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Published on November 18th, 2015 | by Rachel Aimee

3

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.”

Princess Exchange

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.”

Jacob's New Dress

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.”

tutu somersault (1)

[selections from books are (c) their authors/publishers and reprinted for purposes of review]

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About the Author

Rachel Aimee

Rachel Aimee is a writer, editor, parent, and the coordinator of Drag Queen Story Hour NYC. Find more of her writing at RachelAimee.com.



3 Responses to RACHEL AIMEE in Defense of the “Silly Frilly Dress”

  1. Connie says:

    excellent. my daughter loved girl culture more than i ever did and giving her space for that was the right thing for her. my peer group’s reaction to that choice had a lot to do with class–but that’s another article…

  2. JodyL says:

    This piece captivated me because of its honesty and wisdom. When I read it, it just…makes sense. I remember being teased by a fellow mom because in spite of all my efforts to not allow stereotypical, mass-cultural “female” toys, clothes, and activities into my toddler’s life (30+ years ago), by the time she was able to make her own choices, she was drawn to “the silly frilly dress.” I am proud to say that my daughter grew up to be a strong, independent, intelligent feminist and an even better mom than I ever was. Kudos, Rachel, for this thoughtful essay.

  3. naia says:

    Thank you!!! This is beautifully said. I don’t think bashing or belittling or shaming the feminine in any form is feminist at all. It hurts my heart down to the little girl inside me running wild and free in her fancy fairy outfit, the wild, slutty teenager in me dancing all night in heels and vintage lingerie, and the grown up lady in me that still feels the most herself cloaked in dresses and heels and rhinestones and glitter and other fancinesses. I have felt powerful in princess dresses my whole life. My daughter is still dancing naked in my belly, but after she’s born, she gets to find her power and gender in whatever clothes she wants!

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