Laurie Toby Edison

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Turning the Princess Narrative Sideways

Lynne Murray and Debbie say:

Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, blogs about her struggle with the creeping princess contagion:

When I first started writing about the Disney Princesses, people assumed my beef was with the girl waiting around to be rescued by the handsome prince. But honestly? I don’t get that passive vibe from little girls playing princess or from the merchandise sold  them. For instance: how often do you see a prince doll at Toys’R’Us?

No, today’s princess is not about romance: it’s more about entitlement. I call it “girlz power” because when you see that “z” (as in Bratz, Moxie Girlz, Ty Girlz, Disney Girlz) you know you’ve got trouble.  Girlz power  sells self-absorption as the equivalent of self confidence and tells girls that female empowerment, identity, independence should be expressed through narcissism and commercialism.

Orenstein is halfway on to something here, but she doesn’t take it far enough. “Girlz” is a commoditized and commercialized version of “grrrls,” as in riot grrrls (and it’s not hard to find “riot girlz” in uncommodified contexts on Google). The motivation behind the new spelling was to break the old associations with the word “girls” (at that time, more about passive romance than about privilege and entitlement) and to create a new identity:

Young women involved in underground music scenes took advantage of this to articulate their feminist thoughts and desires through creating punk-rock fanzines and forming garage bands. The political model of collage-based, photocopied handbills and booklets was already used by the punk movement as a way to activate underground music, leftist politics and alternative (to mainstream) sub-cultures. Many women found that while they identified with a larger, music-oriented subculture, they often had little to no voice in their local scenes, so they took it upon themselves to represent their own interests by making their own fanzines, music and art.

The insidious ability of capitalism to take any radical idea, commoditize it and thus defang it, then came into play. It’s easy to imagine a board room conversation in which the (mostly male) executives decide that “grrrls” looks a little violent, but “girlz” has almost the same power and is catchy besides. And fewer people will mis-spell it. And it makes trademarking easier than trademarking something with “girls” in the title.

Thus, young women’s rage gets silently transformed into profit-making ventures which build, encourage and reward, as Orenstein says, “narcissism and commercialism.”

So what’s left for a parent to do?

I’ve mentioned here before that I’m not a graphically gifted person but still remember standing in a tiny little crafts store in Fairbanks, Alaska in the 1950s asking my parents to buy me a Paint by Number kit. The store owner said, “You could just get paints and paint your own picture.” At the time my father pointed out that the store sold local artists’ work and I think he guessed that  the Paint by Numbers fad probably drove the owner and probably the other artists up the wall.

Even though I now paint pictures with words, this moment having a grownup suggest personal creativity over slavish imitation, influenced me. Adult intervention and encouragement can make a difference.

Aya de Leon presents a strategy in this interview by shosho at Mothership Hackermoms, describing a creative way to confront the overwhelmingly pervasive princess myths.

Last year, when my daughter was not quite two, we loved to go to this Salvadoran restaurant that had plenty of toys and books for families with toddlers.

As I sat on the couch by the kids’ table, my daughter handed me a board book about the size of my palm:  Disney’s Snow White.  The classic story was cut down to just eight pages, but it was the usual gist:  Sweet princess, evil queen, apple, sleeping forever, kiss from the prince.  You know the drill.  This was before my daughter could even say the word princess.  I was in charge.  I had the power to define her world.  Maybe that’s why, without a shred of defeat, I just offered up an alternative freestyle narrative to the pictures.

As the restaurant activities bustled around us, it was as if my daughter and I were in a little bubble of our own. I looked at the first picture, and tried to imagine a caption where the princess was a badass instead of a sweet young thing.  I took a breath, and said the first thing that came to my mind: “Snow White was an animal rights activist…”  With no one to contradict me, my daughter accepted my version and we turned the page.

With each new photo, I freestyled an alternative storyline.

De Leon’s freestyle Snow White narrative and a few other empowered princess stories can be read here. They made me laugh–and think! And they apply equally well to fighting the someday-my-prince-will-come narrative and the I-deserve-the-most-expensive-accessories narrative.

Clearly, parents who have daughters enthralled with the princess myths are involved in a serious cultural wrestling match with commercial giants. De Leon is up to the struggle. Here’s her conclusion about the power of personal intervention:

I can’t help but believe that re-writing the Disney stories aloud will help my daughter become a freestyler herself.  I just want to encourage her in the business of making up the lyrics to her own life.

Yes, one day my daughter will learn to read and she will watch television shows and movies.  But she won’t have me co-signing on each of those insane messages, she won’t have me passively accepting the narrative like a kiss on a sleeping woman’s lips.

Thanks to Natalie Boero, author of Killer Fat: Media, Medicine, and Morals in the American “Obesity Epidemic,” for the pointer to the de Leon post.

3 Responses to “Turning the Princess Narrative Sideways”

  1. Lynne Murray Says:

    Oops, a bit of confusion on the links. The Hackermom interview is great but it’s about fiction for adults (among other things). The quotes from Aya de Leon on defusing Disney stories are at http://bitchmagazine.org/post/my-emcee-battle-against-the-disney-princesses-feminist-mom

  2. Laurie Toby Edison Says:

    I love De Leon’s free style stories. When my daughters were little we did running commentary. Just as useful but not as much fun.

  3. Janet Lafler Says:

    I’ve done the same kind of thing, and I hope it’s helped blunt the effect of this overwhelming stream of crap. The “Mad Libs” approach to reading these stories is fun for parents, too. You can never be sure how much effect this has, but when Alice got interested in the “Rainbow Magic” fairy books, I discovered that she and her friends (K-1 girls) were playing inventive games and making up all sorts of weird fanfic about the Rainbow Magic world. My favorite moment was when Alice told me that Pearl, the Cloud Fairy (her favorite fairy) was going to have a baby. I asked if the baby had a dad and she said “No, fairies can make their own sperm.”

    I think the impact of peers is pretty significant, and can be hard to manage. When Alice was in preschool, she had some friends who were into the Disney Princesses and she went along with the trend to some degree. We watched a couple of the movies, but she never wanted to see any of them more than once, and when a friend put on The Little Mermaid during a playdate, Alice lost interest about halfway through. Then in her K-1 classroom Disney princesses were very much out, and whatever interest she had faded quickly. Rainbow Magic was the fad, but at least the plots are all adventure/rescue, with no romance, and much less emphasis on merch (aside from the books themselves). She recently told me that she had advanced from fairies to unicorns, so maybe this obsession is finally ended; in a few years I may even reveal to her that there are some very good books about fairies…..

    Interestingly, there is enough of an anti-pink backlash in our little corner of the world that when Matt was having a birthday present wrapped for a friend of Alice’s, the people at the store asked if he wanted to avoid pink wrapping paper!

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