A Royal Pain for Feminists
by Renée K. Gadoua - Wednesday, November 20th, 2013
Acculturated kids make gift choices challenging

Editor’s note: Voices is a weekly column that provides a platform for Central New Yorkers to comment about the issues of the day. If you’d like to submit a column, email Larry Dietrich at ldietrich@syracusenewtimes.com.

What’s a feminist aunt to do?

The holidays are right around the corner, and I want to get something special for my 3½-year-old niece, Danielle. If I let ads and toy aisles guide me, the answer is easy: something purple or pink. One catalog features unicorns, the Flutterbye Flying Fairy Doll and Barbie Pet Shop or Fashion Boutique. And princesses. Princesses are everywhere.

Here’s the problem with princesses: They put too much emphasis on beauty and reinforce the stereotype that women need to be saved by, and subservient to, the handsome prince. A friend, a longtime supporter of Girls Inc. of Central New York, put it this way: “Even more disturbing is the belief that if I don’t want to be a princess, then it means I don’t want to be a girl (or woman). Girls get so many messages that their image is more important than their character.”

Gender messaging starts early.

In the summer, my niece’s camp class dressed up for a theme day. She was a princess. I asked why she wasn’t a superhero. She told me all the girls were princesses and only boys could be Spider-Man. This from the independent little girl whose playroom is full of toys of all colors and whose toy boxes include building blocks and puzzles and cars and trucks. She runs hard and explores and is not afraid of bugs. Her parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles expose her to many options, and yet, already, she is getting the message that girls are princesses and boys are superheroes.

And get this: Of all the colors in the universe, Danielle early on chose purple–a traditional “girly” color–as her favorite. Should I deny her to make a point?

My shopping dilemma is complicated by my not-so-secret affection for Disney. Yes, this feminist has visited Disney World more times than she can count on one hand. While my taste leans toward Winnie-the-Pooh and his pals in Hundred Acre Wood, it’s easy to see the seduction of the castles and the magical world of the princesses. As Pope Francis famously said recently, “Who am I to judge?”

For children still learning to navigate the barrage of media messages, toys often tell them that girls are valued for their looks, while boys are active. These stereotypes can translate into real problems. The American Association of University Women found that “for both boys and girls, the more traditional their assumptions about what it means to be and how you should behave as a boy or a girl, the {higher the} rates of depression. For girls, adolescent pregnancy tends to be higher, and for boys, belief in coercive behavior in a relationship with girls is higher.”

There are signs of hope. The United Kingdom branch of Toys “R” Us said in September it will stop labeling its toys specifically for boys or girls and will remove all explicit references to gender from store signs. Toys “R” Us in the United States has not yet followed suit; its website lists “girls’ toys” and “boys’ toys” as separate categories.

Last year, Hasbro agreed to produce an Easy Bake Oven that’s black, silver and blue instead of purple and pink. They’re also putting boys in ads for the toy. The change came after a 13-year-old complained that her brother was getting the message that “women cook, men work.”

And this fall, Lego released a female scientist mini-figure wearing a white lab coat and glasses and holding two tiny Erlenmeyer flasks. This came after Lego drew criticism for its pastel-colored, busty mini-figures who worked in hair salons and as homemakers. Some criticized the Lego female scientist as being “too nerdy” and reinforcing yet another stereotype. But one battle at a time. Any toy that suggests girls can succeed as scientists deserves praise.

So how can girls find their way in a pink-and-purple, princess-filled world?

One solution is to offer lots of choices and encourage them to be themselves in a world filled with stereotypes and pressure to follow the crowd. Ask girls why only boys can be superheroes and let them know you’ll love them no matter what they choose. Let them explore and test boundaries, and console them when they’re disappointed or hurt or ridiculed.

That’s the best present an aunt can give.

Follow Renée K. Gadoua on Twitter @ReneeKGadoua