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.