Monday, June 30, 2008

Only Me

Pie has a startlingly strong sense of her own identity. She fondly embraces the number 2 whenever she sees it, because she is two (or, as she once put it, "my name is 2"). She is a gender crusader, vigorously dividing the world into boy/girl categories (Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast are "girly" movies; Cars, Peter Pan, and even A Bug's Life are boys' movies). She resists nicknames and even adjectives, though yesterday she did admit, "I'm your prickly Pie." Selfhood is her hobby, her mantra, her consuming interest. And her new favourite expression is "only me."

You don't like the colour pink, Mama. Only me!

Only I like Cinderella. Not you!

Only I am the best.

I don't quite know what to make of the fact that her strong drive for individualism is wedded right now to her preference for the colour pink and her enjoyment of the Disney Princesses. Since her primary rival for attention and toys is her brother, it makes sense that she would attach herself to gender as a means of differentiating herself. The Thomas trains lie unattended these days; the toy cars are mouldering in the box. Pie's acquisitive, envious heart has gone out into the world searching for something that is hers alone, and this is what she's found:

Much of the pleasure of the Princess empire is related to mastery: like the Super Heroes and Thomas Trains, the Princesses challenge a child's ability to process and coordinate information. Percy is a green train with the number 6; Iron Man wears a robot suit and can fly; Belle wears a yellow dress and marries the Beast. It's the thrill of recognition, of expertise, that drives a child's enjoyment of the franchise. I know where Pie's Princess-obsession is coming from; I just don't always like where it takes her. At the bookstore, she brings me product-linked I-Can-Read books to read aloud. The plot of one of them revolves around princesses dreaming about dancing. In this book no one does anything: Ariel, Aurora, and Cinderella simply daydream about balls in which they are inexplicably dressed in ballet costume, dancing with the prince. Pie already has a bit of a crush on Prince Eric; she's already aware that her curly hair and blue eyes bring her far more compliments and attention than anything she might achieve through her own efforts.

When Pie was a baby I quickly grew impatient with all the hand-wringing over Bratz dolls and right-wing toy-makers' antifeminist conspiracies. I was thrilled to have a girl, and I was - and still am - unconvinced that girliness is something to be ashamed of. I always preferred Anne Shirley, who longs for puffed sleeves even as she's cracking slates over Gilbert Blythe's head, to tomboyish Jo March, who wants to be a man so she can join the army. I've never bought into the idea that being strong means being like a boy.

But I grew up before the era of the Disney Princess. We had Cinderella and Snow White in my day, of course, but they had not yet formed a posse and achieved world domination.

"What about Lady and the Tramp?" I asked Pie the other day when she was cataloguing movies into gender-based categories.

"That one's a boy movie!" she insisted scornfully.

"Well, how about The Incredibles?"

That was a poser. "Hmmm," she pondered. "There's a girl in that one..."

Help us Elastigirl. You're our only hope.


Polgara said...

I loved both Anne Shirley and Jo March and would have but them both as tomboys but see your point about the puffed sleeves lol
I must admit i would like a boy when i have this baby in Nov but would miss sharing those books which i just dont think a boy would relate to the same.
You brought back some very happy bookworm memories today :0)
Pol x

Veronica @ Toddled Dredge said...

I remember when I read Little Women as a child, I kept thinking, "I don't understand why Jo wants to be a boy. Why not be a girl but just do the things that boys do?" Baffled me. Probably because my mother is the strongest woman I have ever met, and she would never wish to be anything but a woman.

And I have similar feelings when I read anti-girly blog posts. I spent much of my childhood persistently mistaken for a boy by strangers, and it did NOT make my life easier. If my girls want to love pink and poofy dresses, it might ease all the other ways that the girly girls will reject them.

Mad said...

It's not so much girlie-ness I mind--in fact I indulge in it myself; it's the lack of variety that pre-school girlie-ness brings with it. Pink is a superb colour to wear on Mondays when all the laundry is clean but there are other days and other colours too, you know? And that's where I resent franchising of girlie-ness so much. It's all just more and more strawberry ice cream, so much strawberry that eventually you don't even see the heavenly hash around you.

Have you and the Pie read Phoebe Gilman's Gypsy Princess? It's Miss M's favourite book right now. There's also Barbara McClintock's Dahlia. Both indulge girlie-ness while showing it up and bit and making it more. There's no listless daydreaming allowed in those books.

Mayberry said...

My son is similarly proprietary about the letter O (his first initial). O is his and any words that contain it are also his.

Sue said...

We've been though the Princess stage and are now sliding toward Hannah Montana, despite the fact that they've never actually SEEN Hannah Montana. She's just a cultural FORCE, in the air my preschoolers and first grader breathe. I'm sort of nostalgic for the Princesses right now.

If you want Princess books that have a little message that girls can and should do more than spend their days dancing around (although my five year old objects to this theory), try the Scholastic Disney Princess Collection. Each book has a theme, like A Story About Being Dependable, where Snow White is dependable, or A Story About Working Hard, where (shockingly) Mulan works hard. They're about as well written as you might expect (which is to say - not really), but there are PLENTY of Princesses hanging around.

ewe are here said...

I adored Lady and the Tramp as a child. As well as most of the other disney movies... I was such the disney child, right after wild kingdom. ;-)

And I, too, preferred Anne Shirley... just loved the series so much.

Liz said...

As they say, this too shall pass. My daughter's birthday party theme when she turned 3 was Disney Princesses, and when she turned 4, it was... Superman. This year, she's clamoring for Batman. And yet, her favorite color is still pink, she loves putting on "makeup" and jewelry, and playing mother to her stuffed animals. So don't despair -- Pie will find her stride and learn to take what she likes and leave the rest and to heck with worrying about whether it's for boys or girls.

Though my daughter does still insist that only she is allowed to love her little brother.

Merle said...

Have your tried Mulan yet? She is an incredibly strong female character. But her personality sometimes is strikingly reminisent of Asperger syndrome. A good story though. I wonder if Pie would classify it as a girl's movie or a boy's movie.

Pieces said...

Pink has always been my favorite color and I'm not ashamed to say it.

Beck said...

For whatever reason, the Disney Princess cabal have never really seized my daughters' imaginations. My oldest daughter likes the Disney Fairies quite a bit right now, though.
The thing about very young childish passions is that they DO pass quickly - unless we find them really objectionable (like Bratz), we pretty much just wait them out.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

The other day one of my friends referred to my daughter as a tomboy, which surprised me because my daughter is always playing the mommy. Granted she's mothering dinosaurs and reptiles; but still she sings to them and tucks them into bed and orders them around. That behavior seems pretty girlie to me. But what do I know? She rarely wears pink. Maybe that makes her a tomboy.

We have only watched the original princess movies, not the derivations, and both my kids found them terrifying. The Little Mermaid scared them so much we had to turn it off. So I find the whole Disney Princess thing interesting. Pretty good marketing!

Bea said...

Merle - Her classification system seems linked more to the gender of the protagonist than to the plot. (So does that mean that she perceives the Tramp to be the main character in Lady and the Tramp? Or that dogs throw her sensors offline?)

Jennifer - Bub hides in the kitchen for the scary parts, but Pie laps them up. (Bub loves all the kissing and dancing at the end of The Beauty and the Beast, so gender stereotypes have not yet completely taken hold.)

bren j. said...

A couple of friends whose daughters will both turn four this year have tried to assure me that pink is just a phase that every little girl goes through. I guess we'll see.

"My name is 2." Love that!

Cyndi said...

Someone told me the other day that I reminded them of Elasta girl. I thought that was a pretty good compliment.

Kia said...

Strange, in a way, isn't it? Since he was old enough to talk, Little Man has made the distinction that some things are for girls and some things are for boys. Never are the paths allowed to cross or even run parallel. If I need to go into the "girls' section" of the toy store to buy a gift, I am up against some pretty hefty opposition: "No, mommy! No! I can't go there. It's for GIRLS!" Horror...

Kyla said...

BubTar is very much this way, even still at 6. KayTar loves everything, regardless of gender rules.

Andrea said...

I don't object to girliness. I object to the equation of girliness with passivity and a deep, inarticulate need to be the prettiest girl in the room. Not to mention this idea that being the prettiest girl in the room will net you a handsome prince and Happily Ever After. Unless we're talking about Bratz, in which case it seems a rampant competition to be thought the hottest young thang at the dance via clothing that could be wadded up and stuffed in the average jeans pocket.

to me, that's not 'girliness.' Or at least, not a model of girliness I'd ever want to subject an actual girl to.

I am beyond fortunate that Frances just has no interest in any of these things. Thank the gods. I would have no idea what to do with her if she did. She loves pink, but the Disney princesses and Bratz have (so far, knock on wood) passed us right by. And I think she's still plenty girly, but in a really good, "I like to be strong" way. (I try really hard not to laugh when she shows me her muscles. Sometimes I succeed, and sometimes I fail.)

did you ever see the sendup of the disney princesses in the third shrek movie?

fiona--all right, we have to find a way out of here NOW.

snow white--you're right.

(other princesses sit down, lie down, nod off).

fiona--umm, what are you doing?

sleeping beauty--waiting to be rescued.

Hannah said...

Sadly, while Elastigirl is teh AWESOME, her daughter Violet not so much, because when Violet is finally empowered enough to use her superpower at the appropriate time, all that really comes of it is that the cutest boy in school suddenly finds her attractive and asks her out.


I liked Beth March best - until she died. Although I loved Jo, too. I have more Jo in me than Beth - no one has ever said I am too kind for this world. ;)

Alpha DogMa said...

What does she make of Flushed Away? Rita is my kind of action hero.

I was a Jo girl, but was thoroughly pissed when she turned down Laurie. I was and still am an odd blend of tomboy and romantic.

I was thrilled to have a girl, and I was - and still am - unconvinced that girliness is something to be ashamed of. Hear. Hear.

Marian said...

"My name is two." Cute! We have a similar possessiveness of the number 3 here. My girly girl was indignant that her Daddy took seat #3 when they went to a major league baseball game last weekend. Clearly, that was supposed to be hers, and hers alone. He couldn't even reason that his forty-THREE years qualified.

Have you ever read the book Captivating, by John and Stasi Elderidge? I'm reading it right now. It illuminates the value, divine significance of, and battle against a woman's deepest "girly" desires to be romanced, to have "an irreplaceable role in a great adventure," and to have a beauty to unveil. I'm getting a lot out of it so far, both for myself and for raising my daughter.

Bea said...

Marian - We were at a Major League baseball game this weekend too! And everyone wanted to sit on the chair that was the same as their age.

Monica Shen said...

The Incredibles has a whole section about clothing design - of course it's a girl movie. ;)

Jennifer said...

Believe it or not, the Barbie movies are often way better than the Disney princesses in terms of portraying girls as strong and powerful. The Fairytopia series, in Mermaidia, the Barbie character teams up with a mermaid to rescue a merman. Despite the not-so-good animation, I prefer my daughter to watch that than, say, the obviously dated Snow White or the unspeakably stupid Ariel (lessee, disobeys and betrays Dad, gives up entire life for man she has seen once, and then DAD is the one who apologizes at the end?! The songs are pretty, though).

painted maypole said...

oh my, this is very much my world. and this: "We had Cinderella and Snow White in my day, of course, but they had not yet formed a posse and achieved world domination. " YES!

Elaine said...

Like many effective subversives working against a pervasive culture, you must be subtle and insidious. Appear to co-operate while undermining the enemy. Start with Robert Munsch's Paperbag Princess. Add in a little Jane Yolen - Dove Isabeau is an excellent example of a young girl who finds true love despite a sordid and guilty (albeit while under a magic enchantment) past - she even gets married in red, if that isn't too much symbolism for you! Move on to Robin McKinley's Beauty. Go find A Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Pope (retelling the Scottish story of Tam Lin - another tale where the girl saves the hero).

There are ways to fight the Disneyfication of our children's world! Fight the good fight!

Sorry - a little over the top - my kids loved Disney, and I have fond memories of some Disney. It helps, though, to search out strong stories to balance out the simple ones.

Elaine said...

Came back to add 2 more suggestions, this time animated movies (actually Japanese anime, but dubbed in English) by Miyazaki:

Kiki's Delivery Service and Spirited Away.

Both have intrepid girl protagonists. It's been a while since I watched them though, so I'm not sure of age-appropriateness.

I really enjoy your blog!

the new girl said...

Oh, oh. I LOVE it.

'..they had not yet formed a posse and achieved world domination...'

Awesome, Bea.

Jaelithe said...

Quick! Take her to see Wall-E and be sure to point out repeatedly that the robot EVE, who can solve a Rubix cube in a millisecond, does biochemical analysis for a living, and has gun in her arm that shoots energy blasts strong enough to topple a row of shipping freighters, is a girl.

And after that let's all write Pixar and tell them that next time around we want their MAIN character to be a girl.

Who is NOT a princess.

Cuz I've lost hope for the rest of Disney.

Sus said...

I always wanted desparately to be a tomboy (my mother is a judge and my dad stayed home with the kids), but wound up a girly girl - decorating being my business and costume jewelry a genuine motivator. Don't you hate those commercial books at the bookstore? Wish they wouldn't place them so low to the ground. Beautiful post.

kittenpie said...

Elastigirl is so my hero.

I agree that girly doesn't have to mean weak, but that seems to be the presentation so often, it makes me cringe. So I tell those stories with my own little twists for now, since she doesn't see the movies yet, and seek out princess stories with princesses of more substance. I don't believe in sitting around waiting for things to happen or falling in love at first sight, certainly not with the first prince that happens by. Pah.