I have been promising to get back to this princess stuff for a couple of weeks now, but my thoughts are still quite fluid on this topic. Why do I cringe at the thought of princess dresses lining my daughter’s closet? Is something in me triggered by the sparkles and ruffles? Am I just a snob? Is it that I tend to shy away from trends that are popular? Am I simply unrealistic as I imagine my daughter’s early years? Is this distaste really about consumption? Is it also about feminisim? Or is it that I prefer wood to plastic and creative play to television? Lots of questions, lots of thoughts.
My ugh response is not just for the princess stuff. Let me be clear that I’m not addressing specific families here, as many of my friends have daughters who enjoy the princess play. The princess theme is big in stores, on television, and in movies. So my ugh is really in response to the stuff. When my son was born, I shied away from anything with a sports theme; particularly, bibs with “Daddy’s Little Quarterback” and the like. My infant son wore neither camo nor a sports jersey. Now that my daughter is here, I have avoided the “Daddy’s Little Princess” or “Little Flirt” but wonder what twists and turns are to come.
The first piece of my ugh has to do with the gender lines being not just clearly drawn but narrowly determined. Boys play sports, cowboys, and trucks while girls play house, princess, and Barbie. This article gets at some even larger lessons of race and gender images portrayed in popular children’s tv and movies. My son, now three, does love to play cowboy but also enjoys cooking in his kitchen. He roars his dinosaurs but also has my original Cabbage Patch Doll to play with. My daughter will have access to the same variety of toys to spark her imagination.
What I want to avoid, if I have any influence or smarts about me, is the premature, hyper-sexualization that attempts to devour young girls in my culture. The princess scene, as the stores market it, can give way to the weird world of preschool make-up and wigs; little girls worrying about their figures and already concerned with being sexy. My fifth grade drug and alcohol awareness class warned of marijuana as the much-to-be-feared gateway drug that was just one weekend’s use away from a heroin addiction. I think I look at the pink princess alley at Target in the same, overly fearful way; just one stroll down that toy aisle, and my daughter will be sporting a Hannah Montana wig in no time.
So the obvious companion piece to my concerns about the cultural messages of maleness and femaleness is the very real problem of mass consumption. Clearly, this is a topic that is central in my mind much of the time. I find fuel for my fire when I hear from good folks like Rev. Billy or when I read of ridiculous items such as the preschool toy in this NPR piece. To believe that our children are not specifically and intentionally being targeted as consumers is naive and wrong. While I am not free from the powerful draw and ease of the big box store, and while our house is not free of useless stuff and plastic, branded junk, I hope that I am mindful of my consumption and aware of the power that less consumption might have on the world. Perhaps the mindfulness will win more often than the consumption does.
For better or for worse, much of this mothering life is coming face-to-face with my own childhood and upbringing. In the context of this post, I think my childhood has positive lessons to inform my parenting today. Born in the 70s, my early years were without a VCR (I remember going to rent one at one of the first video stores in town), without cable, and without video games. The family yard, over an acre, was fenced all around and quickly became the neighborhood hang-out for kickball tournaments, hours of imaginative play in the boxwoods and playhouse, muddy attempts at digging a swimming hole, and hiding places to runaway just across the sidewalk from the back porch. Toy companies were a little cleaner, Disney just offered up movies without branded fruit chews and band-aids, and dress up came out of my mother’s closet instead of off the shelves of a store. Now children (at the present typing moment, my son included) are missing out on the joys of being outside. There’s even a disorder named for it!
My thoughts and efforts and mothering hopes for good preschool years are intimately tied to those memories and tied to my own desire to tune out the messages that our culture bangs into our brains–messages about body image, about gender roles, about perfect home and perfect self. For today, on this lovely June Monday, I will tune out the drone of the pink sparkle aisle at Target, I will close the PowerBook, turn off the tv, listen to my children’s voices, and enjoy the feel of grass under my feet. So enough about all this; it’s time to play.