Posted by: thiscait | July 19, 2008

The Princess Paradigm

A few days ago, Natalie saw a neighbor in a princess costume. When she got home, she pulled out her largely ignored pink tutu, put it on, and announced, “I’m a princess.” We sighed at a little bit of oblivion lost, but went along with her game. Today a neighbor is having a princess tea party birthday celebration, and Natalie is invited. She is thrilled at the prospect of dressing up. I even took advantage of her enthusiasm to french braid her hair–something I’d been wanting to try for a while anyway. She picked out her outfit, and she looks adorable, if rather…pink.

However, there’s a part of me that’s unsettled by all of this. For months I have laughed as my daughter announced to people that pink is her favorite color and joked, “but we dressed her in blue as a baby. I don’t know where we went wrong!” I’ve mostly accepted that glittery, shiny things draw her attention, and that she idolizes big kids (especially the girls) and wants to do exactly what they do. But we’re entering the age where princesses and gendered marketing are so damn hard to avoid. And while I don’t mind Natalie playing princess sometimes, I want her to do it in her own way (not Disney’s) and I don’t want her to think it’s all she can be.

Right now, Natalie is just as happy to wrap herself in her lion towel and “Roar at mommy!” She proudly tells us and demonstrates how strong she is (the kid can lift and carry a full gallon of milk). She is thrilled with the new blue hippo light fixture I just installed in her room, and proclaims herself a crocodile in the swimming pool. She loves her sneakers and her tricycle, and tries to do soccer tricks like the boys next door. We will never buy her princess underwear (which is damn hard to do these days) or other clothes that label her as “princess” or “hottie.” The only “TV” she watches consists of Signing Time and bits of old Sesame Street DVDs. We can control the messages she gets about gender in our household. But we can’t control the rest of the world.

How do you help a child keep an open mind about gender when the rest of the world preaches otherwise?

(I should add the disclaimer that the party consisted of boys, as well as girls, in princess dresses, and that the princesses did run around like maniacs and drive cars.Β  But still.Β  It was a princess party.)


  1. When my oldest son was born, my sister, excited at the prospect of trying again to raise a gender neutral child, bought him dolls and tea sets. He had no interest in them whatsoever. He did nurse the dolls for a short time after his brother was born but they spent the next 4 years at the bottom of the toy box. I found a wonderful kitchen set at the curb and put the tea set in the cupboard, where it stayed untouched until a little girl came to visit.
    As the children grew and I was able to move to the position of observer, I watched again and again the difference in gender. A refrigerator box was a house to the neighborhood girls until the boys came along, then it was a jail rolling down the driveway. A girls discarded jump rope was tied to a tricycle and used to drag tonka trucks behind.
    We can try with all of our might not to let them fall into a commercialized trap but, since the beginning of time, little girls have been little girls, and little boys have been little boys.

  2. Keep talking with her about it. Keep suggesting games where she’s something OTHER than a princess. The fact that there were boys in princess dresses at that princess party actually makes it a cool princess party in my mind, because it’s playing with gender without actually inscribing it in a gendered way (I hope).

    She may go the glitter fairy way. But you can continue to complicate the notion of “princess”. You can draw pictures of mechanic princesses and engineer princesses and zoo keeper princesses (both boys and girls). There are books like “the Ordinary Princess” for when she gets older.

    My opinion is that the thing with keeping gender flexible and open is never to object to any representation that she comes up with. Never give any one gender expression more weight than any other. If you had a boy and he wanted to wear a pink, would you object? What about if he wanted to wear a pink princess dress? How would you feel about that? Can you apply that to Natalie?

    We let Sassa wear dresses and frills, but we also let her rough and tumble in them the same as if she were in jeans and a tee shirt (unless it’s right before pictures or something) and so the dress doesn’t have any more meaning or weight to her (right now) than tee shirts and blue jeans. Her reasons for choosing either are varied and have more to do with how she feels (does she want swishy or stretchy) than what she feels “is right”.

    Of course, she’s only a few months older than Natalie, and I could be proven completely wrong in a matter of weeks.

  3. one last thing: there’s nothing wrong with being a princess unless you (or she) default to “princesses are intrinsically weak and helpless; and pink princesses even more so.”

  4. crap, even one more last thing.

    Unless your biggest problem is the Disney marketing virus that you want to protect her from. In that case I think you can only do what you’re doing.

    Ok, I’m really done now.

  5. I agree with Amy…it seems like you guys have exposed her to both ends of the spectrum and have allowed to experience what she finds to be fun, regardless of whether or not “it’s for boys” or “it’s for girls”. You mentioned that she enjoys doing things that the boys in the neighborhood like doing, but when she shows interest in doing what the girls on the block are doing, it causes concern. I’m not coming at you negatively, please don’t take it that way…I love how you guys are raising Natalie and I think it’s awesome that there are people in the world who don’t force their children to conform to the societal ideal of gender. My approach (and how we’re planning to raise Zane) is not to force the him one way or another, not brainwash him into thinking he HAS to be one way or another…but rather allow him to do what feels right to him and support him in that. If he wants pink tutus, he’ll have pink tutus. If he wants trucks and trains, he’ll have trucks and trains.
    In short, I think what you are doing is fine. You’ve exposed her to and allowed her to do what boys and girls do in the neighborhood. If princess play is what feels right to her, then that’s who she is. Dressing her in blue and later finding out she prefers pink doesn’t mean you went wrong somewhere. It just means that she prefers pink, be it for a boy or girl. You didn’t force her to like pink, she chooses it.
    C and I were discussing your post yesterday, and she said she is a prime example of gender-typing. She was made to wear dresses and hair bows as a child. She had to wear a dress at least once a week. Now, she is the most “androgenous dyke”, as she put it.
    Kids will be who they are. I think the most important thing is not WHO they are, but that they have the support to be whoever that might be.
    Sorry so long…I guess I had a lot to say.

  6. Sorry, trying to be like Chicory, I guess. πŸ˜‰
    I have to rephrase what I said…I think the most important thing is not WHO they are, but
    a) that we don’t force them to be someone or something
    b) they they have the support to be whoever they might be, whether it fits the commercial model or not

  7. We are dealing with pink fever, too. I am trying to be chilled about it on the basis that L can read me like a book and if she knows it riles me she will want even more pink. but, thank go, she still wants to drive a forklift truck when she grows up. And her princesses seem to be pretty feisty gals, who usually have dual roles: pink dress+ stethoscope = princess doctor. pink dress+ whistle= princess train driver. and my personal favourite, based on a recent tradesperson visit – pink dress + spanner = princess plumber.

  8. I try to reassure myself with the fact that pink used to be the “boy color” because it was considered the diminutive of red, the “man color.” No lie. I can’t remember where I read that, though. I also remember that my very gender fluid/bordering on trans ex-gf has called pink her favorite color for years.

    Honestly, I think the only things to do are what you’re doing – expose her to any and all options of how to be and be open to whatever permutations of that she comes up with. And what everybody else said.

    My parents tried every damn thing they could to not lock me into any sort of gendered roll and I ended up with no greater desire in life than to be a femme lesbian housewife. Who might like to have a princess plumber make a house call.

  9. We were pretty successful in “avoiding the princess trap” until she started her new school. There are LOTS of older girls there, and since Malka refuses to be potty trained, and since they insist on the “easy open” pull ups, we had to buy the &^%(* princess pull ups. And we told Malka they were her “little girl” pull ups. and we told her teachers, too.

    But alack and alas, like that dreaded purple dinosaur, she also knows that Cinderella is on her pull ups, too.

    But she also loves dressing up as “fire girl Malka,” and well, I don’t have answers, but we’re pissed about the princess introduction by her teachers none the less, but we figure that as long as our messages are strong enough at home, we’ll be OK.

  10. It’s so hard with boys, too. I am less concerned with what they play with and more concerned with how they play. Like, my son likes trucks, but he mostly gives his beloved bear rides in them for now. I have never seen violent crashing yet. Yet. My other son plays with a doll, but I think mostly because she lights up – we don’t have any other toys like that. We have exposed them to all kinds of toys, and they gravitate toward trains and vehicles and legos. I don’t keep them away from these things because they are “boy toys.” I mostly want them to know they can be whoever they want to be, however gender plays into that. I’m sure they will go through many phases, as will Natalie, and helping them keep their options open while supporting their likes and passions will sometimes be a difficult thing to navigate. (I have to admit, though, I was tickled when I picked up J from daycare the other day and he was dressed in a blue dress playing Princess with 2 of the girls. I guess my delight in this speaks to my goal for him to be open-minded, more than my pleasure in the pure and simple fact that he was having fun -seems a little nuts that I have set an agenda for his simple game.)

  11. I think Natalie is still at a young enough age where she should be allowed to try different things. She’s learning about the way the world works and trying to figure out how she fits into it. She’ll probably go through a lot of different phases, some of them princessy and some of them not. Trying to teach her that being a princess is a bad thing will probably just confuse her more than anything at this point. Encouraging other types of play probably won’t hurt though.

  12. My kids (all three of them, so that includes the boy, too) went through a phase of getting the Disney princess costumes and wearing them all the time, not just at Halloween. And they had various Barbie-type Disney Princess dolls. But they didn’t see the movies until … well, they still haven’t seen several of them. We read the original fairy tales (in multiple translations) instead. And yes, they also read the Disney versions, because that’s almost impossible to avoid. And they did a lot of other stuff, play-wise, and the princess thing turned out to be just a phase.

    Also, the girls in particular went through a huge pink phase but now they complain (just tonight they complained) about who gets stuck wearing the one pair of pink PJs I bought, because they hate pink, and Gemma owns three pairs of “boys” PJs and btw she thinks calling clothes and shoes and colors “boy” or “girl” is dumb.

    All of which is just to say, I’ve gotten a little skeptical of parents who swear they tried to complicate princess play “but our girl was just too much of a princess for us to fight it” because we didn’t stop our kids loving what they wanted to love but we also seem to have kept them mostly indifferent to the Disney Marketing Machine(TM) AND smart about the gendered toy- and clothes-marketing that has gotten so inescapable in the last 15 years. (There have been attempts to track gender marketing to parents, ties have been suggested to pre-natal sex identification — I refuse to consider it a “natural” or “inevitable” process but rather a suggestively reactionary marketing system….)

    I’ve also concluded that everyone likes to dress up fancy sometimes. [I think Shannon at Peter’s Cross Station had some posts about toddlers and drag at some point.]

    I don’t think there’s anything at all wrong with girly-girls or boyey-boys but I also think anyone who thinks that happens in a vacuum is deluding herself. We are having a lot of success, for now, at undermining the princess paradigm, and while I have no illusions about what’s coming down the pike as we enter the so-called tween years (another brilliant marketing scheme — snort), I’ll enjoy my victories against Madison Avenue while I can.

  13. Oh, and btw, here in our crunchy-granola community, there are plenty of boys who monopolized the toy kitchens in preschool and kindergarten (housekeeping the all-time favorite end-of-day center in all three kindergarten classrooms, for boys and girls alike), and while the boys may not all play with dolls (although plenty do), there seem to be a lot of well-cared-for stuffed animals in boys’ bedrooms around town.

    Babies are hard-wired to respond to their caretakers’ cues about acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, and since most of us have to fight pretty deep-seated assumptions about what’s good and bad for boys and girls, and none of us live on deserted islands, I’m far less inclined to think that “boys will be boys” or “girls will be girls” is as purely biological as everyone seems to want to assert at this particular cultural moment in time. Rare are the babies who grow up free of the messages of their cultures.

  14. I’m not sure I have anything to say other than what has been written above (you have some rockin’ commenters indeed!)– it is so clear to me, from reading your blog, what amazing and thoughtful parents you are. It is clear that you strive to be conscious about every decision involving Natalie and your parenting and I feel certain that with parents like the two of you, Natalie will grow up feeling safe to express who she truly is (even if that changes from moment to moment)– what a gift.

  15. Not all Princess things are bad. Princess Diana literally changed people’s lives. Princess Fiona kicks all manner of a$$ (in all Shrek movies). There are lessons to learn from all sides of life, even from Disney Princesses who teach the virtues of Kindness and Honesty. And sometimes a happy ending is A) completely realistic and B) a good balance to having something crappy happen in your life. None of these are good reasons to avoid pink or princess costumes, I think. πŸ™‚

  16. Hmm… I think with my girl children, I’ll encourage them to dress up in any way they choose… but I will work to teach them that there are all kinds of women, and princessing is NOT required! They can dress cutesy if they want, I probably will just roll my eyes and move on.

    Also, I will teach them that princesses are cute and all…. but QUEENS have the power!!!!! Bwahahahaha

  17. First-time commenter, and late to boot πŸ˜‰

    When I was 3, I went through a total princess phase, too. Frilly pink dresses and tights, princess costumes in every (pastel) color of the rainbow…

    By 13, though, I was incredibly cynical, alarmingly misanthropic, and described the majority of network TV as “misogynistic”.

    I’m not sure this is reassuring, but I think I turned out the way I did regardless of external influences. Though having supportive parents was definitely a benefit πŸ˜€

    (P.S. The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch is still one of my favorite books… I remember my aunt reading it to me, hoping to knock some sense into my pink-loving head-she was a little less moderate :D)

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