Friday, January 16, 2009

The Princess Dilemma; or, a Near Miss

We've been wanting to arrange a playdate for K with one or two of her friends from daycare, so you can imagine our delight last night when we were having dinner at Perkins (half-price kids' meals AND a clown that makes balloon animals on Wednesday nights) and one of her friends came in with her mother. We invited them to join us and we had a lovely meal together. The mother was entirely on board with the idea of a playdate, and best of all, I finally learned the name of the elusive Princess Game.

The Princess Game is something K came home talking about a couple weeks ago. We couldn't get a good description out of her, except that it involved dancing. When we went in to daycare and asked the teacher about it, she said it was a dvd with dance mat, sort of a very girly DDR for the preschool set. But she didn't give us the name. So when I went to the Toys R Overpriced website to look for it, what I came up with was this:

The Barbie Island Princess Activity Mat with Instructional DVD. From the description: "Includes Barbie as the Island Princess interactive activity mat and instructional DVD. Teaches girls how to act, dress and dance like a princess, just like Princess Rosella."


Now I've said before I don't mind the princess thing, at least the way K is expressing it. I wouldn't call it an obsession because she has far too many interests to be obsessed with any one thing. But she likes princess stuff, and has an extraordinarily cheap and tasteless set of fake jewels and tiara and when we went to buy her a sleeping bag for naptime at daycare, I bought her the Disney Princess bag (although she hasn't seen any of the movies). But part of why I don't mind the princess thing is that it's possible to take a feminist approach to it. We have several books like The Paperbag Princess and The Princess Knight, which show princesses being active and take-charge in addition to being pretty.

I have a big problem with the princesses who sit around and look pretty while pouring tea and waiting for balls so they can dance with their prince. Dancing at least is active, but I'm not at all thrilled with the idea of buying some game to teach my child to act like a stereotyped idea of a helpless princess. And it's Barbie? That's just icing on the cake.

Here is where I get really conflicted. I dislike the message that girls should act a certain way that fits a narrow view of femininity. But I also dislike the knee-jerk reaction that all things stereotypically feminine are bad. The result is that male=good and female=bad, which is just as sexist as we've always been. What I want for all of my children is to feel that they can like anything they damn well please without worrying whether it fits society's narrow definition of their gender. So far, K likes princesses, dolls, trains, blocks and dinosaurs. I think we're doing pretty well so far, especially since she's reached the age when many children become interested in what it means to be a boy or a girl and can be very rigid in their definition of what that means.

And yet there's that visceral reaction, that a dvd teaching K to act like a princess is bad bad bad. Not to mention that Barbie is just evil, which just brings up more conflict because I've already decided that while I don't like Barbie or Bratz and wouldn't buy them for K of my own volition, I would buy them if she asked for them. It's part of my general parenting philosophy, which is that absolute prohibitions create forbidden fruit that makes things far more attractive than they would be otherwise. So I allow some tv, and some junk food, and would buy some tasteless toys if K really wanted them.

Digressing into the Barbie and Bratz issue for a moment, I have to say that while I absolutely am against premature sexualization of our children, I'm not sure they deserve all of the vitriol they receive.* Not that I think they're so great, but they're such a tiny drop in the gigantic ocean of negative messages our society sends girls constantly about their bodies. I'm not sure giving K a Barbie would be any more damaging to her body image than letting her watch ten minutes of network television or leaf through the pages of something like Ladies' Home Journal. The damaging messages are everywhere, and my biggest concern these days is a lot more focused on what sort of messages about the obesity hysteria epidemic she might hear at school in the name of nutrition education, or receiving sex ed that amounts to "Keep your legs closed until a ring is on the finger."

I had Barbies and I don't particularly remember thinking I should strive to look like them and a lot of that is that is because I grew up in a household that largely didn't give me a complex about how I look. Fundamentally, I feel like if K is getting her body image from a Barbie doll, I have failed as a parent. It's my job to be talking to her about this frequently as she grows up, trying to counteract all of the negative messages she receives, and if I do it well, the Barbies and Bratz won't matter. I suspect the biggest damage that I can do to her body image is to obsess over her waistline and the food she eats, not from the toys I give her.

In summation, what we have here is a hot mess of contradictions. I don't mind the princess thing and I would buy a Barbie if asked, but I feel profoundly reluctant to buy a Barbie princess dvd even though it's the game K has been talking about enthusiastically for two weeks. I don't know what the answer is.

Fortunately, I don't have to find out right now because this is all a complicated, long-winded way of saying that I found out the princess game is actually Bella Dancerella, a Dora the Explorer dancing and singing dvd game, complete with maracas. Absolutely nothing to disapprove of (once you get past the tv merchandising issue), and multicultural to boot. Bullet dodged. But I'm sure it will come up again.

*On the subject of Bratz, could I extend a heartfelt plea that people stop expressing our disapproval of them by using words like "whore" and "slut?" I don't really see how using misogynist, body-hating words are the best way to defend our daughters. I'm going to have a hard enough time giving K a positive view of her body and sexuality without people using terms that tell her that an adult woman who enjoys sex and has multiple partners is dirty and deserves to be vilified, especially since most of the people I hear using these terms are people I know have had premarital sex, often with more than one partner. And worse, that if she doesn't cover a sufficient number of square inches of her skin, she will cause everyone to assume she has an active and varied sex life and will be judged negatively for it, which is about two steps away from "She deserved to be raped because she dressed provocatively." Bleah. So please stop trying to protect my daughter with your misogyny.

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