Monday, November 3, 2008

Better To Be A Princess

Today I had to sit through orientation for my new place of employment. It wasn't too bad, except for the fact that what they were discussing had little to do with me for much of the day. I could have popped in at 10:45 and been fine, instead of getting there at 8. But regardless, I was there at 8, and we new hires got to chew the cud and play some strange "getting to know you" games even though the chances of any of us seeing each other after today are rather small (big organization, with these people going everywhere around the state). And since tomorrow is election day and last friday was Halloween, there were a few ready-made conversation starters available. I myself am slightly thrilled that I only talked election day with a woman from Poland who is a new American citizen and is ecstatic to be voting for the first time (she's an Obama supporter), because talking to people in a work environment about politics can be akin to walking through a minefield with no map. But that meant that the conversation drifted toward Halloween, and what everyone's children were for Halloween. And even that was going fairly well - although I must say seeing people's children in pictures taken via cell phone is an odd experience and does not do justice to the child nor to the child's costume.

And then things took an interesting turn. A woman, looking only slightly older than me, started talking about her daughter. And how her daughter had wanted to be Spiderman or Batman. And how she refused to buy her daughter the Spiderman or Batman costumes and kept trying to get her excited about the princess dresses and costumes available for little girls. Her daughter wanted very little to do with the frills and the pink, and remained insistent on her superheroes of choice. But her mother decided to just buy the frilliest and fluffiest princess costume out there and present it to her daughter. She said that her daughter, upon seeing her costume, finally got into the mood of being a princess and was now excited to go out on Halloween as a girly princess instead of her superhero. But I wonder. Here was a child - I'm not sure how old - that was eschewing gender norms. A child who didn't care that Spiderman and Batman were boys. A child who didn't want to be girlified this one day out of the year. And her mother demanded that presentation of the perfect little lady from her anyway.

When I was little, I always wanted to get dressed up as a girly costume for Halloween. Even into my teen years, I was much fonder of the Little Red Riding Hood costumes and the Cleopatra costumes than I was the more masculine costumes. And I know in part that was because that choice was fed to me as desirable by what little media my parents allowed me to consume; but part of it was because my parents never did dress me up in girly clothing unless there was a reason for it. And that was partially because they were determined to eschew gender norms (no pink for me!), and partially because I was a maniac klutz who would run around like a loon and then fall down, invariably ripping and dirtying and bloodying anything they attempted to put me in. I wore jeans, and tee shirts - which to this day remain my default ensemble. And those jeans very rarely did not have holes in the knees. So dressing up in the frills and lace for one night was fun; it didn't always happen. One year, I was a domino (and tumbled everywhere, which was an unfortunate design flaw of the costume as the box my mother used was too big). Another, I was a pumpkin. But generally, I was a princess of some kind. That was my choice. Had I chosen to be a pirate every year since I was four, as one of my sisters did until this year when she switched it up to dead hockey player, my parents would have bought me a pirate costume and pirate accessories every year I needed new ones.

The idea that one of my co-workers denied her little girl that choice and instead focused on what she wanted her daughter to be bothers me greatly. It bothers me on two levels: one, because it denies a level of autonomy to the child. Children should not be allowed to make some decisions for themselves. Bedtimes should be set by the parents, for example. But some things should be allowed, and Halloween costume choice should be one of them, as long as the costume isn't like Sexy Teen Witch or French Maid Jr. or Major Flirt Girl; and even then, I come down more on the side of explaining to the child why these costumes are inappropriate and what they represent and why the parent disapproves - and then, after an actual, back and forth discussion, if the child hasn't changed her mind, allowing her to get it anyway. That is how the grand Britney Spears Debacle of 1999 (and 2000) was handled, when one of my sisters (not Pirate-Dead Hockey Player Sister) loved Britney Spears and desperately wanted her cd. She got both of those cds, but those talks (I think) made a big difference, to the point where she didn't even want the one with "I'm A Slave 4 You" on it because of the song's (and video's) message. Allow kids to make their own decisions - with parental input - and one may be surprised at the results. Those results may take a few years to blossom, but respecting one's child is, I think, the first step. That being said, my mother did forbid cheerleading and joining a sorority, so I guess allowing a child to make their own decision really only applies to those things one feels slightly less strongly about.

The other reason why this behavior bothers me is because it is forcing the daughter to conform to the standards and wishes of the mother. I'm sure she would not have been so thrilled about showing everyone in the room pictures of her little Spiderman (or Batman) today. I'm sure she wanted her daughter to look like a daughter. I'm sure she wanted to hear the oohs and ahs of "She's so cute!" and "She's adorable". I'm sure she wanted her daughter to be girly, and to want the ruffles and the frills and the pink. But what that does is tell her daughter that what she wants is not appropriate. That wanting to be a superhero, someone who does things and saves people and who is active and assertive, is wrong. That she should want to be a princess; a princess who probably doesn't have a story, but if she did would probably be more Snow White than Mulan, more Sleeping Beauty than Jasmine. She has had the lesson, through this one Halloween, how girls are supposed to be. And that she should be that, or at least pretend to be that, in order to be liked or cooed over or be considered normal and worthwhile. That is a message she'll be getting anyway. And it is beyond disturbing that she is getting it so profoundly in her own home.

1 comment:

John said...

Being a comic book geek, the other thing that kills me about this story is that Batgirl (who most people recognize) and Spider-Girl (who is a character with an awesome comic but no cross-media support) are great characters! Girls SHOULD want to be them, because they're awesome! That's not to say that a girl can't be Batman or Spider-Man too, but this little girl may not have known that female superheroes existed, possibly because her mother doesn't want her doing anything remotely boyish. Tsk tsk.

Also, picturing you falling repeatedly in an oversized domino costume may have just made my day. It's too bad there weren't other dominoes nearby!