Yesterday my mother-in-law texted me about an article she’d read in The New York Times discussing the influence of Disney Princess play on children, accompanied by the kind compliment that, according to the research, we’ve got this thing dialed.
And with respect to our son, that’s certainly what the data suggests. According to the recent study cited in the article, boys like Brooks who have “higher princess involvement” (aka boys with princess-y big sisters) showed increased interest in “stereotypically female behaviors” like quiet play, pretend cooking and cleaning, avoiding risks, getting dirty or trying new things. For these boys, the study posits, such behaviors are a valuable counterbalance to the hyper-masculinity of male culture. Higher princess involvement also increased interest in stereotypically female behaviors for girls, but the study identified this uptick as “potentially problematic.”
Hold your horses right there. Are we really telling girls that domestic activities and quiet play are bad, and risk-taking and getting dirty are good? This sounds less like female empowerment than an assertion that “good” girl behavior looks a lot like stereotypical boy behavior. What kind of message do I send to my girl when I encourage her, for her own good, to be…less girl-y?
Not every child, male or female, is going to be an extroverted, athletic, STEM superstar who loves dirt and taking risks. That may be the current blueprint for a conventionally successful person, but it isn’t the only path to success. History has been made by introverts and people who hate dirt, too.
I do appreciate the importance of varying a child’s play and we make a concerted effort to do so in our home: Legos, trucks, microscopes, and lightsabers are all available to my daughter just as much as tiaras and baby dolls. But I’d be lying to say that princess play, and specifically Disney Princess play, doesn’t still comprise a significant portion of her preferred daily activity. Isn’t the best approach to encourage children that there can be value in all abilities and interests whether they conform to gender stereotypes or not?
So, well-meaning social scientists, please stop worrying about my child. She dresses up like a Disney Princess every day, but when I ask her what she wants to be when she grows up, the answer (for today) is cop/veterinarian/mommy, not Princess Aurora. Because she can tell the difference between make-believe and real life even if she’s dressed in head-to-toe pink glitter. This princess is all right.