The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Princesses, Barbies, Daughters, and Panics

As the soon-to-be father of a little girl, I have been very aware of the things about which I need to worry.  To what do I expose my child?  From what do I protect my child?  What elements of our popular culture are bad?  What elements are good?

Through all of this, I have noticed that, with children in general, but especially with girls, there is a tendency to allow what amounts to moral panic to inform many people's views of what is and is not good for children.  Specifically, in the case of girls, I see a good deal of moral panic about the alleged "princess culture."

The argument goes something like this:  by presenting the "princess" as a model for what women are supposed to be like, we are creating the expectation that they should be more concerned with physical beauty, meekness, conformity to social norms, and, importantly, "waiting for their prince" than with being dynamic, intelligent, creative, etc.

Does that sound familiar?

Let me describe another element of pop culture that is often criticized in a similar way:  by giving our daughters Barbie dolls, we are teaching them to loathe their own bodies for failing to measure up to an unrealistic (literally plastic) standard of beauty, to be more concerned with the acquisition of material goods than the cultivation of one's other attributes (it is common to point out that there is a Barbie dream house and pink Corvette, but not a Barbie research laboratory or library*).

The problem with the claim that Barbie is bad for young girls is that it has long been asserted, but never been demonstrated.  It is a narrative that grew out of academic and political discourses about how women are portrayed in the media and in popular culture, but one which was never tested or scrutinized, partially because it seemed to make intuitive sense, and partially because it fit with other narratives developing at the time.  In fact, when researchers at the University of Bath in the U.K. actually decided to look into how children play with Barbie dolls, they found that there was no reason to think that they viewed it any differently than any other toy, and there was no evidence that girls viewed the Barbie as being some sort of paragon of beauty, or in any other way special, as the narrative demands.  Now, one study, of course, does not settle any issue, but it is, to date, the only real evidence that exists concerning how children view Barbie dolls, and as such, it has a leg-up on the "Barbie is poisoning girls' minds" narrative.

The concern that I am hearing about the "princess cultures" seems to be very much the same thing.  I am told constantly that if I should allow my daughter to become interested in princess fairytales, or call her "princess", or in any other way allow her to buy into the princesses of popular culture, then I will be debilitating her and causing her to become a doormat for whatever misogynistic ass she meets down the road.

But, well, there's no data to support that.  It's just a claim, an untested hypothesis at best, and ideological assertion at worst.

And it's not something that I worry about.  My daughter will be raised by myself and her mother, a published author and someone who has helped yank a non-profit out of the black hole; and she will be exposed to her maternal grandmother, a high-ranking nurse in San Jose (and lest you think that a nurse is a subservient role, I will simply point to the amount of training, education, and general moxie that most nurses have); her paternal grandmother, a judge; her aunts, who include a graduate of Berkeley's Haas School of Business, a law school graduate, a professional photographer, and someone who has managed to hold down the fort while all the rest of the family went askew; my daughter will be exposed to her father's boss, a woman who has earned a PhD, runs a successful branch of a successful company, has traveled to fieldwork in Africa, and managed to raise a family.

In short, my daughter will be routinely exposed to intelligent, powerful, capable women.  I have no worry about positive female role models being around to show her that there are many ways to be a woman, and there is no need to be a floor mat to anyone.  The notion that my calling her "princess" as a term of endearment, or allowing her to watch children's movies about princess characters, or even play-act the role of a princess is somehow going to crowd out or diminish the actual women in her life seems, frankly, absurd.

Will it harm my daughter to not be exposed to this, at least not by her parents?  No.  And I have to admit that I dislike the idea of buying into the commercialization that comes with the dominant Disney brand of princess stuff (and I think that Kaylia and I would agree on that).  But the notion that this is somehow a massive, horrible force out to destroy our children, or even a major part of the social ills that we do, and will, face?  That's pretty absurd.

*For all I know, these could be available accessories, but this is the common accusation.


Narfi said...

While there are some people who say that girls shouldn't be allowed to play princesses, the much more common complaint I've heard (your experience may differ) is that they shouldn't be FORCED to. Girls should be ALLOWED to be knights, explorers or detectives.

I understand that you're unlikely to force your child into a princess role, but those people exist, and should be opposed.

Anthroslug said...

I've never heard anyone complain that children shouldn't be forced to play play princess, only that they shouldn't be allowed to.

Now, if it's a matter of not forcing them, then I can get on the bandwagon there. But the formulation that I keep hearing is much more absurd.

Allison said...

To me, the issue is not that the princesses will corrupt a little girl. Its more that they, and Barbie, and the other myriad representations of women girls play with are poor portrayals of women. They are offensive because of what they portray. I would want my daughter to be able to play with toys that don't represent stupid tropes about women Not in fear that it would harm her, but because they are offensive.

Anthroslug said...

Fair enough, and I have a similar revulsion to toys and tropes that, for example, portray Native Americans as "noble savages" or "primitives."

But the problem isn't that people don't want their children exposed to these things because they find it offensive or in some particular way problematic. That I get. Hell, I don't want to buy into this stuff because I find the way that it has been turned into a marketing scheme by Disney to be offensive.

The problem is that it is very common for people to assume that these things are harmful to the children themselves because of a popular narrative that simply doesn't recieve much critical evaluation.

Tannara Young said...

When I graduated from UCSC the president of my college gave a speech. I don't remember much about it except this one part where he talked about this subject raised here. He talked about being concerned that his daughter was given Barbies by extended family members, but that his concerns were put to rest after he took her up to San Francisco for a peace march/protest (this was around the start of the war in Iraq). That night when he went into her bed room to help her get ready for bed he found that the stuffed animals, led by Barbie, were marching though the bedroom chanting "The people, united, will never be defeated."

Anthroslug said...

So, Tannara, I remember us having a few conversations about strange times when our paths nearly crossed prior to us actually meeting in Santa Barbara...well, this is another one.

My friends Sarah and Kirin were graduating from UCSC that same year, and I was in the audience during that speech.

Narfi said...

"I've never heard anyone complain that children shouldn't be forced to play play princess"

That's why I said, "Your experience may differ".

Allison said...

I think the fear that the toys could effect young girls comes from the huge problem women have with body-image. There have been studies showing that after adolescent girls view images with models, their body image is lower. While there are probably other factors in our culture that contribute to this, I would say that how the media portrays women can be detrimental to young girls. So finding out what is harmful and what isn't is complex. Having women in their life they can look up to, as you say, is really important.I don't know of any studies that have to do with toys kids play with and body image so I tend to agree with you that people are over-reacting in some cases. But the fear is based in a real issue of body image for women in our society, and not completely irrational.

Anthroslug said...

I agree that there are real issues that need to be dealt with. However, when we focus our attention on what we think to be causes without doing the work to determine what, if any, role those things actually play, we are more likely than not going to waste energy and resources tilting at windmills, leaving the actual problem essentially untouched. Worse, by attacking the wrong things, people can actually make the legitimate efforts to improve things look bad.

So, for example, you cite the research on media portrayals of women. Arguing in favor of changing the media portrayal of women to a more realistic (at least physiologically realistic) representation of women is probably helpful, based on research done on the issue. However, in the public mind, and in political discussions, this legitimate argument tends to get lumped in with people who upset over things that either are or appear to be irrelevant to the larger issue, which serves to give the people who don't want a change a rhetorical tool that is very effective, based on my admittedly anecdotal experience, in painting the people to whom they are opposed as over-reacting and therefore not to be taken seriously.

A good comparison from my professional life would be the fact that I (and most of my colleagues) recognize that we can't save every site, so we argue for a reasonable effort to determine which sites are eligible for preservation and which are not based on a set of criteria spelled out in federal and state law. However, we are routinely lumped in with people who will not accept that a site might be damaged in order to build necessary infrastructure. As a result, it is a rare project where I do not find myself involved in some sort of political fight because somebody in a position of power doesn't think that I am trying to stop all work everywhere.

Allison said...

I see your point and agree. I wasn't trying to attack your argument, in case I came off that way. I like exploring this issue. Thanks for this discussion, its gotten me to re-examine my opinions.

Anthroslug said...

It came off as a discussion, and a good one, not as an attack. So, no worries.

Shawn Kilburn said...

I appreciate your unconcern.

However, you may find it as frustrating as I did, when I realized that 90% of the children's picture books out there have male protagonists. It's completely mystifying. And also not at all.

Is there a connection between that and the fact that my daughter thinks it's much more fun to be a "pirate boy" than to be a "pirate girl"? Maybe, maybe not.

Evan Davis said...

The women in your daughter's will life affect what she strives to be; The men in your daughter's life will affect how she interacts with the opposite sex; and siblings affect her ability to cope. It's an oversimplification, I know, but it sounds cool.

Unfortunately people vote with their wallets and that means the Princess meme dominates the female gender specific toys. The same with books, mostly because girls (or their parents) don't differentiate whether they will read a book based on the gender of the protagonist, boys will.

We let our girls do as they like for playtime and we're pretty happy with the result.

And those are my clumps of random thoughts.