January 30 2012
Why Can't Girls Just Be Girls?
While much of the radical feminism of the 1960s and '70s has fallen by the wayside, some dangerous flotsam and jetsam trail in its wake -- namely, a robust effort to muzzle imaginative play for girls.
This is the message behind a new, anti-Disney princess picture making the rounds on Facebook. The image showcases six Disney princesses with feminist annotations of each fairytale. For instance, next to Cinderella, it reads: "If you're beautiful enough, you may be able to escape your terrible living conditions by getting a wealthy man to fall for you." And next to Belle it says, "Appearances don't matter; what counts is what's in your heart. Unless you're the girl."
Certainly some of the earliest Disney princesses are out of date. Watching Snow White -- practically a child -- in the 1937 movie tirelessly cook and clean (always with a song and smile) for a houseful of men is enough to make the most conservative among us uncomfortable. But, to be fair, most women no longer really view that image of femininity as a threat.
Still, most of the princess stories are far from one-dimensional. Belle, an avid reader, is uninterested in the most "desirable" male suitor in town -- much to the chagrin of all the other women. Ariel, the Little Mermaid, an avid collector, is eager to break out of the water to explore the world on land, forbidden from her by her father, the King.
Noticeably absent from the image making its way around the internet is Princess Tiana, the African American star who defeats poverty and sexism in Disney's most recent princess movie, The Princess and the Frog. In fact, Tiana comes as close to the feminist-ideal as one can expect out of Disney movie -- a young woman too busy planning her career to find love! Of course, a central lesson of the movie is for women and men to seek balance in their lives. Tiana is so focused on her work, that she's lost site of the importance of love and friendship. Her eventual prince, on the other hand, is so focused on frivolity that he has lost site of the importance and value of hard work. In then end they not only find each other, but also find a balance in life together, striking at the heart of what modern feminism too often misses altogether.
Of course this attack on girl-play isn't limited to princesses. Sadly, it's aimed at any form of imaginative play that relies on girl's innate preference for all-things pink and fancy. The feminist activist group Sparkrecently launched a campaign to protest a new line of pastel-colored LEGOs marketed for young girls. It turns out girls like LEGOs, too, but on average, they're more interested in building things like a house, a bakery, or a salon rather than a train depot or a skyscraper. The end result -- developing spatial reasoning, construction, and fine motor skills -- is the same as with the original LEGOs, but the colors and designs are oriented toward girls.
I have to admit when Peggy Orenstein released her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter last year, it gave me pause. As the mother of two princess-obsessed daughters, I wondered if, perhaps, I should be more concerned about the rise of the "pink and pretty" culture Orenstein laments. Am I simply feeding the "girlie-girl" ethos by enrolling my daughters in ballet, throwing a Cinderella birthday party, and playing "salon" with them? Or, perhaps, I'm simply allowing them to enjoy the frilly -- and even frivolous -- side of girlhood that Danielle Crittenden suggests, "is part of the eternal female condition."
Today feminists are grasping for straws, insisting that equality means that we cannot accept differences between the sexes. Certainly as a mother I'm concerned with providing my children -- our daughters and our son -- with balance; but I don't want to deny any of them those instincts or interests that come naturally -- whether it's princesses or trucks. In the end, men and women -- boys and girls -- are different, and they have different preferences, aptitudes, and interests.
In a world where women don't think twice about putting off marriage and children in favor of their education and careers; where women make up more than 50 percent of the workforce; where women earnmore B.A.'s, M.A.'s, and Ph.D.'s than men; and where women are soaring to the top of nearly every professional field, it seems fair to conclude that the "pretty in pink" culture so many girls enjoy is not a threat to women's long-term success.
Perhaps the most pernicious part of the modern feminist movement is the idea that girls shouldn't be girls. But conflating equality with uniformity isn't the answer. Because, in the end, to be different is what sets us apart.