The Princess reigns still, but for how long?


I heard of ‘Cinderella ate my daughter’ by Peggy Orenstein from a friend, a mother of a ‘princess’. The title caught my attention, although, being the mother of a non princess, the book wasn’t particularly relevant to me.

Sahana watched her share of Cinderella, Ariel, Belle, Snow White movies but when she was taken to a toy store, she always gravitated towards motorized scooters, magic trick boxes, spy kits and such like. From a very early age, given a choice, she chose a book store over a toy store. She wore a Snow White Halloween costume to her kindergarten Halloween party. I believe she did that to conform to the collective consensus on princess costumes among her girl friends in class, not from her heart’s desire. First grade Halloween party saw her as a ghost with a simple, home-made costume, the subsequent years were lady gansta, warrior Xena and so on. Now in middle school, Halloween means an orange shirt and a swagger.

In the book, Orenstein raises the question ‘how dangerous is pink and pretty anyway – especially given girls’ success in the classroom and on the playing field?’ ‘Does playing Cinderella shield girls from early sexualization – or prime them for it? Could today’s princess become tomorrow’s sexting teen?’

Personally, I think it boils down to what mom and dad are telling their daughters when they hand them their princess dolls or buy that ultra expensive Disney princess alarm clock for their pink room. If the message to the child is clear that the princesses and their lives are make believe fairy tales and reiterate that playing in make-believe world is ok as long as one is using one’s imagination. I haven’t seen many women walking around in their Cinderella costume, or being affected for life by the impact of helplessness portrayed by the Princess stories. It would be wrong to blame the Princess doll, a child hood playmate, for the insecurity or helplessness that certain girls grow up with. The root cause for those afflictions go deeper. In the stories, Belle changes a beast to a Prince with her kindness and love, Ariel sacrifices her voice for love. Maybe I am not feminist enough to see these acts as a submission of a woman to get a man, but as gestures of kindness and love for another human. That is how I interpreted the story to my daughter. The fact that the girl feels the love and makes a change is a positive, pro active move – for me. But I understand, my interpretation of these stories is debatable. What I find annoying is the fact that the damsels are being constantly rescued by a prince! It is always a man saving a woman, I wish once in a while a woman would save a man – if not for anything but to maintain that precarious balance in nature! But then again, these stories were written long ago, when the fabric of our society was different. The world was ruled by men. The world now is PREDOMINANTLY ruled by men, the women are making their niche slowly yet steadily. There is a difference.

Orenstein concurs with my thought on page 16 where she says ‘I have never seen a study proving that playing princess specifically damages girls’ self esteem or dampens other aspirations. And trust me, I have looked.’ She says that there are ample evidence that the more mainstream media girls consume, the more importance they place on being pretty and sexy. There is also ‘reams of studies show that teenage girls and college students who hold conventional beliefs about femininity – especially those that emphasize beauty and pleasing behavior are less ambitious and more likely to be depressed than their peers.’

She makes another interesting point that was relevant to my life and my children. She wondered which sex has greater freedom when it comes to choosing toys? Girls get to choose sequin dresses, baby dolls or spy kit, both are acceptable. But a boy, due to imposed masculinity, primarily by the dads and also by society, would rather die than be caught with a tutu or a pink bicycle. One of Ryan’s preschool friends came for a play date and teased Ryan for riding his sister’s hand me down, pink scooter. After the friend left, Ryan refused to get on it – ever again. I held my ground and refused to buy him a blue scooter because I didn’t want him to give in to peer pressure over the gender differentiating colors. He gave up riding scooters altogether and moved on to bicycles. He chose a blue one, at age four.

My husband proudly wears pink shirts saying ‘real men wear pink’ and points out the pink cleats worn by professional football players (breast cancer awareness) when my son talks of the color disdainfully. It was somewhat enlightening to read in Orenstein’s book that according to Jo Paoletti, an associate professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, children were not color coded at all until the early twentieth century. Babies wore white before the advent of washing machines, since the sure way of getting clothes clean was boiling them. In fact, pink was considered more masculine since it was a watered down version of red – a color depicting strength. Blue, on the other hand, was associated with Virgin Mary, constancy and faithfulness and symbolized femininity. I was curious if ‘real men wear pink’ idea emanated from that concept of red being the color of strength.

She made a few other interesting observations which I think are worthy of mention here. She made me see the character of Bella Swan in the notorious …errr I meant famous Twilight series. Like Orenstein, reading the book ‘makes me grind my teeth until my jaw pops’, yet she made me see the heroine in a new light. What a contrast Bella Swan is from the other heroines that main stream media churns out with perfect skin, perfect teeth and perfect body for the teenage girls to emulate and fret over. Bella Swan is a regular, run of the mill girl. She isn’t particularly pretty, nor is she the sharpest tool in the shed. She is not the most exciting girl in school yet the most enigmatic, handsome boy falls head over heels in love with her. Orenstein says ‘Twilight lets a girl feel heat without needing to look hot’. I may not turn up my nose in disgust at the mention of Bella Swan from now on since she may have given girls what they needed – find their love on their own terms.

The other issue that the author raises, which I found interesting, is the separation of cultures which results in an us-versus-them mentality between males and females. According to experts, typically girls, around age two, move away from playing with boys who are too rough and rowdy. Shortly after that, the boys follow suit, avoiding the girls as much as they can. By the end of the first year of preschool, children mostly play with other children of their same-sex. This segregation continues till middle school when children start finding the opposite sex interesting but for different reasons altogether. Studies show that same-sex play in childhood MAY lead to less relating to the other sex and can cause hostile attitudes, lack of empathy and lack of understanding, leading to increased rate of divorces and domestic violence.

I was never interested in dolls or make up, although I love the color pink, mainly because I look good in it. I was considered ‘one of the guys’ growing up and I am still ‘one of the guys’ among my friends. But I love to see a woman made up immaculately and looking gorgeous. I just lament the fact that I lack the skill to put on make up tastefully. My daughter has followed my footsteps when it comes to make up and pretty dresses. She buys comfortable shirts, sometimes from the boy’s section in the department stores, she likes prints and designs that are labeled by society as ‘boy’ prints. And she stays far, far away from anything pink/flowery and paisley. Oh, and no glitter either, please. Orenstein writes, in her zeal of steering her daughter away from pink and princess, she created a little girl who looked disdainfully at her peers who actually liked to play with princess dolls. It is difficult for a child to decipher her mother’s dislike for the idea behind the princess stories rather than the color pink as such. Her daughter had interpreted her aversion to the princess culture differently and misdirected her disdain to the ‘girlie girls’. Sahana’s dislike for pink and floral motif made me curious about how she felt about her friends who were into pink and make up. I asked her if she looks down upon girls who make choices which will be labeled girlie by many. She said “I don’t scorn make up and girlie designs on my friends if they put it on and if it makes them feel good about themselves. I don’t feel the need to put make up on my face. I do, however, draw a line, when the desire to put make up becomes an obsession and girls constantly whip out mirrors to check their mascaras. To me, that’s annoying.”

The book was interesting, well researched, well written. Did I agree with all she said? No, I didn’t. But I was happy to read her perspective that she presented so well. Certain aspects of the book was relevant to my life and my children, which I mentioned earlier. I do, however, agree to everything she says in the last paragraph of the book about preparing our daughters to thrive in this world:

‘…staying close but not crowding them, standing firm in one’s values while remaining flexible. The path to womanhood is strewn with enchantment, but it is also rife with thickets and thorns and a Big Bad Culture that threatens to consume them even as they consume it. The good news is, the choices we make for our toddlers can influence how they navigate it as teens. I am not saying we can, or will, do everything “right”, only that there -is power – magic – in awareness. If we start with that, with wanting girls to see themselves from the inside out rather than outside in, we will go a long way toward helping them find their true happily-ever-afters.’

Not an easy task, teaching our girls to see themselves from inside out, given the media frenzy environment they are growing up in. But we have to try – what other choice do we have?

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9 Responses to The Princess reigns still, but for how long?

  1. rumachak says:

    Lovely! Thought provoking and intelligent look at something that is a growing concern and trend. You write so well, you make me want to get the book and read it…there is no other choice for me either!

  2. Rajshree Dayal says:

    Really a great insight… We have created these fantasy world for our children… its too late to change now… We need to be more conscious about the effects of literally everything in our kids life. Nicely written Piyali. Keep it going
    Love
    Rajshree

  3. madammommy says:

    Thanks so much, Hema.

  4. Raji Sumanth says:

    You’ve intrigued me enough to want to read the book! Sahana seems very much like my own daughter who dresses for comfort and not fashion. She hates pink and anything ‘ girly’ but she loved her Barbies and Bratz! I guess like all women, she’s something of an enigma 🙂

    The one point I’d like to make about fairy tales is this : the stories of Hans Christian Anderson, Brothers Grimm and others are wonderful products of their time and the prevalent thought of that period. What our children are experiencing today is a bastardisation of fairly tales thanks to Disney. When the big bucks start speaking, the sky’s the limit!

  5. madammommy says:

    The real Brother Grimm stories are anything but frilly and happy and pinky. You are bang on!

  6. Reading it through your writing, as a mother of two boys, my thoughts ran into a little “blue” tone, if I may so. As girls, boys grow with similar connotation of color and toys. I found my little one making kind of ‘eeyu’ noises when ever a girlie add was on TV. Looking at him, I asked why he made that noise. He said that, as because it was silly girl stuff. I told him honey, I am a girl too, so my stuff is eeyu too, he looked at me as if the realization dawned on him. Kids get influenced with the outside world too, making them more of a sponge to follow the so called ‘norm’. The thought of making a prototype is a gimmick most consumer industry cash on, and many of us do fall prey…sad but true..may we mothers be able to teach our little ones about the rainbow …so as to say… and not stick to one hue only…:)

  7. madammommy says:

    Amen, Anumita! Beautifully said. Let us make sure, the next generation reach out for that rainbow!

  8. The Empress says:

    I think as children we grow up and absorb that which we see. My mother is the most beautiful woman in the world as far as I am concerned (physical appearance). I used to sit and watch her get ready, and it was like a ritual. I used to watch her select the colours she wore, or the designs she wanted. I used to see her apply makeup, use perfumes, match her clothes and accessories. In a strange way I never wanted to emulate her, because although I saw this ‘princess bride’ every day, I was not enamoured of the person underneath the beauty. But I would watch all the girly girl aspects of her life – from her dressing up, to her beauty salon visits, to her girly parties etc.

    I also spent a lot of time watching the men. I saw how hard my brother studied, and how hard my father worked. I saw how intelligent my grandfather was, and how kind. I saw my uncles, and how jovial they were, and most of all I saw my cousin brothers and the kind of humans they were living in a hostile world. I gravitated from an early age towards men, and even today I am more likely to become a firm friend with a man quicker than with a woman. When i do have a lasting meaningful relationship with a woman it is something I find difficult to understand.

    I was not brought up to be either princess or scholar or hardworker, but I observed the differences of sex and gender. I observed the sheer dominance of the feminine and the sheer vulnerability of the masculine. I remain a man at heart, and I have been told many times, stop considering youself a man. The male mindset appeals to me. The no frills, functional fun time for little boys is what appealed. I was hunting sparrows with a home made bow and arrow and I never really had time for dolls, other than to break them to see if they hurt if they break.

    Sahana is a strong independent person. An individual. I like the fact that she does not look down upon anyone no matter that narrative they choose to adopt as their own. I also love the fact that in her ‘grunge chic comfort’ look she is forging out a neat little style of her own, which is quite WOW in itself. More power to her, and more power to you my friend for this well reasoned piece. We are not all meant to be princesses or tomboys, but somewhere along the line WE develop, a little part of each perhaps diluted or an entirely new persona devoid of any strains. As for Ry, he is going through all the hues of holy boyhood, and rejecting a pink scooter at one point is a right of passage. Girls are yuck, girls are squealy squirmy squishy little oddities. Boys are cool, boys are fun, boys like rough. I am so with Ry on this, because that is how I think too, and I think we could have been good boyfriends, Ry and I.

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