There is an interesting article posted on NPR this week about little girls who suddenly must be princesses: Saving Our Daughters From An Army of Princesses. This mother is considering whether her daughter is choosing to be a princess or being railroaded into it... I suppose it's appropriate to use the term railroaded because when this child went to nursery school the first day in her favorite train engineer outfit, carrying her Thomas the Tank Engine lunch box, a little boy yelled, "Girls don't like trains." Not long afterward, she wouldn't even wear pants to school.
I find this disturbing.
Now, I don't believe that dressing up as a princess is a bad thing. I dressed up as a princess for Halloween at least once, and I remember that at 5 I loved to draw princesses with ball gowns with big puffy sleeves. I even had a Cinderella watch.
I also have to say that I am quite sure that playing princess is not impossible to combine with a little more rough-and-tumble activity. One of my goddaughters, who has three older brothers, loves her pink and sparkles and princess outfits. Or she did; I think she may be getting a bit old for that now. But she could (can?!) also play in the mud with the best of them. I have a picture of her dressed in a pink princess outfit and sitting on a toy motorcycle. That's my goddaughter, all right. And I love it.
I've always been, however, a bit more for the unusual princesses in children's books. I have always loved, for example, The Paper Bag Princess, in which the princess rescues the prince from a dragon with great creativity. I enjoy The Ordinary Princess, though it is not as far from a typical, traditional princess story. I also seem to remember a fantasy book of my sister's in which the princess hasn't much use for being married off to the first prince her parents can find and so goes off to be the librarian for a local dragon for a while. When princes come to rescue her, she usually manages to get rid of them, since at least at first they seem to be no one any self-respecting young woman would care to marry. I believe she learns to be a wizard and otherwise take care of herself as well, but I don't remember the details.
And then there is the musical Once Upon a Mattress, which, when I was in the high school orchestra playing for the show, made me laugh all the way through it from the beginning of rehearsals to the end of the performances. (Good lines included, from the princess, "Does your mother ever say anything other than 'You swam the moat?!'?" and, from the prince, the song "I'm in love with a girl named Fred.")
Perhaps I like the humor in all of them. Perhaps I like the unfussiness of these princesses and their can-do, independent attitude. I assume most real princesses are much more like this than like Disney or fairy-tale princesses.
So what's the problem? I guess, following ten years teaching in a boarding school for girls, that I am concerned that this separation between boys and girls so early on is not only trying on identity and having fun with dressing up, but also limiting in options. As long as our girls can dress up as princesses AND dress up as train engineers without being made fun of, I'm happy. I am just sad that it doesn't seem to be as automatic as one might think. And pity the poor boy who is being made fun of for stepping out of assigned gender roles (just google Princess Boy if you don't believe me). I was pleased - I think - to note that at least Disney World's Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique has packages for boys. I wonder what they'd do if a boy wanted to be a princess or a girl wanted to be a knight. Hm.
I am also wary because the need to be a princess is much more culturally important among little American girls than it used to be thanks to the ever-present marketing of Walt Disney. There was a recent article about this in the NYTimes, I think, but I can't find it. However, How Disney Princess Works is rather enlightening. But these little girls seem to be enjoying a Perfectly Princess Tea at Disney World: Be a princess for a day at Disney World. And they say you can go to another place to be a pirate. I bet they do let girls be pirates, at least! I think I would have enjoyed all three costumes, to be perfectly honest, with or without marketing. I just don't remember anyone talking about being a princess when I was little (back when the earth was cooling, you know, just before the era in which princesses and knights fought dinosaurs instead of dragons).
Of course, I'm not a mother. And neither was the author of the article above which sparked this post when she first developed her opinions. As she put it, "Oh, how the mighty fall." It's easy to have opinions when you don't have children... And then when you do, they have their own personalities and opinions, right from the start. It rather reminds me of the old comic strip "Cathy" when Cathy's feminist friend Andrea has a daughter who chooses a Bride of Rambo Halloween costume.
You mothers of girls out there, reading this, I'd be interested in hearing your take on this. Comments from experience?