“A woman is like a tea bag, you can’t tell how strong she is till you put her in hot water.”~Eleanor Roosevelt.
As a child, I hated the color pink. I don’t know how early this started, but I detested it. There was a saying: ‘Pink to make the boys wink’. I detested that too, and changed the color to blue, no memory of how I ended the line. But I do remember a time when I would dress up in plastic high heels, not exactly a princess. It is not surprising that little girls want to dress up and look pretty. They are always being told how pretty they are, as if that is the goal, the most desirable thing to be. But as I grew older my favorite dress up costume was a cowgirl! Strong, and carrying a gun!
I came of age in the 70’s, a time when the world was changing. We had Black Power to challenge the place of people of African descent in the world. It followed the swinging sixties, a time when women were liberated by the invention of a tiny pill, the oral contraceptive. They were given the power to choose when and with whom to reproduce. Now they could have sex without the risk of a lifetime commitment to another human being. This gave them more options. They could delay marriage, delay starting a family. They could go to university and start a career. They had choices.
When I started my own family, it was with these lofty ideals of gender equality. My children would be raised without constraints, without automatic gender bias. And then. And then I had a girl who loved pink and purple. Who was perfectly happy to get Barbie dolls for Christmas and birthday and the next Christmas and birthday. If I gave her a car, it was to drive her dolls around. And when the boys came, I couldn’t get them to play with girl’s toys for anything. Attempt to give them a doll, they turned it into a gun (along with the appropriate sound effects). And I realized that even if males and females should be equal in opportunities, in choices; they are intrinsically, innately, wonderfully, different.
I have been watching the latest female offspring of my family tree emerge, full of vim and vigor, but also, please, a princess. I was a little distressed by her obsession with all things Elsa, or whoever (I am not very good on the commercial products) until I heard a program discussing just this obsession on the radio the other day. Apparently it is a phase that most little girls go through, but they do emerge on the other side as strong warrior queens. But my granddaughter is subject to that other insidious messaging; that the white version is superior to the other options. It is the same thing I realized as a young mother. Regardless of how socially aware you are; despite the positive affirmations delivered in your home, by your politically, culturally, socially enlightened parents, the world pushes a far more powerful message. Yes you may have your Princess Triana, but the true Disney Princess is white, with long flowing hair. And my granddaughter is brown, with short, tightly curled hair. Despite all representations of strong, beautiful, powerful women of color in her life, she has absorbed the subliminal creed: it is better to be white.
Most white people don’t get this. They don’t get the fact of a world that is tilted in their favor. Because they may have no personal experience where being white was an obvious factor in their success, they believe it to be a myth. What is obvious to people of color everywhere, somehow has to be explained, gently, in a non-threatening way, for white people to ‘get’ it (and they still don’t).
Of course I know that my granddaughter will move beyond the ideal of the white princess. We will talk to her and educate her and give her all of the role models that we can. I started that process the other day when she told me she didn’t like Princess Tiana because ‘she’s a brown princess. I only like white princesses.’ So I reminded her that her mother is brown (‘apart from my mother’), and all of the other brown and black women in her life. I pointed out that I live among brown and black people. She thought about that for a while. Sometime later she asked me: “Granny, do you like yourself?” “Of course I do!” “Well,” she continued, “you’re white.” I hastily followed up with: “but I don’t decide whether to like people because of their color.” This is one beautiful, intelligent, brown princess who is going to challenge all assumptions!
As the magical season of Christmas closes in, I’m sure there are many children on your list. It is good to find toys which challenge, which promote discovery and invention. There are all manner of games which help developing minds to become even more skillful and adept. And then there are the basic joys of being kids. Sometimes it’s ok to let girls be girls and boys be boys, or whoever they want to be. For not every girl will even want to be a fairy princess, and that’s ok too. The greatest gift you can give someone is the freedom to be themselves.
On this wonderful Friday morning past the middle of December (already!), I remember my father-in-law, a man who was father and mother to his children after his wife died. All of his children learned to cook and clean and take care of each other. One of his favorite compliments to give a woman was to call her the ‘shaft-mule’ – the one in a team of mules that kept all of the others in line, that led by being strong. He made all the schoolkids who walked passed his gate each morning respond to his call: “Mi happy-oi!!!” Happy Birthday Dy!
May you all have a wonderful weekend, Family!
If you have not seen it – check out the book by Peggy Orenstein – Cinderella Ate my Daughter – https://smile.amazon.com/Cinderella-Ate-Daughter-Dispatches-Girlie-Girl-ebook/dp/B004DI7M2Y/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1481990943&sr=1-1&keywords=cinderella+stole+my+daughter! You address the problem of race here much better than does Orenstein, but still it is a very good “read” for all parents/grandparents of little girls! I discovered it when my granddaughters were 3 and 5 – at the height of their princess phases! Thank you for this wonderful post!
Thanks Peggy! These are very interesting times!