My daughter is not a feminist. She is an almost-three-year-old tornado whose favorite color is blue, but who enjoys dressing in pink and purple tulle and dancing around, proclaiming, "I'm a PRINcess!"
To which I respond, invariably: "You are always a princess, because you're smart, and beautiful, and kind." (Or some drek-y thing along those lines.) Because, really, what else can you say that is uncomplicated enough for a well-indoctrinated three-year-old girl to understand?
We don't have TV in my house. She doesn't watch many movies, and most of the ones she's seen involve Dora or Kai-Lan. We've dressed her in hand-me-downs since birth, sifting through the piles to find the items of clothing that are most innocuous (no leopard print spandex, thanks). Still, she has more shoes than Emelda Marcos (well, at least more shoes than I do), a closet full of clothing (of which only three or four outfits are acceptable), and a fondness for Disney. She has to function on a preschool playground, and princess knowledge is playground currency. My daughter is savvy; it's not surprising that she picked up and now uses the currency she needs.
Understandably, she was interested to learn that her friend would be having a birthday party at which Cinderella was going to make an appearance.
We arrived at the party, she dressed in a frilly purple number from her dress-up box. Her friend, dressed in a blue Cinderella ball gown, hugged her fondly and ushered her into the basement. And for a while, it was a standard happy pre-K party, with a small bouncy house in the basement, and a miniature trampoline, and kids running amok.
Until Cinderella arrived.
Credit: Erik (Hash) Hersman.
N's friend, who had previously been animated and talkative, stood dumbstruck, her little eyes wide, her mouth hanging open. Cinderella proceeded to make much of her, then invited the kids to come forward for "makeup" (face painting), informing them that "princesses need makeup." I restrained myself, thankful that my daughter didn't want any, despite everyone's encouragement. "It's ok," I reassured her. "You don't have to if you don't want to."
Then there were lessons in waving in curtsying and twirling around to "show off your dress" for the girls (yes, seriously), while there were lessons in bowing, showing off your muscles, and a primal yell of "charge!" for the boys. For the whole group, there was a story about Cinderella going to visit a girls' boarding school, where she was going to choose one lucky girl to be a princess for a day. And finally, a coronation ceremony, with sequined tiaras for the girls, and full crowns for the boys.
To say that I was grateful to see Cinderella go would be an understatement. After we paraded upstairs to eat pizza (which my daughter would not eat, because pizza is "yuck"), and cake (which she also would not eat, because she doesn't like cake), and strawberries (which she devoured), we took our leave, too. And when I asked my daughter what she liked most about the party later, she told me, matter-of-fact-ly, to my relief: "the strawberries."
I will not be inviting Cinderella to my daughter's birthday party. I'm not anti-Disney; I think that princess play can be fun. I played my share of "princess" in my youth; usually there were three of us, and the unlucky one with the short straw got to be the wicked witch who lived in the woods, and who was vanquished through our magical powers.
But that's just it. We weren't playing a princess game in which makeup and dresses and waving and curtsying were important. We played at a game that involved establishing and tapping our own powers, not relying on a fairy godmother and a dress to get us into a ball where we can show up the ugly (and admittedly, unkind) stepsisters. So when I see things like the recent Chronicle of Higher Education article on how women's leadership in academe remains largely unchanged, and another article in Nature about gender disparities in science, and an NPR commentary on how women's representation on corporate boards remains unchanged, I start to wonder where, as a nation, we are going wrong.
As princesses in the woods of my neighbor's back yard, we were not playing in a male-dominated world. We were playing in our world, by our rules. And now, we're not playing there any more. As adults, we continue to create a world that is not equal. The same people who are encouraging Cinderella to be our daughters' first idol may not realize that they are perpetuating a culture that places the U.S. 23rd in the Global Gender Gap rankings. It may surprise those people to learn that the U.S. ranks 60th -- below India, China, and Uganda -- in terms of political empowerment, and that U.S. women also still struggle with a significant wage gap, making an average of 77 cents to every dollar that men make, that African-American women make an average of 64 cents to a man’s dollar, and that Latina women make 55 cents.
I continue to be frustrated by what I read. I know one thing for sure, which I've written here before: Leaning in isn't enough. We can and should raise daughters (and sons) who can speak up for themselves, who are willing to make choices, who have high aspirations. We can't send them mixed messages about what we value, and we have to believe what we tell them, modeling it for them ourselves. But we also need to change the adult world we're preparing them for, because we can't expect them to change it for us.
What will your first step be?
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