Sunday, August 10, 2008

Yesterday it was raining, and cold. I remember a Sunday like that some years ago, spent sitting in front of the fire and drinking tea; now I have two kids who are mad for splashing in puddles and twirling their umbrellas. We kit up and set off, walking the block in the rain.

Once the thrill of the wet starts to fade, the adventures begin. Yesterday it was Snow White but Cinderella is also in vogue at our house. I once wrote that living with a real princess is as testing as sharing space with the Disney kind. Now I have some experience in both and I'm starting to reconsider. And I wonder, where does this come from, and what to do to chase the wenches away?

We live in a sea of pink but we've never actually invited a pop culture princess into our home. That is, until recently when allowing Lucy to chose her yoghurt for kindergarten lead to a six pack of princess themed Nestle vanilla and strawberry milk-based product. We could have - should have? - said no but like parents everywhere we were keen to avoid a meltdown in the dairy aisle and so we forked out for some indoctrination. But I think it must have started earlier - why did she chose that particular option? - possibly around the communal kinder table, or outside in the playground when the pirate boys said girls can only be mermaids. I always assumed that I could through vigilance and firmness protect my kid from inappropriate gendered messages; turns out - yet again - I can't.

I'm tinkering around the edges of some of those messages. Snow White is a girl who is hated for her kindness, not her attractiveness and blah, blah, blah, she lives with the dwarves and plants a garden and manages their financial interests, acting as an agent and selling on the mined jewels and gold. Her post-poisoning salvation comes in the form of a prince but one who is also a doctor, so that at least some motivation comes from medical expertise rather than general heroic maleness. In the end, the doctor-prince, S.W. and the dwarves all live together, with S.W. continuing her role as financial administrator for the guys.

This is okay as far as it goes but the things about kids is, they act as a mirror to our own cracks and inconsistencies. In my story the guy still saves the girl and the day - why not a witch with traditional knowledge, for example? - the girl is still poisoned by a crone (thereby perpetuating all those nasty constructions of older women; and S.W. doesn't just politely say thanks and walk away at the end - she ends up working as an employee in the men's businesses. I bet she does the housework too. And then there's the whole issue of abusive female family members who are demonised and absent and neglectful fathers who don't get judged for failing their kids.

I am caught up in the structures and practices I critique; they shape my thinking about what's possible even as I so carefully try to create new narratives for my girls, in the stories I tell "in [my] head and [my] hands" (Lucy's words) and in their lives. I can de-construct a fairy tale, but as soon after Al moved down to live with me I stopped remembering to pay bills, lost my pin number on any number of occasions and - shamefully - I can't name our bank or our insurers; nor do I know when the rates are due. I make the money in this house but I focus a lot more on the muffins. I pretend this isn't true but of course I have my own fairy tales, and they have nothing to do with poisoned apples and tiaras.

I don't hate myself for this - I've never met a feminist whose walk always matches her talk; try as we do, our possibilities and improbabilities are shaped - sometimes obviously, sometimes secretly - by our gender. My feminist motherhood, probably like all kinds of motherhood, leads me to think carefully about myself as a person and a role model, and this can be confronting and sometimes liberating. And as part of my motherhood, I try to show my kids some of the many different ways they can be women; perhaps these examples come as much in my own failures and oddities as in my strengths.

In the meantime, I have kids who chase after the evil queen and throw a giant apple at her. They beat at monsters with 'ferocious sticks'; they describe themselves as strong and brave; they can't wait to grow up to go to work, have babies, drink beer and chop firewood with a BIG axe. Lucy told me today, "I protect little kids and herbivores. I am a really good girl." And Nell agreed in her flat Aussie drawl: "Yeah."

I have faith that those bloody Disney princesses will never have much resonance beyond the yoghurt lids. I don't really have a strong view on what women should be but if my kids turn out the way they plan, I'll be a very happy mother and a very happy feminist indeed.


innercitygarden said...

If it's any consolation, I am drowning in a sea of trucks and cars. The favourite toys at the moment are the pair of formula 1 racing cars. They have little drivers, who get out of their cars periodically to cuddle, which makes me feel better.

I haven't fixed anything since I moved in with the Bloke, primarily because I know he will notice it and do it without being reminded, unlike, for example, the vacuuming. It's the path of least resistance. It did lead to joking on the weekend about how light globes get changed by the Hardware Fairies.

Glen said...

In the end they'll grow up to be themselves, won't they?

Ariane said...

What is it with the pink? Why does almost every single little girl list pink as her favourite colour. Well not quite, the odd outrageous ones will stretch to purple.

Is it because all kids actually like pink, and girls are allowed to express it? Maybe, my son likes pink.

It is so hard to dodge the gender specific toys, and old stories have all sorts of problems, but they are still good stories. I really think that as long as you keep critiquing all this stuff as they get older, keep putting it all in the right context, kids will grow up not only with nice feminist values, but also wit the ability to see through the bias. If they are forever protected from Disney princesses, how will they learn to see them for what they are?

And I also wish I wasn't modelling such gender biased housework roles, but I am working on it. And the boys themselves don't get any gender privilege. :)

nutmeg said...

I was having quite a long chat with my eldest girl's teacher - specifically about empathy or the apparent lack of it in children - and her responses reminded me how the the world is much more "black and white" for kids. Shades of meaning and subtlety are not things they understand at all readily and it helped me to relax (a little!) about my own girls' attachment to the Disney Princesses. Where we as adults see the shades of grey (the demonising of older women, men always saving the day etc) children don't tend to notice those things or if they do, don't tend to attach the same meanings to them. But, like you indicate, a ground work of discussing the alternatives to these views is important and should come into play more and more over time. All I can say is I am crossing my fingers and toes, hoping they grow out of the attachment before they take too much notice of them. But there will always be the next thing to capture them - and well, it may be even worse ;-) Again, we can only remind them of the alternative view and not draw too much attention to our internal abhorence(!) of these things as this may highten there own attachment just to get a rise out of us :-) Well, that's the theory anyway!

We also have some of those yoghurts in our fridge right now and I just can't go past them without thinking of a term Michael Pollan uses a lot for such foods - "edible food like substances"!!!!! Too funny. Another example of an issue that can push so many buttons at once.

And thank you for your email - I am currently in the process of composing a reply :-)

Glen said...

Red was always my favourite colour as a kid with green as my second, only because it was my best friend's favourite. I hated pink till I was at least 50 so maybe it is just a fashion thing. Perhaps pink looks good to everyone now. Maybe all our eyes have changed.

Charlotte said...

What a great post! I have two daughters, and while we have had the sea of pink too, my youngest (6) recently declared she was "so over pink". She now prefers witches to princesses, which is a great relief.

There is a wonderful series of books that we have at home called "Tales of Courageous Girls from Around the World" in which the girls are the heroes who save the day. If you are interested, email me and I will send you the publisher and IBAN. My girls love these, and I think they have been a good counterpoint to the Disney gang.

I love what you say about hoping your daughters will grow up they way they plan.

Anonymous said...

There's two children's books that have princesses but are feminist(ish) princesses. Princess smartypants by babette cole, who is happier being a ms and the paperbag princess who saves her prince from the dragon.

Ingrid said...

We went to the zoo last week in the rain with my 2 princesses. They had the best time with their friends, and even better, there was only 19 people in the whole zoo, and we were 10 of them!!!!!!!

Lune said...

Have you read "Woman who run with the Wolves" by Clarissa Pinkola? You gotta order it as soon as you can!

This post is wonderful and resonates so much with that book.

p.s. I drown in a sea of pink too!!

Lune said...

I just looked the book up on Amazon, it is by: Clarissa Pinkola Estes - sorry for the mistake!!

franzy said...

"They have little drivers, who get out of their cars periodically to cuddle, which makes me feel better."

That sentence made me feel warm all the way through!

If you want some good feminist role models in Disney films, find Studio Ghibli - specifically the films of Hayao Miyazaki. 'Spirited Away', 'Kiki's Delivery Service', 'Howl's Moving Castle' and more. All have strong young girls as main characters who are the ones controlling the action and effecting their own destiny.