A few days after I posted the aforementioned claims, I wrote a piece for The Atlantic chronicling my struggle to keep Disney Princesses from taking over my kids' lives. I wrote it under the influence of some frustration and quite a bit of self-inflicted pressure to make a strong argument; and then, after submitting it, I actually tried to get the editor to kill the piece. She talked me down, though, and we changed it a lot, getting rid of some of the more contentious aspects. What was left was kind of my standard rant on princess culture, and I didn't think anyone would pay attention to it, since that stuff has been hashed out a million times before.
Not surprisingly to me, since I have accepted that I will never figure out the internet, the princess story got more attention than anything I've ever published before [see also: the spoof video I spent all of 20 minutes shooting and editing], getting hundreds of (often irate) comments, and thousands of shares on social media. A writer from the snarky feminist website Jezebel even wrote a response to my article, and so did a bunch of other bloggers. Most of them told me to chill. I was interviewed for Canadian public radio. I appeared on HuffPost Live with a bunch of smart people. Who would have known?
The only meaningful upshot of becoming known as the Dad Who Hates Princesses is that I have grown much more conscientious about providing my girls with alternative fuel for their imaginations, instead of buckling under the weight of my own laziness and accepting the default "girl" toys, books, videos, etc. While they still wear their princess costumes often, and play with their princess dolls daily (rarely adhering to the prescribed Disney narratives, I'm happy to say), I don't think we've read a princess book or watched Cinderella more than a couple times in the last three weeks. That is a dramatic lifestyle change for us.
I received plenty of positive feedback about the princess article, of course, but the rebuttals were much more passionate. As they tend to be. Of the myriad criticisms, two of the most common were: "You are a mean hypocrite to not allow your kids to follow their own interests in the name of protecting them from societal and commercial coercion," and "You're the parent--don't act like you have no control over what they're exposed to." Those are both valid points, I guess, although I think a careful reading of the article would not leave the impression that I was trying to implement a total princess ban: I just want to stop the princesses from taking over completely, so that there's room for other ideas in the girls' heads. As for the "parent up" advice--fair enough. Ultimately, I've got no one to blame but myself for letting the princesses run roughshod (glass-shod?) over us. But if this episode has done nothing else, it's strengthened my resolve to expose my daughters to as many different areas of interest as I can.
My wife and I have been doing a pretty good job of redirecting their princess obsession lately. I'm especially excited that they love their new books about the planets and dinosaurs, and that today we sat on the couch and read straight through the 80+ pages of my favorite childhood book, Fantastic Mr. Fox. [Which, I realized upon reading for the first time in years, is pretty grim and casually sexist.]
While I admit that people who said I overstated both my powerlessness against the ubiquity of the princess culture and the danger of its gender-normalization have a point, I have talked to a number of parents (many online, and one I just happened to meet at a shopping mall, of all places) whose experiences suggest that my concern isn't totally misplaced. The mom I met at the mall had a story similar to several I've heard before: Her preschool-aged daughter has no interest in princesses or anything pink or frilly, and is socially isolated because of it. Other little girls say that she's not really a girl because she wears the wrong kinds of clothes and plays with the wrong kinds of toys, and they won't let her hang out with them. This little "tomboy" is happy to play with boys, but her mom--an engineer who is all about raising kids who don't hew to traditional gender norms--has been encouraging her to wear more pink just so she won't be ostracized by the girls. I have absolutely no fear of my girls being shunned by their peers for not being girly enough. They play almost exclusively with girls at preschool, and have even started making generalizations about boys ("there are bad boys at school"..."we don't like boys"). They are fitting in well in that respect, which is comforting to some extent, but doesn't make me feel any better about the kids who don't conform to gender expectations. As much as I resist believing in the "mean girl" trope, which posits that even the youngest girls are genetically programmed to be catty, I can't deny that, even in our enlightened, bully-conscious times, children who don't perform gender "correctly" pay a price.