Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Childhood, Representation, and the Princess Archetype, Part One

I have a lovely niece who is turning four at the end of this month. She's smart and kind and silly, and I want her not to lose those things as she grows up. I want her to realize that she can be strong and I want her to cultivate a healthy amount of confidence in herself. I'm sure these are things that most parents and relatives want for their children, and what most women want for the little girls in their lives. This is why I'm a bit wary of her sudden fascination with the Disney Princesses. I was the perfect age right in the middle of the Disney renaissance of the 1990s to have a similar fascination, and I turned out fine, but not without the help of some serious critical thinking, even as a child.

My first memory of what the Disney Princesses meant to me dovetails with my first memory of Barbie and similar dolls: I clearly recall being outraged (and possibly throwing a fit in the middle of a toy store, though I do not encourage children to emulate that particular form of social protest, if only for the benefit of their parents) at the sheer number of blonde toys there were to choose from, while Barbie seemed to have only one brunette “friend.” To add insult to injury, that friend seemed to be brunette only because no one else was, not because brown hair was just a pretty as blonde hair. If that was the case, why was there only one of her? After that moment, whenever I was asked who my favorite princess was—a very popular discussion among elementary school-aged girls at the time—I answered, “Snow White, because she has dark hair like mine.” Even at such a young age, in my own very small way, I recognized the pain of feeling excluded because the most popular toys, the prettiest toys, the toys the other girls thought were the best toys, did not look like me. I also recognized in that moment, though I couldn't pinpoint or define the feeling for many years, the sadness of feeling like a second thought, a token, when someone who looked like me was included. Almost twenty years later, I can't imagine how much harder it would have been to be a little Black girl or a little Latina girl or a host of other underrepresented little girls then, to need to see not just my hair represented as I played, but my entire physical being. I realize that Disney and Mattell have both made a concerted effort in recent years to rectify this problem. Disney films since my childhood have been populated with princesses of various ethnicities and backgrounds, with the first African American princess making her debut in The Princess and the Frog this fall, and the So In Style Collection, a new line of African American Barbie dolls with curlier hair and more realistic facial structure, was recently released.

While I'm thankful for this progress, I do want to make sure that young girls like my niece have alternatives to what I see as the most dangerous pitfall of the princess model: the role of the prince as active savior. While Disney has done work in this area as well (I'm thinking primarily of Mulan, who I near-worshiped as an eleven-year-old, and Kim Possible, who was a high school cheerleader by day and a crime-fighting secret agent by night), I am always on the lookout for something other than the traditional fairy tales from which that corporation has made its millions. That said, I was delighted to stumble upon the HBO series Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child. The series is a bit dated (I think the most recent one is from 1999 or so), and occasionally relies on cartoonish racial or ethnic stereotypes, but I believe its heart is in the right place. Its typical format is to tell a traditional fairy tale like Snow White or The Emperor's New Clothes, but to change them up by setting them in a different culture. For example, their Snow White is set in a Native American village, while their Emperor's kingdom is ancient Japan. Several episodes also strive for a deliberately feminist perspective. I'm touched by this desire to both show children of all colors that the stories they love can star heroes and heroines that look like them, and to teach children that the wisdom and morals these tales often deliver can be found in nearly all cultures. I'll examine two episodes from the series that claim to be especially feminist in my next post. For now, I just wanted to air some of my misgivings about how we teach children to view their world. I know there are some fabulous resources to combat how media can harm children in today's world. For example, I've read Packaging Girlhood , and I absolutely adore Amy Poehler's web show Smart Girls at the Party. Do you have more suggestions as to similar books , companies, or initiatives that I should check out? Please share your thoughts and stories in the comments section.

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