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.