Published on November 18th, 2015 | by Rachel Aimee3
RACHEL AIMEE in Defense of the “Silly Frilly Dress”
A few months ago my five-year-old daughter Alicia became obsessed with the TV show Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse. My first instinct was to panic and do whatever I could to steer her back in the direction of her previous favorite show, Curious George. But I held my tongue and instead asked her why she liked the show. Her answer: “Because it has a thousand girls and only two boys.”
I love this answer! And I’m so glad I thought to ask, because If I had gone with my instinct, I probably would’ve taught her—and her younger brother—that shows about boys are more worthy than shows about girls.
In an age where toy aisles across the country are rigidly divided into ‘boy’ and girl,’ and girls are taught to love pink and princesses above all else, it’s no wonder that parents are concerned about the impact of princess culture on kids. I am too. I want my daughter to grow up with interests and ambitions that go beyond her looks, and I seek out empowering, girl-centered books at every opportunity.
But in helping our daughters to think beyond princesses, we need to consider what we are actually teaching them. Providing alternatives to princesses is great and necessary. Teaching disdain for all things ‘girly’? Not so much. And too many so-called empowering books fall into the latter category.
So when we recently came across yet another princess-bashing plotline, in Julia Donaldson’s otherwise excellent book, A Gold Star for Zog…
“Don’t rescue me! I won’t go back to being a princess,
And prancing round the palace in a silly frilly dress. […]
I want to be a doctor.”
Alicia and I sighed together and she was the one to point out that “she could be a doctor and wear a dress.” (Or, you know, she could wear pants and not insult people who wear dresses.) Just as it’s not necessary for Meghan Trainor to call thin women “skinny bitches” in order to get her body positive message across, authors of empowering books for girls actually don’t need to make kids who like dresses feel bad about themselves, but too often they do.
In The Princess Exchange by Anne Marie Ryan, Princess Jane is shamed for wanting to dress like a ‘real princess:’
“By the end of the day, Princess Jane’s head hurt from all of the lessons—and from a too-tight tiara. She was allowed to play in the palace grounds for one hour, but she kept tripping on her long skirts and couldn’t climb trees in her dainty slippers.”
Compare this to the way Jacob’s dress is described by Sarah and Ian Hoffman in Jacob’s New Dress, a book about a boy who likes to wear dresses despite being teased by kids at school who say boys can’t wear dresses:
“Jacob sprinted across the playground, his dress spreading out like wings.”
A dress can feel restrictive to one child and liberating to another. Many feminist-identified parents are full of encouragement for boys and transgender girls who want to dress like ballerinas, but are altogether less enthusiastic when their cisgender daughters become princess-obsessed. Raising kids to truly support freedom of gender expression includes allowing gender-conforming, cisgender girls to express their ‘pretty’ sides without shame.
When Alicia tells me, as she often does, that she wants to be a princess when she grows up, I know that what she really means is she wants to wear pretty dresses and fancy shoes. I’m not going to teach her that that’s wrong, because it’s not. And I’m not going to worry that she doesn’t have a viable career plan mapped out at the age of five.
In the end, I agreed with Alicia that it’s great that there are so many girls in Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse. Instead of rolling my eyes or telling her I didn’t like the show, I focused my critique on the specific things that trouble me about Barbie.
“One thing I don’t like about this show is that Barbie and her friends all have the same kind of body. They’re all so thin, and most of them have light skin and straight hair. In real life, people have so many different kinds of bodies, so it’s not fair that this show only shows us one kind of body.”
“Yeah, and it’s not fair that Ken doesn’t get to wear dresses in this show,” Alicia added. “In real life, boys can wear dresses if they want to.”
[selections from books are (c) their authors/publishers and reprinted for purposes of review]