There’s No Such Thing as Girls’ Toys and Boys’ Toys

We’ve had a lot to say about princesses, Disney-style and otherwise, during this past week. Our relationship to princesses is as much about our personal identities as it is about the social messages about princesses that come from both popular culture and corporations. Throughout it all, I think the essential question that nags at us is this:  What does it mean to be a girl?

The answer is complex and is generated by each and every one of us, females and males, kids and grownups, authors and artists, movie studios and toy companies. The social construction of girlhood in general and princesshood in particular is like a crazy funhouse mirror maze in which we all project and view different images, simultaneously trying to figure out which ones we like, which ones we don’t, and which ones we actually resemble.

Although I have these kinds of conversations with my friends all the time, I was astonished to have a chat about gender, toys, and marketing with a Disney representative the other day. Several weeks ago I bought my son a gift on Disney’s online shopping portal. Some time passed and I received an email with an invitation to take a survey about my shopping experience. I take those surveys. Every time. It’s easy enough to kvetch about things you don’t like, but corporations are not mind readers. They need actual feedback and your views can’t be considered if you never voice them.

I voiced my opinion. Overall, I like their website, it was super easy to find what I needed, and I was happy with the quality of the product I ordered. The only thing I had to say that wasn’t positive was a small comment about the gendered nature of the toys. I can’t stand the way they are categorized as toys for girls and toys for boys. In response, I received an email asking if I would mind providing my phone number so that they could talk to me more about this. Really?  I was game, and after a couple of missed calls, I found myself on the receiving end of a call from Disney’s presidential service team.

I expected someone who was either disengaged from the issue or a corporate representative who was in some way going to try to continue to sell me on Disney despite my concerns. That is not what I got. The man on the other end of the phone sounded like he actually understood.

“I think girls should be more empowered to play with active toys,”  I said. “I agree!”  he replied. And so it went, even when I explained that I wanted my son to feel more comfortable with toys typically marketed to girls.

Now, I’m not naïve enough to think that Disney’s entire corporate structure is going to change as a result of this call. I recognize that more than any other company that markets to children, Disney has mastered the art of making its customers feel cherished and welcome. In fact, when people ask me what it was like to spend a day undercover with a cult (true story), I often explain that it was a lot like being on a cruise ship or at Disney World. Everyone makes you feel loved and welcome and snuggly inside. To draw you in. And get your money.

Photo: Jessamyn

Nevertheless, I was very impressed at the effort that was put into a small comment that reflected a big thought. I’ve always told my son that there is no such thing as girls’ toys and boys’ toys. Toys are just toys. I wish that marketers would consider this too, and stop playing such a strong role in defining gender for our children. I had the chance to say that to Disney, and hung up the phone pleasantly surprised.

On such small pebbles are castles built. Perhaps even castles with self-rescuing princesses.

Review:The Princess Knight by Cornelia Funke

Book cover image Chicken House Publishing

On one of our trips to the library last summer my daughter was pulling books off the shelf willy nilly and asking to take each and every one home. She loves to read and in her mind there was no reason that she couldn’t read all those books. I limited her to 10 books because that was how many I could keep up with and not lose. There is a notorious story in our family from when I was a child about a library book being lost for seven years. Yes, you read that right. At least we did find it and return it. Eventually.

While she was carefully choosing her books from the pile, the title of one caught my eye. The Princess Knight by Cornelia Funke. We aren’t princess freaks, but she does like to dress up and pretend play, so I thought a princess book with that title would probably have some redeeming qualities other than needing to be rescued by someone else. I thumbed through it quickly and added it to her stash. Thus she got to check out 11 books because one was for mommy.

The author introduces us to Violetta, who is the youngest child and only girl. Her mother dies in childbirth, which unfortunately happens a lot in these stories, and her father is left to raise her alone. Or at least with the help of a nursemaid. Since the King doesn’t know what to do with a girl, he decides to teach her the same lessons he taught his three older boys: jousting, fighting, and how to give orders. While she is encouraged to try typical female pursuits of the time such as needlepoint, she is also allowed to be trained in combat like her brothers. Her brothers tease her mercilessly, and Violetta is so small in stature it is difficult for her to keep up with them. Her nursemaid tells her that while she may not be as strong, she is much smarter than the boys. Through Violetta’s persistence and sneakiness, she trains in secret at night until she is able to keep up with the boys easily. When she turns sixteen, a tournament is held for those seeking her hand in marriage. Not to ruin the ending but Violetta is less than pleased with this turn of events and ends up taking matters into her own hands.

The illustrator for this book, Kerstin Meyer, took inspiration from the Bayeux Tapestry when illustrating this story, which makes for a nice historical teaching moment.  While some of the views in this book are more to the time period of the story, such as when her nursemaid tells her to stop learning “silly fighting” and learn something useful such as embroidery or weaving, this is a small part of the story and was also an interesting teaching moment for my daughter. She didn’t get how those things were useful — and certainly didn’t understand why Violetta wouldn’t want to do what the boys were doing. The story does a good job balancing the typical woman’s plight during the medieval era with a modern day sense of women taking care of themselves. Violetta is a fabulous self rescuing princess that extols the virtues of courage, independence, and persistence. My daughter loved this book and so did I.

Disney Gives Princesses The Boot

At the end of last year, just before the holidays, Disney announced that they would cease making princess movies. Women around the world took in a collective gasp, some of relief and others of horror. The era of the Disney princess was drawing to a close.

The actual statement made by Disney executives says fairy tale movies, but since the majority of Disney’s fairy tale movies have revolved around princesses, it means practically the same thing. Especially when you read further and learn the reason they are putting princesses aside: Boys won’t see movies with icky girls in them, and Disney does not want to risk alienating any boys.

I will pause long enough for you all to bang your heads against your desk. Feel better? Yeah, it didn’t work for me either.

Women often have a conflicted relationship with the princess, ranging from fond remembrance, outright loathing, and the old love/hate thing. GeekMoms are no exception. For the next few days, a number of us are going to be weighing in with thoughts as the princess makes her final appearance on the big screen.

While the adult part of me is somewhat happy to move beyond the frilly dresses, glitz, and helplessness of the princess, the child in me mourns her passing. When I was young, princesses were only an occasional indulgence. My exposure was limited to the rare outing to the kid-friendly movie and the even rarer trip to Disneyland itself. That actually worked out perfectly because, instead of being bombarded with an already assembled and prepackaged princess mythos, I got to make up a lot of it as I went along. My most vivid memory of playing princess has me dressed in the fanciest thing I owned, a red nylon nightgown with puffed sleeves and rows and rows of ruffles on the neckline. Alas, I had no glass slippers, but I did have a pair of white ankle-high go-go boots. Nor was I particularly pining for Prince Charming to come along; I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of Spock (thus being way ahead of the curve on mash ups.)

As a parent, I only have sons so I honestly don’t know how I would have felt raising daughters with so much princess merchandise, DVDs, TV shows, and media tie-in books everywhere they looked. I imagine the 24/7 princess onslaught would have been a bit daunting. Perhaps the true villain in this tale is mass merchandising, rather than the innocent princess.

Although perhaps not. The princess in pop culture has taken on all sorts of unpleasant characteristics: She is vain, materialistic, shallow, and far too focused on catching the attention of Prince Charming, often at horrifying cost to herself. Not to mention the whole helpless-and-needs-to-be-saved thing.

Historically, real princesses were privileged but powerless, often nothing more than pawns in their fathers’ political aspirations and machinations, a way to cement new alliances and bridge old feuds. And let’s not forget—give birth to the next generation of the dynasty.

However, if you go back to the early folktales, the ones that Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm drew from, you will find that it was the heroine’s own quick wit, intelligence, and cleverness that allowed her to effect her own rescue. Long before Disney came on the scene, the princess’s role was being diminished in fairy tale retellings.

“Sleeping Princess” by Viktor Vasnetsov Wikimedia Commons

For all that there is not to like about princesses, princess stories also have a hugely important role in a child’s development. Fairy tales, like the myths that preceded them, codify and teach on a subconscious level. As Bruno Bettleheim explains in his book THE USES OF ENCHANTMENT, kids need to see undesirable behaviors at work in order to understand how wrong they are, but in a way that is far removed from their own selves. It is too overwhelming to recognize one’s own narcissism, much easier to see it in an evil queen who is threatening an innocent figure the child identifies with: the princess.

Even the most passive of princesses, Sleeping Beauty, conveys an important truth to today’s kids: sometimes in order to grow and move forward, we must accept moments of quiet and inner focus. Usually not as dramatic as a hundred year nap, but still. Huge growth is often preceded by periods of inactivity, even lethargy. Beauty from Beauty and the Beast not only rejects rank materialism for a simple rose, but experiences the rewards of looking beyond the surface to the richer depths below.

Cinderella’s problem with her stepsisters captures an essential truth about the daunting experience of being overshadowed by one’s siblings. It is the perfect mirror of many children’s feelings of having their chores be the dirtiest, dullest, most thankless and least appreciated. And what child hasn’t felt as voiceless as the Little Mermaid?

Fairy tales are rife with these sorts of hidden messages, a subconscious telegraph to the psyche. And before feminists everywhere scream at me, that is the point, I would like to point out that what is developmentally appropriate at five or six may seem downright creepy at twenty-five. Look at the sheer number of adults who were seriously creeped out by SpongeBob SquarePants or the Teletubbies. That is the beauty of good literature and stories—we take what we need from them based on our developmental needs.

There seems to me to be two problems pop culture princess. The first is that a lot of the negativity associated with princess has nothing to do with the princess characters themselves, but rather the word has, like b!tch, become a catchall used for the vain, shallow, materialistic, passive, and narcissistic.

The second problem with princesses seems to me one of arrested development: today’s princess never moves far beyond the Orphan stage of her archetypal journey. The orphan stage is all about fear of abandonment, looking for safety, wishing for rescue, wanting a caretaker. It’s all about quick fixes, the easy life, little responsibility. Of course, it is not only girls who spend time in this stage of human development, but popular culture geared toward younger girls focuses so much on the princess that it overshadows everything else.

However, whether you love princesses or hate them, the biggest reason princess movies are important is that they convey that girls can be heroes of their own BIG story. That girls’ interests and concerns are just as deserving of big screen time as boys’ interests and concerns. My biggest worry with Disney’s farewell to princesses is, what will step in to fill that gap in popular culture? My fear is—nothing.

Where will girls see themselves in today’s films? Where will their unique issues and interests be addressed? Where are the movies that will show young girls as the hero? This taps into the phenomenon that girls are expected to be satisfied with a steady diet of ‘boy fare’ whereas boys cannot possibly be expected to endure a single girl movie.

What if, instead of deciding princess stories were too uninteresting to inflict upon boys, studios and directors and producers worked to create stories that captured the original mythic underpinnings of fairy tales and broadened their appeal. Let’s show the heroine journeying beyond the innocent and the orphan stage into maturity, experience, and—especially—the warrior. And while it’s true that now more than ever, there are a huge variety of strong, clever girls (including princesses) in books, none of them are making it to the big screen—and won’t if studios persist on believing that a movie staring a girl won’t be interesting to boys.

Clearly I have just touched the tip of this huge subject and we invite you to joint us in our week long conversation as we discuss the pros and cons of princesses, talk about why we love or loathe them, and how we see their role in today’s culture!