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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15 Comments

  1. Posted June 20, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    I understand that parents want to give kids what they want, but “princess parties” and related ilk need to stop. Parents are supposed to raise responsible, productive citizens…the last thing girls need is a heaping dose of homogeny, consumerism, and beauty-culture. Shame on those who endorse this sexist crap.

  2. Posted June 20, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    I humbly disagree critter. I don’t think any real damage is done by allowing a 6 year old to choose her own type of party and activities. Of course, they will be most likely influenced by societal values since they are young and impressionable and want to please. But, I think more harm can be done at the tender age of 6 if one continues to reject their ideas for their parties so that they please the adult. This squashes a natural independence in a child. I think one can be subtle and educational about more appropriate things a child could wish for, by general exposure to good female role models and the like. But denying a child the opportunity to create as she/he wishes is not going to help one’s case in the long run. It IS possible to raise responsible, productive citizens and let them wear pink now and then.

  3. Posted June 20, 2011 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    I think that the issue here is largely to what extent something like a princess party conditions the child socially–does it reinforce negative societal constructs? By this I mean, does a princess party at 6 affect thinking at 26 in a negative way? I’m inclined to minimize the impact of a “princess party.” I think, however, that this can serve as a barometer of society’s expectations. In other words, the fact that “princess culture” is popular and promoted by adults reveals more about those adults than children.

  4. Posted June 20, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    I do think pink, glitter, princesses, and all-things all-girly are pushed on many girls as soon as they’re born. They must wear pink, must be pretty, must act this and that way.
    I was always very strict in my household with gender neutrality and diversity. My 4-year-old girl, as it turns out, is a good mix of it all I think: she’s probably tomboy-ish to most people’s standards since she hates dresses, likes baseball and soccer and toy cars, but she still retains some “girl qualities” since she enjoys wearing nail polish and is a sensitive wimp.
    In her preschool, she is surrounded by princesses who come to school with tiaras and tutus and necklaces and all-things girly. Can it really be that in a large classroom, they all coincidentally share the same interest???
    Interestingly enough, there was one little girl last year who stopped identifying as a girl and wanted to be referred to and live as a boy. Needless to say the transition for the parents and the entire school was interesting to witness, but I’m happy to report it was handled by all, at least on the surface, respectfully.

  5. Posted June 20, 2011 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    Should have gone dressed as Princess Mononoke or Princess Nausicaa.

  6. Posted June 20, 2011 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    I have a 6 year old and, while I don’t “hate on it,” I have not indulged the princess fantasy. But I explained why — *those princesses* are not strong and do not do interesting things, so we don’t need to invest time in them because we want to be strong and do interesting things. She can re-articulate it and seems to accept it even if she would still like to have all the princess-themed stuff.

    I’ve lucked out that there is a girl in her class who has categorically rejected all things princess on her own. I’ve also elected to have no TV and really limit movies — it would take something beyond what a 6 year old is capable of to resist all that marketing and I find it easier to have said no once to TV than 1,000s of times to the toys, movies, etc., which is as much about not wanting all of the stuff and to spend that $ as it is an explicitly feminist choice.

  7. Posted June 20, 2011 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

    This reminds me of my favorite episode of The Office where the guys get a stripper and the ladies get the Benjamin Franklin impersonator and he answers all their silly questions in character. Man, if I had the princess gig I would totally have fun with it, too.

  8. Posted June 21, 2011 at 4:21 am | Permalink

    Just a thought on “not staying in character” – I used to host kid’s parties (princess and others) and I tried to stay in character when people asked me questions about myself. I found, though, that for some reason a lot of adults would get quite annoyed at me when I did. I’m not a very confrontational person, so it eventually got to the point where I would break character to answer the questions asked by the adults, provided that there were no children around at the time. I wonder if maybe the hosts of your party had had the same experience?

  9. Posted June 21, 2011 at 4:44 am | Permalink

    To me the problem when a girl wants to be a princess is that she’s choosing something not only offensively assumed to be naturally appealing to her but that has also been heavily, aggressively marketed to her from an early age by both the industry and the culture. My mother swore I would never own a Barbie Doll, but she couldn’t stop every other woman in my life (neighbors, relatives, babysitters) from buying me them. The solution is to counteract those forces by encouraging the child to be as diverse as possible in her interests. I had a pink princess side, but I also got down and dirty in the mud with my brother, playing baseball and Star Wars and jungle explorer. Nothing really felt off limits to me, but I saw other girls embrace the princess construct at an early age and the gender limits along with it, usually because their parents saw nothing wrong with this. They’d give their sons baseballs and their daughters Cinderella dresses and never encourage either of them to switch toys. Therein lies the problem. That and the uttering of gender stereotypes; I can’t tell you how many smart women I know who say to both their daughters and their engaged friends: “Oh, EVERY girl wants to be a princess.” Um, no.

    I only have young boys in my life right now and for every soccer ball they get, I buy them a book about having tea parties. (I try to avoid the princess stuff that encourages unhealthy beauty standards or anit-intellectualism.) So far, they love both. And I swat anyone who scolds, “That’s a girl thing.” Because it really is/should be for everyone.

  10. Posted June 21, 2011 at 5:45 am | Permalink

    I don’t think parents should force the princess narrative down their children’s throats, but I think it’s simplistic to say that all Disney princesses are weak and homogeneous. Certainly, the classic Disney princesses (Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty) had very little in the way of personality or drive. However, since Disney’s second golden age of animation beginning with “The Little Mermaid,” the princesses, although uniformly thin, have unique personalities and goals. Ariel, one of my least favorite Disney heroines, wanted adventure and excitement. My favorite princess, Belle from “Beauty and the Beast,” loved to read and stayed true to herself in the face of societal pressure. Cultural authenticity aside, Mulan was a strong young lady determined to protect her family’s honor. Jane from “Tarzan” was an intelligent and driven scientist. Many have taken issues with the depiction of African American culture in “The Princess and the Frog,” but Tiana herself was an ambitious young woman who worked herself to the bone to open her own restaurant. Instead of discounting all of the “princesses” it’s better to discuss their individual strengths and weaknesses with little girls.

    • Posted June 22, 2011 at 2:18 am | Permalink

      Yes!!!! Damned Right!!!!!!!!!!!!! Don’t forget the Princesses in Sailor Moon!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! The Sailor Senshi were all princesses in their past lives, Chibiusa is a princess of the Crystal Kingdom, and there’s Princess Kakyuu. If you make pink fluff forbidden, then the kid will seek them out and hide them like they were drugs. Believe me, the forbidden is just so tantilizing.

  11. Posted June 22, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    I don’t have kids of my own, I wasn’t especially into princesses when I was a kid (I usually found them the dullest part of a story) and my niece isn’t into princesses either. But I’m wondering, could parents possibly let kids have their fun with this stuff, while also explaining to them that princesses are from fairy tales that were written a long time ago, and girls can grow up and do things other than just be princesses? Or introduce them to books and tv shows with other types of characters than just princesses?

    I agree the pink and princess thing gets crammed down our throats from birth. But maybe it would be such a cause for concern if it were presented as just one fantasy for children to indulge in out of many.

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