids enough credit. Let me start by saying that I don't have kids, so there's definitely a perspective I'm missing here, but I specifically remember a time when I was about eight, and my mom was out of town, so Dad was buying us frozen dinners, and this was about the time that some company was using Looney Toons for marketing. So my sister and I looked all over the freezer section and finally decided what we wanted to eat, which happened to come in boxes adorned with Bugs Bunny and the like. My father REFUSED to buy them, saying that we only wanted them because they had cartoon characters. I was very offended, and very hurt that my dad didn't trust me to be able to read and look past stupid marketing ploys. I even pointed out that what we wanted to eat didn't come in any of the other boxes. He finally gave in after about five minutes of argument, because it was clear I wasn't going to budge. Anyway, the point is, kids are smart, and they follow their parents' examples way more than they pay attention to what some plastic/celluloid lady who talks to birds says they should be like.

lauram said...

What killed me about the princess thing "when I was young" was that it was never explained to me that a princess wasn't a thing I could become when I got older. So, I thought it was really an option, right along with bank teller, teacher, grocery store clerk. I remember when I found out that princesses were in low demand mode and that one really needed to be born to the profession. I was devastated. Shouldn't we teach our daughters to aspire to something they can actually BECOME?!?!??!?!

Princess crap is crap. I will not encourage it. If foisted upon the household by peer pressure, it will be gone along with only in it's non-pre-packaged non-Disney format.

Thanks for the post!

Danielle said...

I see the Princess crap all of the time where I work. We also have a lot of Dora the Explorer stuff, but unfortunately I have found Dora the explorer stuff where Dora is dressed like a princess. Dora is a girl, but she's also smart, and guess what? She's not white (a show where the main character isn't white to me was just a miracle)! So why did they dress her up like a princess? How can she explore in a Princess dress? It was infuriating.
Every time I talk to one of my co-workers about it, the response is always something to the extent of, "Every little girl wants to be a princess." or "Every little girl IS a princess in her own right." Puke.

Anu said...

The princess thing definitely follows girls into their 20s! I'm a college sophomore and the child like euphoria and giddiness over Disney princesses whenever they come up in conversation is hilarious to see. My friends eyes glaze over and they daydream of the time when they believed without a doubt that they too, could be princesses. I have to say however, that Mulan kicks ass. And I have a picture with her from Disneyworld Actually two.

Anonymous said...

penny said...
a parent who is patient will usually find their very bright girl or boy will sort out the real from fantasy in their own time and then has the joy of watching their little princesses or superheros become so much more - perhaps even the role models that a company such as Disney might pattern a character after.