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.