I really hate princess costumes, Walt Disney and toy prams. I don’t remember any of them from my own childhood, growing up in Chicago, and I’m trying to figure out why. Is there an essential difference between what is American and what is British in how we raise our children or are the changes with how I was raised and the things that my daughter is being subjected to part of a global cultural shift?
Barack Obama’s slogan of ‘Yes We Can’ is indicative of a certain type of American liberal optimism that was planted during the Civil Rights Movement and flowered with Second Wave Feminism. America was a media-saturated place in the 70s but television, particularly public broadcasting, was a voice for the changes that were taking place in American Culture to deal with the historic legacy of racism and sexism. I was raised on early Sesame Street where I learned to count in Spanish with Oscar the Grouch and saw an urban multicultural street as normal. Across the Atlantic, British television was just phasing out the title Watch with Mother and featured Andy Pandy and the Flower Pot Men.
According to Peggy Orenstein author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, some people believe that the ‘pink and princessing’ of early childhood is a reaction to Second Wave Feminism while others see a larger historical perspective. As Miriam Forman-Brunell observes, “Historically, princess worship has emerged during periods of uncertainty and profound social change.”(1)
Currently, in America there is consensus over the sexualisation of children, “In 2007, The American Psychological Association Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls issued a report that linked this type of sexualization with low self-esteem, eating disorders, and depression” and Melissa Atkins Wardy of Pigtail Pals says "A girl cannot run, climb, leap, and crawl the way a young child should when at play if she is in heeled sandals, a short skirt and top that keeps riding up."(2)
Here in Britain, the chief executive of the Mother’s Union, Reg Bailey, published his recommendations in a Government-commissioned review “The Bailey Report”. This has continued a public dialogue about the sexualisation of young children; however, it has been widely criticized as using anecdotal evidence and being extremely populist in nature.(3) One of the most relevant points made by Dr Petra Boynton is that “these evaluations have not interrogated the concept of sexualisation, nor focused on wider issues that might be facing young people. She also notes that “the preoccupation with sexualisation favours white, middle class parents (usually mothers) whose children are not generally facing particular hardships.(4)
It is very important to understand the nuances and prejudices of different initiatives; in the United States much of the agenda is grounded in feminist values while in the UK The Mother’s Union is a faith-based Christian organisation.
Connect the Dots
When I look around Merseyside, I see a general level of complacency regarding gender stereotyping and children. I have a dream that suddenly everybody will wake up and see that dressing girls in fairy tale costumes is far from innocent, but instead a strategic cooperation between capitalism and social conservatism to fuck up an entire generation. I was in line waiting to pay for a ten pack of white socks for my daughter and having a moan about the princess pyjamas when an all knowing grandmother assured me that the princess stage passes and now her granddaughter won’t touch anything pink.
Maybe so, but watch Channel 4’s My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding where the girls want to be a ‘princess’ on their wedding day, in some cases spending what others would on a university education. One is left with the notion that while middle and upper class girls may be OK and outgrow the princess thing, the ones most likely to suffer will be the young girls who are growing up in poverty. They aren’t exposed to a diversity of positive messages and accessible female role models; consider the Toxteth primary school that took the children on a field trip to the new Tesco on Park Road for aspirations week.
But while “There are no studies proving that playing princess directly damages girls’ self-esteem or dampens other aspirations… there is evidence that young women who hold the most conventionally feminine beliefs...are more likely to be depressed than others and less likely to use contraception.”(5) The media also supports this correlation between the effect of girls living in poverty playing princesses and teenage pregnancy.(6)
“Playing princess is not the issue,” argues Lyn Mikel Brown and Sharon Lamb, authors of Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters From Marketers’ Schemes, “The issue is 25,000 Princess products”. These 25,000 products have turned Disney around. The BBC and British television are equally complicit, Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat MP believes the self-confidence of young girls across the country is being attacked by the industry's obsession with pink and princesses. "It can start the socialisation of inequality," she said. "It can restrict girls' views of themselves and boys' perceptions of girls too."(7)
Sometime around the turn of the century, childcare workers began to be trained to stop calling children naughty and to make it clear through language that there were problems with the behaviour and not with the child. Perhaps if we begin to understand that the media and corporate promotion of a deeply gendered childhood is harming girls (and boys) who are growing up in poverty we can start to do something about it. If playing princesses can result in important public health issues such as anorexia, teenage pregnancy, and depression, then libraries, sure starts, child minders, nurseries and the BBC need to challenge their systemic promotion of fairy and princess play as an assault on the life long health of girls and women.
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