Every year, I see multiple pleas from concerned mothers (rarely fathers, because (straight) fathers rarely take on emotional labor of child rearing) wondering what to do about the pile of pink plastic that just came into their home. It’s such a scary pile. It whispers, “come here, little girl… let go of your individuality, your power, your freedom. Join me in the glamour and popularity of gendered subordinate dehumanized servitude… everybody’s doing it… first one’s free….” Mothers (well, the ones who pay attention) look at that pile and see a desolate road ahead of princess girls who grow into teens that think they need to look like pornified sex kittens, who grow into young adults that think it’s ok for men to treat them like sex objects, and on into a bleak dystopian future of internalized misogyny.
I can’t promise that I’ve come up with a magic formula to prevent all that. After all, our girls are met with a barrage, a deluge, of toxic messages luring them down that path in every movie, TV show, magazine, billboard, and media around them. Even female meteorologists can’t just wear suits or have short hair or look plump. And none of my strategies will work if family members are modeling that females should try to please the “male gaze.” So I am not offering a magic bullet. All the same, here is how I handled the Pink Plastic Menace – as usual, a joint effort with my sister Tallessyn Grenfell-Lee.
- Even from a very young age, we taught our girls about archetypes (not Jungian! Spielreinian! He stole the idea from her!). We explained how we work on archetypes in different stages of our lives in different ways. It is natural for girls to be drawn to the archetype of leader, diva, most important person who gets to feel special and get tons of attention- and for little girls, Princess archetype does that work. I helped them see other archetypes they were also working on, such as warrior (my oldest made every chopstick, pencil, and twig into a wand and was forever hexing things. No taper candle was safe.)
- We pointed out examples of girls they knew who used to be working on princess archetypes but had moved on from that stage to other archetypes – athlete, artist, seeker, healer, advocate.
- We provided diverse stories of princesses who rescue themselves, who rescue princes, or otherwise blend with the warrior archetype rather than exhibiting helplessness and passivity. I also told all the classic fairy tales differently from how they were written (Cinderella outran the prince because she was a faster runner; the shoe fit only her foot because she had large feet with a funny bump on one side, etc), until my girls were old enough to encounter those stories outside our home, at which point we…
- Gave continual, calm little feminist critiques of the dominant princess narratives (need rescuing, disempowered appearance, etc), and real life stories of actual princesses and how not-fun their lives were/are— Gently and lovingly, supporting their process and also balancing it.
- We provided female examples of Warrior archetypes. Their room had Star Wars posters in it from a young age. We discussed healthy vs. unhealthy warrior archetypes too, of course, and we modeled mutual respect and restorative justice in our parenting and our home. Coercive parenting, via rewards and punishments (even subtle verbal ones!) leads to dysfunctional warrior archetypes, where the carrots and sticks become bribes and guns.
- We didn’t try to stop them, discourage them, pressure or coerce them, even subtly. Kids are not stupid. Even just saying “I’m not into that princess thing” will affect them deeply. We celebrated everything we COULD celebrate. We just gently balanced and critiqued the parts of it we needed to, and they outgrew it and moved on.
Who can blame a kid for being drawn to all that dramatic symbolic power? The super fancy clothes, the status, the attention… kids feel so disempowered already; our culture disempowers them badly. Of course, they long to feel powerful and important and special; as I said, they aren’t stupid. We calmly pointed out princess tropes that were disempowering:
- Dresses/shoes that inhibit movement and activity.
- Alien eyes ridiculously huge so as to look like a baby bunny or kitten.
- Pressure never to get dirty or say an impolite thing or wiggle in your chair.
- Conformity to very restrictive appearance-hair, face, body size and shape.
To point them out, I asked questions or made “I statements“:
- “I would get really tired of needing to act proper all the time”
- “I would get tired of everyone always watching me”
- “I like to get dirty, and climb trees… I would need different clothes for that”
- “I like how Sophia tends to know better than the other characters, she’s smart… I just wish she didn’t have such weird alien eyes and basically only ever wear purple ball gowns. Be nice to see her get mad occasionally, too.”
- “I like how in Frozen the sisters save each other, I just wish they weren’t so skeletal, it’s like the writers are trying to teach girls to shrink themselves.”
- “I like how Elsa stops trying to hold in her feelings and please everyone but herself, but why did they have to change her to look and act so sexy? It seems like the writers want girls to think it makes you powerful to dress in slinky clothes and sway your hips, which is really gross.”
Etc. But we made sure to celebrate their fun and give genuine, sincere support to their enjoyment of the princess archetype and the imperfect examples of it around them. I try to offer enough supportive comments so they don’t feel like I’m yucking their yum, and enough critique to allow the messages to sink in consistently over time. I also made it clear that I blame the writers, not the characters.
This process continues as they move on to Mysticons, Barbie’s Three Musketeers, and Liv & Maddie. In the end, we can only limit – but not eliminate – their exposure to the toxic misogyny of our hideously patriarchal culture. We must develop their critical feminist lens, so they can see through the lies and know that “femininity” is a prison of oppression and misery. They can grow to be free, liberated, empowered women who will help unshackle their sisters. This is the approach that has worked best for us. What have you found helpful with your own daughters? Let’s figure this out together, because in our porn-addicted rape culture, we all need all the help we can get.
Trelawney Grenfell-Muir teaches courses about Sex, Dating, Marriage, and Work in the Religion and Theological Studies Department at Merrimack College and about Cross Cultural Conflict in the Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A Senior Discussant at the Religion and the Practices of Peace Initiative at Harvard University, she holds an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology with a concentration in Religion and Conflict, and a Ph.D. in Conflict Studies and Religion with the University Professors Program at Boston University. Previously a fellow at the Institute of Culture, Religion, and World Affairs and at the Earhart Foundation, Grenfell-Muir has conducted field research in situations of ongoing conflict in Syria, Lebanon, and Northern Ireland. Her dissertation explores the methodology, constraints, and effectiveness of clergy peacebuilders in Northern Ireland. She has been an invited speaker in community settings and at MIT, Boston University, Tufts, and Boston College on topics of gender violence, economic injustice, and religious or ethnic conflicts and has also moderated panels on genetic engineering, cloning, and other bioethics issues. She currently writes articles, book chapters, and liturgical resources about feminist, nature-based Christianity.
24 thoughts on “Help, My Daughter Got a Bunch of Princess Stuff for Christmas! by Trelawney Grenfell-Muir”
Wonderful post. For at least 30 years I have been trying my best to be – head “Barbie” in all her incarnations… both female and male children are twisted by these images. make no mistake they are deadly. And whatever you have to do to get rid of them do it. Please, for all of us.
Thank you, Sara. Yes… disempowering and pornified images are deadly, indeed.
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Love: “We celebrated everything we COULD celebrate.” It took me a while to realize what a powerful feminist tale Snow White is when one celebrates the parts one can celebrate. How Snow White survives the dark night of the soul, and makes a place for herself among strangers in the forest. The awakening kiss at the end seems to take away her agency, unless one understands that she has already done the work of self-transformation, as well as creating powerful allies among the seven threshold guardians.
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Thank you, Isabella. Yes, these stories are often archetypal, and understanding them that way can help us find ways they can be useful. I like to retell them so they are freed from their patriarchal chains.
I really love your post and the work that you are doing. I agree with Sara, all the dysfunctional messages affect all our children. Body image is so key. I know of few if any women in my own generation who think they have beautiful bodies. I struggle too at times (which my own grown daughters like to remind me . . . something along the lines of “mom, if you don’t like your own looks and we look like you how can we think we look beautiful?”)
I do have some ideas of things that I did for my own daughters. I think they are both strong women now but I also think they were wounded a bit as no one else was doing what I was doing 20+ years ago and it embarrassed them. (once again as they would say, “oh you’re the one whose mom talks about periods”).
I am new to the blogging world and am not sure what proper etiquette would be. You are asking for ideas and I have many of them. Would this be the proper forum to share them or another?
Thank you for doing this work!
Janet, I would be very happy to hear your ideas – feel free to post them here in the comments, so we can all benefit, if you’d like. Thank you for your thoughts. You’re right about the crucial importance of modeling. Well done trailblazing for the rest of us 20+ years ago – thank you!!
Thank you Trelawney, I have quite a few ideas but I will start at the beginning. (And I would say that we need to include all our relatives; female, male, gender fluid). We experience the world through our human bodies and what we intake will affect what it is we are experiencing whatever our shape, identity, color, etc . . .
You do touch upon my first idea which is stories. The paradigms of our life are told in myths and fables. They are told in family stories and cultural stories. Even in magazines and in definitions of what beauty is. These reflect foundational beliefs which seep into our deep conscious and un-conscious minds. And it helps to have stories which reflect our own values. For example, the idea that Eve sinned and we are suffering under her curse is, to my mind, incredibly destructive to the female/human experience. And, I would add, not true to the original teachings of the stories behind the Bible.
My prescription is that we need a change of fables. We can tell them from our own lives. There are some books (probably a lot more now than when I was in the market) that change the underlying paradigms. Barbara Walker wrote a book called Feminist Fairy Tales. I remember one my kids liked called Tatterhood which had an international flavor. (I just did a quick internet search and there are indeed many more out there now). For us who are older children, Clarissa Pinkola Estes wrote Women Who Run With the Wolves.
I wrote a book which I self-published 14 years ago which I am nervous about even bringing up because it has a lot of silliness in it but I did include some divergent fairy tales which I think still work well in laying out other pathways. It is called Songs of Shamanic Descent. It is available on Kindle but I would send it free to anyone from this site who is interested. Some of my stories are Jacklyn and the Bean Root, Hans and Grace, and Ashera (because she worked in the ashes). I have a “contact” form on my website (which is otherwise under construction) /the mysticpagan.com/
So you are right, we can’t stop our kids from exposure to much of the toxicity that is out there but we can present other possibilities and pathways. I see it a bit like planting seeds and hopefully they when they are choosing their own life directions, those seeds will bear fruit.
(I have a few more suggestions which I will try to write up in the next few days.)
Janet, FAR is always looking for submissions from new contributors.
Thank you for your comment Carol. Are you suggesting that I write up my suggestions as a blog post rather than in reply form? I can do either. I am not completely clear on how these formats work. Taking things in on screen form often befuddles me. I did write up two blog submissions (part 1 and part 2) which I submitted about 2 weeks ago. I haven’t heard anything about them but like I said, I’m just not sure how the ebb and flow of this works. (Although I am finding that the posting of new blogs everyday on such a wide variety subjects and varying voices is extremely impressive!)
Good and informative post. I guess it’s never occurred to me that Barbie could be so poisonous to little girls. But, then, I didn’t play with dolls when I was a little girl. I was a tomboy who climbed trees and read books. I do own a Barbie, though: she’s been redressed as a glamorous witch. And I once (or twice) used a disassembled Barbie’s torso (nipples painted blue) and a spark plug set in shell behind two marbles as a wedding decoration. That couple got a big laugh.
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Thank you, Barbara. It’s so interesting how the word “tomboy” makes it sound as though climbing trees is a “boy” thing. Gender roles and stereotypes are so very toxic that way. Barbie has done a lot to try to break down those gender roles, even as she has reinforced them horribly. So we press on!
I enjoyed your post SO much. Completely boggled my mind, the effort you have put into providing alternative images for your daughter – kudos! I grew up with such cognitive dissonance about what it meant to be a girl and it wasn’t until I was nearing 30 that I felt strong/confident enough to even start letting go of princess imagery. Your daughter is blessed to be receiving a head start – may she feel herself as empowered, however she chooses to imagine herself. Blessings!
Thank you, Daria – lovely affirmation, and all parents need that! Yes, I have put in a ton of work, and it has really helped, which is what keeps me going. I love how now they complain amongst their friends about how, for example, all but one of the female avatar options in the game “Subway Surfer” are sexualized, with hip thrust out. They get so annoyed when female characters are always portrayed with hip thrust out, etc. Makes me proud!!!! Thanks again!
I am glad you mentioned those stupid-looking eyes. At least the old Disney heroines did not look so stupid.
I understand that the warrior archetype can be attractive and that it can be redefined, but frankly, I would throw it out along with the Barbies. Wars are not healthy for children and all living things. Nor is the war against the flesh. Nor do we have to be war-riors to stand up for ourselves and our values. It worries me that girls are now being trained to go out to and fight and kill for good against evil like Wonder Woman. This is the old good-evil binary,
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Everything you said about warrior … YES. Thank you.
Carol, I know you have said in the past that you have no use for the warrior archetype. I find it kind of hilarious because you yourself have such a robust warrior archetype! But you’ve inspired me to write a post about the importance of healthy warrior archetypes, and clearing up misconceptions about them. Remember, my PhD is in Peacebuilding – Conflict Studies & Religion. I’m quite familiar with how dualisms and steep self-other gradients lead to intergroup conflict. Wars are indeed horrible, which is why I have dedicated my life to peacebuilding. So be on the lookout, I will have an upcoming post all about the importance of healthy warrior archetypes– for JustPeace!
Trelawney, I am so glad you have dedicated your life to peacebuilding as have I. I have fought against injustice all my life as have you and thanks for recognizing that. However, I do not call myself a warrior and would prefer (please) not to be called one. I guess the images of war permeated my psyche a little too far during my youth which was during the Vietnam war. I have a deep revulsion to any images that remind me of that war or of any war. I believe war arose at a certain point in history and that is when the “armed” “archetype” also developed. I was also deeply influenced by a phrase from Jacques Maritain my teacher Michael Novak used to quote often, “the means are the end in the process of becoming.” I recognize that other feminists have adopted warrior archetypes and armed Goddesses because they feel they help us fight for our lives. I choose other images and other means. Among such feminists are FAR writers Laura Shannon and Nancy Vedder-Shultz and there are many others. I often feel I am a voice crying in the wilderness so to speak but I will keep crying for all that is lost and raising my voice against all images of war. With great respect for your peacebuilding work and your struggles against the cultures that are infecting your children, Carol
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Carol, I respect that. I did not “call you a warrior”— we are truly just using the words “warrior archetype” to mean very different things… and since we are, it makes perfect sense to me that you would not want to be associated with that archetype. I would never want to make anyone uncomfortable in that way. Archetypes are an interesting frame of reference. I agree with you about the horrors of war and the myth of redemptive violence.
Thank you both for this really interesting discussion about archetypes and the meanings of being a “warrior.” I have always found the concept of warriorship to compelling because of my personal history but I can see the values inherent in the word which I had never considered before. It reminds me a bit about the usage of the swastika which is an old and beautiful Goddess symbol but was co-opted by the Nazis and can’t really be used anymore. Or, as Rachel Pollack has pointed out, the name Isis who is a beautiful Egyptian Goddess but now the designation here in the US that has come to represent a violent religious grouping. Is Her name now taboo?
I wonder, Carol, do you have another paradigm or vocabulary to describe what it means to be powerful and able to stand up, even fight for ones self?
My real life heroines include Rosa Parks, Shirley Chisholm, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Barbara Lee and most recently, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I love Alexandria’s happy justice-seeking spirit, though I don’t like the tag “happy warrior.” https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2019/1/4/1823650/-The-genius-of-Ocasio-Cortez-s-happy-warrior-routine-is-dismantling-Republicans?detail=emailLL Maybe some of you can come up with other words for the type?
I would just recommend not using archetypes to describe them, then. The warrior archetype is, precisely, by definition, the one who courageously fights for good and justice and to protect self and others. It is also sometimes called Hero archetype, if that helps. So any time we engage in defending ourselves or others from attacks, or critiquing injustice, taking on the dragons of our world, that is the archetype we are manifesting. Of course, patriarchy has a diseased version of it, distorted by “masculinity.”
No it doesn’t help to call it the hero archetype, there must be another way than fighting. Heroes are warriors, whose memory will live forever. When Achilles chose to fight and be remembered he rejected the option of going home and living a long and good but unremembered life.
Good choice of heroines Carol. In the shamanic world (or at least parts of it) there is the paradigm of this: the soldier fights for someone else. The warrior fighters his/her own battles and the spiritual warrior fights his/her own demons. Of course I am recognizing (now) that fighting is the operative word in all these examples. Is there ever a time when fighting or battling can be seen as a positive paradigm? Battling addiction? Injustice? Getting to the gym? I am not trying to devolve into the glib but I wonder if there is a place for a warrior thought pattern.