The personal is political: princess parties

As we wound round and round in circles, nice little breaks from the monotony of the chicken dance, my goddaughter, R., stared up at the “real live princess” with big, serious eyes. Every move the princess made–whether twisting a pink balloon into a phallic sword for her male cousin, or painting a butterfly on her tiny hand, R. studied.

Yesterday was my goddaughter’s sixth birthday. She loves princesses and her favorite color is pink. She alternated between a princess dress and a swimming suit with princesses on it. Even her stuffed animal kitty was dressed up like a princess, tiara and all. There was a princess pinata. You can imagine the ways in which these realities provoked some major gender analysis buzz in my head.

As someone supposedly responsible for enhancing R’s “spiritual life,” I felt especially conflicted about the best way to interact with this whole scene. On the one hand, she is the agent of her own desires, and though I’m well-aware that her desires are already socially-constructed (as are mine, of course), I do think they should be honored. There were moments when the diversity of her interests shone through–as when the princess asked what she would like her face to be painted as, and she chose a tiger above many other options, most of them stereotypically feminine. Developing her muscle to self-assess what she likes, articulate it, and get it is far more important than the symbolic powers of petal pink.

On the other hand, oh-my-lord that princess shit is so homogeneous, lacking in creativity, and consumer-oriented. R. is adopted from Guatemala, already immersed in a largely white world both at home and at school, and the last thing she needs–it seems to me (neither a parent or a child development expert)–is more reinforcement that white=beautiful.

Plus, unlike so many of her other toys and activities, the princess stuff seems to embrace and encourage conformity above all else. The princess didn’t even stay in character! When one of the adults asked her when she started doing this work, she went off about how she used to work at a costume shop and one thing led to another… One might argue that at least she was revealing that princesses have to work, too, but I would have rather she sparked R.’s imagination by inventing a future land that she was just visiting from where princesses have wage parity and comprehensive, national health care.

I  know, I know, Peggy Orenstein has tread all this ground before, but it’s one thing to read about it, another to actually have to make choices about how to interact with it. I put on a happy face, did the chicken dance (don’t ask why a princess led us in the chicken dance…I don’t know), and gave R. a big, pink ball to play with in the kiddie pool. I hope to one day have a down-n-dirty conversation about all this stuff, but today, she’s 6, and really loves princesses and I don’t want to hate on that. Yet.

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