Disney Princess Nightmare

March 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

Imagine you are living in a universe where everything is pink, every girl is a princess, and men are vague figures on the periphery, only appearing when a girl needs saving.  This to me sounds like a nightmare, and yet little girls are taught that this is a dream come true.  A few weeks ago I saw Peggy Orenstein give a lecture based off her new book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, defining exactly what is wrong with princess culture in girl land.

“… princesses avoid female bonding.  Their goals are to be saved by a prince, get married…  and be taken care of for the rest of their lives.  Their value derives largely from their appearance.  They are rabid materialists.  They might affect your daughter’s interest in math.  And yet…  parents cannot resist them (Orenstein, 23).”

In the Disney Princess franchise, for the first time we are allowed to see the Disney Princesses grouped together as long as none of them are looking at each other.  They each exist in a universe, all their own.  They only make friends with those who are not on equal footing; such as crustaceans, raccoons, birds, dwarves, fairies.  No one is as special as they are.

Not only does princess mentality isolate girls from other girls, inspiring competition and a lack of empathy; but it also creates a huge divide between girls and boys.  Boys are given active toys that include all the colors of the rainbow.  They are encouraged to be doers, and to learn through play with tool sets, chemistry sets, etc.  For girls, however, there is a major emphasis on primping and materialism – spa day, shopping, and make-up for your six year old.  The girl’s version of a chemistry set revolves around learning to make perfume.  In the Monopoly Pink Boutique Edition, girls can go on shopping sprees, buy a mall or a boutique.  This all teaches them to strive to be spoiled and valued on the basis of their appearance.

At a toy fair, Orenstein observes:  “The preschool girls’ section was decorated with a banner on which the words BEAUTIFUL, PRETTY, COLORFUL were repeated over and over (and over) in pink script…  In the next room, a banner over the boys’ section, scripted in blue, exclaimed, ENERGY, HEROES, POWER (Orenstein, 51).”

Words used for girls are passive descriptions of how an object looks.  Boys on the other hand get all the action, the doing, the winning, the leadership.  Over and over boys and girls are ingrained with these perceptions at an already difficult stage of social development where they are first coming to terms with categories of gender.

“By the end of the first year of preschool, children spend most of their time, when they can choose, playing with others of their sex.  When they do have cross-sex friendships, they tend not to cop to them in public – the relationships go underground (Orenstein, 68).”

Some of my earliest memories are of playing with my friend Patrick.  My dad’s favorite story to tell is of me at around age four playing football with Patrick and his little brother Freddy.  Apparently I pushed Freddy down and he went crying to his dad.  His dad turned to him and said, “But that’s how the game is played, son.”  At a later age, I can assure you, I would not have had the guts to push a boy down.

Since I was the second child, my parents were a little lax with teaching me a few basics, so Patrick taught me the alphabet and I taught him a few ballet moves.  I loved playing Heman with him and I was convinced that boy’s toys were better.  Barbie was fun, but all she did was primp and go to parties.  Her big climatic moment was when she danced with Ken.  They would fall in love and begin to fly.  Then they would go home, take off their clothes and lie naked on top of each other in their Barbie bed.  My neighbor friend and I would gaze at this mysterious act with awe.  All the effort went into making Barbie look as beautiful as possible so that Ken would sleep with her.

Heman was active.  He was a hero.  There was something more empowering about being a boy.  I was jealous.  I was also jealous that Patrick didn’t give a shit about what people thought of him.  One day he pulled down his pants and peed right on the sidewalk.  It didn’t matter that there were ten other kids playing around him when he did it.  I couldn’t imagine ever feeling that free.

As soon as we entered kindergarten, though, Patrick rejected me.  He wouldn’t be caught dead talking to a girl in public.  I felt heartbroken.  I realized our friendship could only exist in my mind as a memory.  But I still admired him from afar.  Matters were made worse when in the first grade we were all lined up to go in after recess.  I was at the end of the line, Patrick was up ahead, and the boy in front of him (who I didn’t like), yelled out, “You like Lauren?!”  It was as though the most embarrassing thing you could possibly do was like me.  Everyone started laughing.  Patrick looked humiliated.  I wanted to disappear.  It was hard to understand why this was such a horrible thing.

So then we entered a new phase.  Since Patrick “liked” me, I now had a crush on him.  This explained to me why we were no longer allowed to talk to each other.  Everything became secretive, underground.  It was now all in the non-verbals, like when he silently chased me on his bicycle.  I pedaled as fast as I could, laughing hysterically over the excitement of the chase.  For a few short moments, he was actually acknowledging that I existed.

At that point the major gender separation in toys was really just beginning.  It was the early eighties, that big bust of consumerism.  My Little Pony, Strawberry Shortcake, Care Bears – all inactive toys that were cute and had no real function.  I barely knew what to do with any of them, but of course wanted them all.

Much more memorable is the summer when the girl next door and I decided to make a mud factory out of the piles of dirt behind the garage.  We made mud pies and even mud hot dogs, which my aunt told us, looked more like poop.  Then there was the year in grade school that I started an icicle hunt at recess – a game that spread like a virus till the whole grade school was involved in a battle of who could collect the most icicles, as well as the biggest.  I felt like a HERO.  I felt POWER.  I felt ENERGY.  It felt good!

When Peggy Orenstein finished her lecture on princess culture, the audience was invited to ask her questions.  Every woman that went up to the microphone bumbled through her words, skittishly made apologies, and skipped backwards through the aisle like an uncertain little girl.  Then a young man got up to ask a question.  He spoke directly with authority.  When he was finished he calmly walked back to his seat with assurance.  Just in that moment, it was easy to see, how we are all shaped by society’s messages on gender.

It’s time for women to create a new female archetype for the future – heroic, intelligent, with guts, courage, charisma and empathy.  She is prepared to fight to protect the right to be anything she wants to be.  A woman who doesn’t need saving, yet understands that we are stronger when we unify.  She is the best in all of us.

 

 

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The Man Trap

March 14, 2012 § 1 Comment

            In Alix Kates Shulman’s 1972 novel, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, Sasha fights against the traps of being a woman.  As a child, the boy’s are pure enemies.  She is attacked, held down and pantsed so the boys can stare at her vagina with a ‘seen one, seen them all’ look on their faces.  As an adolescent she is lured into a ride home by a group of boys, only to be driven to a remote location where they can force her to touch a boy’s penis.

Her first boyfriend cares less about her than about getting laid, though she knows that if anyone finds out she’ll be expelled from her sorority and shunned by her classmates.  Her first job backfires when the cook threatens her to try and get her to sleep with him.  In college her dream of pre-law is put aside when she falls in love with Philosophy and the Philosophy professor.  By the time she’s playing with the big boys, attempting a PhD at Columbia – she is treated with so much disdain for being a woman in the program that she stops speaking in class and flocks to the safety of the wives in the kitchen.  She begins to panic that she’s getting too old and too educated.  So she marries the first guy who treats her well.

As soon as they’re married, of course, he stops talking to her.  He can’t hide his contempt.  His life has a grand purpose, while she supports him at menial jobs.  Her mind is no longer stimulating to him or to herself.  All he wants is his dinner.

“Why was everything nice he did for me a bribe or a favor, while my kindnesses to him were my duty (Shulman, 5)?”

She embarks on a series of affairs, but every time she leaves her husband she falls into the same man traps wherever she goes.  A lover in Spain, in Italy, and then eventually a second husband and two kids.  Completely dependent on a man who secretly hungers for carefree youth, she is constantly afraid he will leave her.

Interesting too, are Sasha’s musings over her physical self.  At fifteen she is crowned Queen of the Bunny Hop.  By twenty-four she fears that she is old, and that people would find it laughable to think she was once considered beautiful.  There is always that disconnect between how others see her, and how she feels she looks.

“Could it be that the prettier I grew the worse I would be treated?  Much likelier, I thought, I wasn’t really pretty (Shulman, 49).”

You have to wonder, though there were many disadvantages to being a woman at that time, did Sasha’s beauty add to her disempowerment?  Beautiful women are rarely ever noticed for their minds.  Sasha hates a come-on as much as she loves it.  On one hand it proves she’s still beautiful, on the other it reminds her she is vulnerable, even to possible attack.  Being valued for her looks is also emotionally damaging as age removes her worth.

Forty years since this book was published, the ultimate value of a woman is still judged on the basis of physical beauty.  A woman in the public eye who is not attractive is torn to shreds (for example, Hilary Clinton), while a beautiful woman is adored by everyone (Angelina Jolie).  Success and accomplishment are no protection from the scrutiny.  But will we remember Angelina Jolie for her excellent screenwriting skills, or will we remember her more for how hot she looked baring her leg at the Oscars?  Being beautiful, unfortunately, is a distraction from the accomplishments you weren’t born with.

I can vouch that when I was in my physical prime (early twenties), no one was really interested in hearing my poetry.  They just wanted me to wear hot pants to a party, and I was more than willing to flaunt it.  I never felt valued for who I was on the inside.  But I enjoyed all the attention otherwise.  And eventually I learned to lead with my personality rather than my appearance.

Beneath this was an insatiable need for affirmation.  Growing up in school I had been completely invisible.  I was always quiet and up in my head.  I was a dork – ugly, awkward, insecure, with bad grades and braces.  My quietness made the other kids uncomfortable.  Boys never talked to me unless it was to mock me or scare the shit out of me with sexual threats.  Maybe it was that total and complete lack of control that turned me into a control freak.  All I knew was, someday I wanted to be in charge.

If I had remained in the church, men and the life in general would have most certainly been a trap.  But outside of the church and those old fashioned values, men were my freedom.  In fact, the men I fell for brought my dreams to life.  For a long time I lived in a fantasy.  All of my relationships were open with no responsibilities involved.

Marriage and monogamy, however, are so based in reality, I have to admit, I’m still struggling to get used to it.  It’s hard to keep marriage exciting – especially when you are living with your best friend.  Sex is not the first thought, it’s the after-thought.  And it is sometimes difficult to not equate marriage as an institution akin to the church.  When I left religion, I celebrated all of my freedoms from repression.  But then when you get married, there are parts of yourself that inevitably become repressed to protect your relationship.  It’s like a catch-22, because you’ve never been happier than with your partner, but in order for that to survive, you can’t just do and say whatever you want.  You can no longer be selfish as you begin to think through this other person and their feelings.

But for the first time, I am finally loved for who I really am, and my husband embraces the free spirit in me.  He brings warmth and brightness to my life, whereas before, life was dark, edgy and unpredictable.

In Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen Sasha bemoans the traps of womanhood, laughing it off as all her fears come to pass.  There is always the clock ticking, the beauty slipping, the value falling down.  She runs from her own brilliance into the arms of man, where frets and responsibilities distract her from dreams that became insurmountable.

Memoirs was written from the standpoint of a very different time – but every time has its pitfalls and struggles for the sake of biology.  The balance between men and women is precarious and difficult.  Alix Kates Shulman based much of Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen off of her own life.  Though her life story is such a great success (even helping to lead the famous protest at the Miss America Pageant), Sasha’s story ends in defeat.  I prefer to look beyond the book’s ending into Shulman’s inspiring example, trailblazing for women, allowing nothing to hold her back.

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