Threat level: pink.

My daughter turned 6 last week, and I’ve found myself thinking about the following essay, written just after she turned 4, finally published in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune the day before she turned 5 (ah, the joys of freelancing!). I suspect that some do not see political ramifications in the fantasies we offer our daughters (and the colors in which we offer them), but when I consider the many social ills faced by fully half of society (from professional limitation, to culturally engendered body-loathing, to sexual assault), I believe these fantasies have deep significance on many levels. They are personal, yes, but they are also political.

**************

Isn’t she pretty in pink?

The color symbolizes the princess culture with which we surround our little girls. But what exactly are we teaching them?

July 22, 2008

By EMILY L. HAUSER

My daughter Maya recently turned 4, and Sweet Baby Moses, I thought I’d drown in the pink.

Her party netted her puzzles, markers, books — and a mother lode of “girl” items: a pair of Cinderella mules, a Disney Princess purse (complete with sunglasses and faux camera, which emits such phrases as “you’re pretty as a picture!”), a “lipstick,” brush and mirror set, not one but two fairy dresses, and three arts-n-crafts sets that are, it goes without saying, pink. The tissue paper? Pink. The gift bags? You know it.

It’s not that I begrudge the child her girly things. Her wardrobe is full of flowers and butterflies, and she lives for her dolls. Indeed, we were made aware very early that she could make a “baby” out of anything — down to and including rocks — and we’ve been happy to provide her with any number of cuddly creatures, humanoid and other.

It’s just that, for four years, her father and I have held at bay the combined forces of the Disney juggernaut and the relentless American effort to turn little girls into mini-women, and pink has come to symbolize it all for me.

And so, bags and bags of gifts and hand-me-downs have been hand-me-downed further because they were tainted with pink. The girl’s poor grandmothers are now afraid to give her anything that falls anywhere on the rose-to-blush continuum — “but it’s coral!” my sainted mother once protested when I announced (ill-naturedly) that her gift would be returned.

As we sat among the rosy/bubble-gum-y leavings of the present-opening, I asked my 8-year-old son: What does a princess do? Understandably, he was a bit bemused, so after a moment I said, “Pretty much just sit there, right?”

To which he replied: “And look beautiful. I guess.”

There’s the rub.

For all that my girl likes skirts, playing mommy and putting her dolls to bed, she also likes building bookshelves, playing firefighter and giving soccer balls a good, hard kick. She is, in the parlance of literary analysis, a fully rounded character.

And what a character! We took early to calling her Maya Warrior Princess, because she commanded respect from the earliest age. Ask her what a princess does, and you’ll get a very different answer.

“Help the animals get back to their homes,” she told me one day, “like in the jungle.” She paused. “And fight witches.”

But as she moves further into the world, we fear that the mainstream consensus regarding the central pursuits of a “princess” will flood past us, and she will learn what her culture wants most in its women: Sit there. And be beautiful.

Be beautiful — not in your own curly-headed, twinkly-smile way, but in a grown-up way, a way that says that even grown women are not, in fact, beautiful enough. We worry that the lipstick is only the first step to a life of being told to do something about herself, and the mirror the first step in a life of double-checking her own worth.

Of course, we can’t know what’s going on in that head, and on the day after her party, Maya made an enormous show (in a lavender top and pleated skirt) of demonstrating her muscles and explaining her regimen for staying “so, so, so strong.”

So I do not despair. But I do wish that we could show greater creativity as a society as we try to shape and teach our girls. They bring many more colors to the table than we are encouraging them to show.

Emily L. Hauser is a freelance writer living outside of Chicago.

© Minneapolis Star-Tribune 2008

8 Comments

  1. I fight this every day. My daughter’s room is pink, she is surrounded by Disney princesses, was Snow White for Halloween last year, and still likes to “look pretty.”

    And yet… I’ve taken her to the National Air & Space Museum to see the planes and rockets, to see the dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History (her favorite is the Triceratops), and bought her toys cars, and Lincoln Logs, and admonished her that there are no such things as “girl toys” and “boy toys.” I don’t know what effect it will have, but right now she is at the age where playing hopscotch and catching fireflies tickle her fancy, and I can only hope she continues to broaden her horizons as she gets older.

  2. Mama Pengino

     /  July 29, 2009

    Sometimes I think certain things are just hard-wired in our kids. Not that they aren’t influenced mightily by what they see and hear, but my own five-year-old daughter won’t have anything to do with princesses, no way, no how. She collects rocks and bugs and wants to wield a sword. I have found her with a live snail oozing goo all over her hand simply watching, interested. While we don’t have a television, she definitely has been exposed to the Disney princesses and they seem to leave her feeling pretty meh. It can’t be the TV, can it?

  3. emilyanne

     /  July 29, 2009

    Ah a subject close to my heart – my daughter being 22 months old as yet is at the mercy of her mother and thus unaware of the colour pink, indeed she is currently interested in cars, books she pretends to read to herself and her making mischief wild things t-shirt, which she is very proud of but which came from the boy’s section of the clothes store it was bought in – and this is my point, I didn’t see why that t-shirt was in the boys bit where the girls all had princess t-shirts so garish they hurt my eyes. So yes, I do think that some of it is marketing and i dread the day when she decides pink is in, if only because my five-year-old niece is utterly obsessed by it.

    • Mama Pengino

       /  July 31, 2009

      Emily, I often buy my daughter t-shirts from the boys’ section. I just cannot take all that “Daddy’s Little Princess” and “Queen Bee” crap!

      • emilyanne

         /  July 31, 2009

        exactly, it’s so annoying, meanwhile the boy’s sections have great normal t-shirts much of the time.

  4. MK

     /  July 29, 2009

    Bah, *real* princesses go to boot camp:

    Swedish Princess swaps tiara for camouflage

  5. Erin (slumdogmamabear)

     /  July 31, 2009

    My mother and father tried with all their might to instill in me that gender norms were not to dictate my choices. But despite my hippie parents and endless summers backpacking through southern Utah and the Rockie Mountains all their efforts were for naught.
    My father still talks about the day he tried to sign me up for soccer and I looked at him after 5 minutes and told him what I really wanted was to be a cheerleader (which is exactly what I did).
    My poor, progressive fathers heart must have broken a little that day. But despite my Rah!Rah! ambitions I am grateful for my parents teaching me that I didn’t HAVE to play with dolls and look pretty.

  6. Little Green Frog

     /  August 6, 2009

    Don’t worry guys. It will pass. My daughter went through a princess and pink phase too, and when she turned 7 she decided her new favorite color was orange and pink sucked and that was it. Also, she now wants to be a vet when she grows up not a princess.
    Of course I always make a point to showing my children different things re: colors, gender and race stereotypes, etc. You all are smart people and your kids will learn from you.