Ever since Jackson watched Shrek the Third he has been curious about princesses. There's a scene in the movie where Fiona bands together with Snow White, Cinderella, Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty to escape from the jail they were put in by Prince Charming (subliminal feminist message, yes?). They proceed to try to rescue Shrek by breaking in to the castle. Snow White distracts the guards by singing a soothing song while all the forest animals gather around her. Once she has lulled them into a trance, she quickly changes her tune to Led Zepplin's "Immigrant Song" and instructs the forest animals to attack the tree guards. The other princesses proceeds to use their stereotypical femininity to break into the castle. Cinderella uses her glass slipper (which has never been a slipper but is a high heel) as a boomerang, Sleeping Beauty pretends to fall asleep in front of some of the guards and trips them, and even the "Ugly Stepsister" joins in by showing off her legs to distract more guards before she punches them. As a feminist these scenes made me giddy. I was like "YES! Finally some images of strong capable girls/women". Unfortunately, this portrayal of princesses is one of a kind.
This movie encouraged Jackson's interest in Disney Princesses and as you can guess, the other videos of Disney Princesses showed the stereotypes we've grown to know and I dread. He's even asked me to get him a princess toy for Christmas. Lately he's fixated on Princess Jasmine. He asked to speak to her so he could ask her why she wears a shirt that shows her belly button. I came up with the idea to get my best friend Lisa to pretend to be Jasmine on the phone. She came up with the brilliant dodge that the reason she doesn't cover her belly button is because she has an itchy belly button and needs to air it out. Here's to awesome best friends who understand you and are there to pitch in when needed. (On a side note, he also asked her what toys she played with as a little girl, what she liked to eat and drink, and who here favorite Sesame Street character was.)
So here is my dilemma. I want to encourage Jackson's interest in female characters, but all the ones he's finding are filled with traditional gender roles and stereotypes. I heard him singing one of the songs from Sophia the First when he was playing yesterday including the line "I want to be the most beautiful girl and walk in the sun". Right there he's learned that women's value is in their beauty. So where can I find more examples of positive female characters? I've told him that not all girls are "princesses" but I need visuals to show him what that means. He likes Dora and Olivia but now that we got rid of cable he doesn't get to see them often. We watched Doc McStuffins on YouTube a few times after he discovered her in the store but he hasn't quite gotten in to that show yet. Thank goodness for A Mighty Girl for gathering and creating positive images of girls for my boys (and all other kids) to see.
Geena Davis has said that "You can't be what you don't see" and created the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media to work toward showing more and positive girls in the media. Giving our children different, more positive portrayals of girls will not only teach girls that they can be whoever they want to be and don't have to fit in to a tiny pink box, but it will also teach boys not to expect girls to fit that stereotype which limits their potential. The whole "Princess Culture", a term I recently learned about at the National Women's Studies Association Conference (check out pictures from my trip here), makes little girls want everything handed to them without responsibility, teaching them to be dependent on a man to come and save the day and take care of them instead of how to go out and get what they need themselves. It also teaches boys that they should be the knight in shining armor that slays the dragon and wins the princess who he must then protect like a child.
Jackson has already, unfortunately, been exposed to the negative and stereotypical gender roles aimed at boys because of the toys that are marketed to him. You know what I'm talking about, the "tough guise"/"machismo" stereotypes that tell boys and men they have to be tough, use violence to solve problems and conquer the world. I'm quite aware that part of the way to prevent him from learning those negative, limiting gender roles is to control what he sees and is exposed to. It is an ongoing struggle to keep the negative influences away from him. It feels like I'm in the middle of a field standing over him and we're surrounded by archers from all sides with limitless arrows shooting them at us and all I have is a teeny tiny shield to protect him. It's not just the marketers that I have to shield him from, its also his peers at schools who know nothing else but the stereotypes they've been taught and everyone in his family who don't think certain things are "that bad" because that's what they or boys they knew played with as a child. When you're the only one in your family who has unlearned all these gender roles and stereotypes and knows how to identify them, you sort of become the villain when you don't want to buy your son Transformers and Batman because "they're just toys". It is very awkward for me when loved ones very thoughtfully bring him clothes that he needs and then discover that they have aggressive messages, characters or animals on them. How do you explain that to someone who hasn't studied gender roles and stereotypes the way that I have. I try my best to explain it but most of the time I feel like they just think I'm being overprotective and ridiculous. Just once I would love for my family to think "hey, this has a negative stereotype so maybe I should get him something else". I don't want to look a gift horse in the mouth, but it is my responsibility (and also my husband's) to ensure that Jackson and Myles grow up to be good men who make a positive contribution to society and treat everyone with respect.
So this holiday season I will be starting early (although not as early as some...seriously, the day after Halloween?) and doing my research for toys to get him (while not buying him way too much and spoiling him) that promote positive/healthy masculinity and femininity. I'll let you know what I find along the way. I know I'm not the only one considering this issue. A recent post on Buzzfeed featured a very clever political cartoonist who showed us what it would look like if some of our most famous strong women throughout history were portrayed as princesses to show how ridiculous and limiting the whole princess culture is.
Is anyone else experiencing something like this? Have any of you found positive toys for both girls and boys?