Monday, March 18, 2013

The Reign of Gender Norms

At our house we do not do Princess.

The girls possess zero tiaras, zero plastic high-heeled shoes, zero polyester Disney gowns in ghastly Easter egg hues. I’m the only family member who can nominally distinguish between Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty. If you were created after 1990, I haven’t got a clue.

As graduates of progressive Quaker colleges and inhabitants of liberal (oftentimes drearily so) Seattle, my husband and I are disinclined to foist the standard commercial gendered crap on our kids. Happily, our girls are still young enough we have final say over what comes into the house and, more significantly, what leaves in a giant Goodwill-bound garbage bag in the wee hours of morning.

The three-year-old does have friends, however, and attends preschool and generally exists in the world. She’s been to the mall, attended birthday parties, scoped stuff out on the internet. She’s been exposed to many a (toddler-sized) ball gown and is not herself any kind of tomboy. She loves getting dressed in the morning, taking great time and care in selecting her outfit, which more often than not involves a dress or twirly skirt, tights in some contrasting color and pattern, legwarmers in yet another color/pattern, and, on a particularly cold day, a pair of legwarmers on her arms as well. She adores accessories—beaded necklaces, bangly bracelets, sequined barrettes, hair bands adorned with flowers and hot-pink stripes. Girlfriend’s got style.

The other day she came up to me wearing a sundress over a long-sleeved t-shirt and announced, “I’m going to go put on a different dress so I can be more beautiful.” When I offer her a swipe of my sparkly lip gloss, her face lights up the way mine would if you gave me a lifetime supply of the stuff. We are plenty girly—it’s just that I like to think we enact our girliness in our own less commercial (certainly less Disney) way.
I find princesses—both royal and fairy (a distinction seldom made, weirdly, given that one exists in reality and one has magical powers and wings)—to be cloying, passive, prissy, shallow and beneath all that glitter and sheen, oh so heteronormatively dull. But if my daughters were totally into them, I’d get over my distaste and bestow upon my girls whatever tacky accessories they required. I’d find a way to embrace Bell or Belle or whoever she is because I love my children and want them to be their own people with their own preferences and aesthetics and gender expressions and dress-up-clothes collections and ideas of what’s beautiful. Even if they're radically different from mine.

So far we’re in the clear. The princess kingdom has remained invisible. For Halloween the three-year-old elected to dress up as a cat, and for her birthday she wanted the theme to be “purple.” Her favorite things are chocolate chip cookies, the number eight, and her gender-bending stuffed cat (“Is Elliott a boy cat or a girl cat?” “She’s a boy. Where’s his dress? She needs it for the dance party.”). (The baby is too preoccupied with chewing on things—pretend fruit, plastic cars, a wrapped stick of butter, my boob—to be concerned with tulle and tiaras.)

When my mother-in-law gave the three-year-old a giant book of stickers—a page of cats and dogs, a page of farm stuff, a page of trees and birds, a page of cut-out-dolls and clothing—my daughter gleefully used them up making elaborate "This is the sister and this is her cat and they don't like the horse but the horse is eating this thingy—what's it called?—oats, and they live in this tree, and the birds sing, do you hear the birds, Mama?" scenes on sheets of glittery silver paper. When she was "all done" with the stickers—after months of use—there were three pages left untouched: a page of ballerinas, a page of fairies, and a page of princesses.

And, yeah, I’m not ashamed to admit it: this made me very happy. I might even have done self-satisfied little dance before tossing the remaining stickers in the Goodwill bag.

I know I can’t shelter my daughter from Princessland forever. Every time she gets a party invitation featuring some obsequious cartoon girl in a 1980s-prom-style dress and a crown atop her age-inappropriate updo, I assume it’s the beginning of the end. How can she resist the lure of sparkles and sequins and pastel dresses? And why would she?

The other day we attended her best friend’s birthday party. After two hours of castles and knights and horses and princess craft projects and princess cupcakes and princess garlands and princess balloons and princess party guests, we were sent home with a princess bag full of princess stickers, a princess bracelet, and a princess wand. She was quite taken with the wand. She carried it around for the rest of the day, waving it in her sister’s face, tormenting the cat, and generally making me nervous for everyone’s eyeballs.

“I live in the castle,” she announced, wandering into the kitchen as her dad and I made dinner.

“Oh?” her dad said, raising his eyebrows at me as if to say, “Shit. Here we go.”

“Yeah, I live in the castle with Elliott. And I have this wand.”

“Why do you have a wand?” I asked.

“Because,” she replied in a perfectly even tone. “I’m the queen.”

And the baby?

“She’s the king.”

If you’re going to be royalty, why not aim for the top? A princess is just another pretty girl in a hoop skirt, but the queen is sort of a badass—she’s got clout. (Not to mention the king.)

And if nothing else, the queen gets to raise the princess and try—gently!—to mold her into the kind of woman she’s (secretly) most excited for her to be.

photo courtesy panso, morgueFile


  1. I could not love this. We are still pre-Princesses in our house, but I too fear the arrival of Princess-everything. You give me hope that at the very least it can be avoided for a very long time. (I have a 14 month old, so getting to age 3 with no Princesses seems pretty great to me!)

    1. That is to say... I could not love this MORE.

  2. Verona got her hands on a princess wand recently. She jumped up and now screaming with delight "Mommy I have a wand! I have a wand mommy!" and I started to cringe until she immediately pointed it at the dog and screamed "EXPECTO PETRONUM!" I'm counting that one as a parenting win.