On a daily basis in my house, I hear what should I be for Halloween, Mama? What should I be? What should I be? "You could be a cat again," I suggest, thinking first of costumes we already have or that would be easy and inexpensive to assemble. Hermione Granger? A dancer? A butterfly? Then I get creative. We could make something, I offer. An iPhone? A jellyfish? For a few years, that worked, but not anymore. Now my girls want to play princesses.
When they were babies, I vowed to raise feminists, free to be whomever they wanted, identify however felt right to them, and love whomever they wanted. From the time they were very young, I presented the world as a rainbow of options. I, raised in the era of Free To Be You And Me, and assured my girls whenever we sang "Mommies Are People" that, despite what the song said, they really could grow up even to be daddies if they wanted to. I dressed them in brightly colored and comfortable clothing, avoiding obvious labels, licensed merchandise, and pink. I told myself I would never subject my girls to gender stereotypes like makeup and manicures and princesses.
I started out strong. They attended play-based schools where kids of all genders showed up in overalls and hand-me-downs. We played in the dirt as often as we baked. I was that mom whose kids were the only ones in their class never to see Star Wars, on account of the violence, but I didn’t care.
As time went on, my girls had their own ideas. My older daughter found my only pair of high heels buried deep in a closet, saved for some hypothetical future event demanding heels, and clip clopped around the house in them. My younger daughter insisted on playing with the tester lipsticks in Sephora one day when I pulled her in there to grab a hair masque. I steered her toward glittery glosses. “No! Red!” she shrieked.
Once when we weren’t around, someone showed them the Disney movie Peter Pan. I was horrified that they’d been exposed to overt sexism, racism, and bullying in one fell swoop, and explained why this movie was terrible, awful, no-good. They appeared undamaged and again, I was relieved.
Over time, my girls continued to assert themselves. No, I want the pink one, my younger daughter said sometimes when I tried to steer her toward grey or blue. Though my older usually preferred cat headbands and tails, she’d occasionally announce that she wanted to wear her fairy wings and a tiara instead. Once during a game of dress up, my older daughter drew a vertical line in black marker on my younger daughter’s décolletage, giving her the appearance of cleavage. I was shocked more than amused. But when these games were over or when the pink dress was dirty, nobody complained about going back to sneakers and leggings, to messy hair and art supplies, to bug costumes and doctor kits.
On NPR, I caught a snippet of an interview with Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, and from what little I heard I took away the message that princess culture is wholly unavoidable but also, with some effort, manageable. Gradually I began to change my opinion on Disney princesses, in part because I had little choice. Some of the newer movies, I reasoned somewhat weakly, had very strong female characters. I allowed Disney into our house on a limited basis. My girls gravitated toward Princess Anna and Queen Elsa. I could not argue with the message of sisterly love as the truest love, and I found myself encouraging it. Bending the rules led to movies like Tangled, Moana, and The Princess and the Frog. Bambi, Dumbo, and Pinocchio remained verboten, but before I knew it, the girls had seen basically every movie in the Disney princess pantheon and more.
My kids are equal parts artist, rebel, thinker, wizard, and, yes, princess.
When my younger daughter, born with a neurological disability, chose to meet and dress up as one of the Disney princesses for her Make-A-Wish adventure, I was both excited and concerned. Part of me knew she would have the time of her life while the rest of me worried that she was internalizing ableism, subconsciously wishing that some concept of Prince Charming would come along and rescue her from the body she has and with a kiss, transform her into an able-bodied heroine. That was entirely possible, I fretted, but at the same time I reasoned that the messages she received at home as she matured could counter this. She was undeterred in selecting her wish. I had to hedge my bets and went along with it.
I needn’t have worried. We all had a great time at Disney. When the day for her princess transformation came, my daughter wheeled herself right into Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique and over to a green medieval-looking dress. “I’m ready for my princess makeover,” she announced, "and I want to be Merida."
“Merida?” I repeated. I was sure she would pick someone trendier, fancier, pinker. “Merida,” she insisted.
Why Merida? "Because she’s strong and brave," she said. “Like me. That's why.” I could not argue. And when the princess sparkles and hairspray and glittery lip gloss wore off, she didn't ask to wear it all again. My kids are equal parts artist, rebel, thinker, wizard, and, yes, princess. It's fun to try on new identities, to pretend to be someone or something else, and I can let them do that without worrying I'm introducing hatred and bigotry. The princess craze may have infiltrated our house and our lives, but the pervasive message I worried it would bring seems to have been checked at the door. If they want to be princesses for Halloween, I decided, I'm OK with it.
Out riding bikes with my older daughter a few days ago, we were talking once again about Halloween costumes. So, which princess did you decide on? I asked her. Well, I was going to be Belle, she said, but I think I decided I want to be Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter instead. She's smart and she's weird and I can just wear my Ravenclaw robe and uniform. Will you buy me a blonde wig?
Yes! I thought. But before I could answer, I saw a group of pedestrians approaching. I called to my daughter to get in single file on the bike path to allow them by. “Following the leader, the leader, the leader…” she sang as she sped up to get in front of me. I interrupted the song. “Ugh, that movie!” I snorted. I reminded her what a mean, misogynistic, racist piece of garbage Peter Pan was. “I know, Mama, I know all that,” she sighed. “But I just want to sing the song, OK?”
OK, kiddo. OK.
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