A feminist mom makes peace with pink, Disney Princesses and Barbie

Lily's aluminum can houseboat - though it more has the feel of a pontoon boat, doesn't it?

Lily’s aluminum can houseboat – though it kind of seems more like a pontoon boat, doesn’t it?

I’m ending 2013 with a bald confession: I’m a feminist, and yet my two young daughters, ages 5 and 2, play often with Barbies (particularly in the bathtub, for some reason); they adore Barbie and Disney movies; they like the colors pink and purple; and they eat many of their meals on Disney princess plates.

Does this make me a failed feminist mom? Aren’t I worried about the potentially corrosive effects of conventional, “traditionally” gendered media/toys?

A little. Sometimes. But frankly, not really. Because my daughters also like playing with Legos, and Lincoln logs, and marble raceways, and face paint; and they like watching “Word Girl” and “Wonder Woman” and “Pippi Longstocking” (and Lily’s currently addicted to hearing Nancy Drew chapters read to her each night); and they like all kinds of different colors, not just pink and purple.

Plus, something that happened this past weekend only strengthened my resolve to keep encouraging my daughters to play freely with what they want, in the way they want: Lily, my 5 year old, collected aluminum cans from our recycling bin and went on to build – with mounds of masking tape, of course – a houseboat, upon which she seated two of her Barbies.

I couldn’t have asked for a more salient metaphor.

For Lily, left to her own devices, pursued a creative building activity – something for which the Girls in STEM crowd is always advocating – that also incorporated her hyper-feminized Barbies into the mix. She didn’t need a nudge from her feminist mom. She just needed freedom to experiment.

So while many of us are reading and arguing about the bright pink toy aisles in stores blatantly geared to girls – how they make our eyes bleed with frustration, and how the toys in those aisles relentlessly steer girls toward “traditionally” feminine values and interests – the truth is that, speaking as a feminist mom with boots on the ground, kids will make toys out of whatever materials surround them, and explore the various parts of themselves through play.

Before I had daughters, I’d planned, like a good feminist, to avoid Barbies – they arrived in my home nonetheless, despite my best efforts – and I thought I’d guide a daughter’s attention as far away from the Disney princesses (and their ilk) as I possibly could.

But because I’m a mom whose job takes her outside the home each weekday, both my girls were in daycare from the time they were 3 months old. And guess what? They learned about these characters from their social interactions with other kids, and they quickly came to love playing dress-up in the characters’ clothes, and playing with dolls that looked like them.

Thus, I had to stare down the conflict that raged between my ideals and my unfolding reality pretty quickly after becoming a mom. And my instincts told me, loud and clear, not to dictate Lily’s playtime. Yes, I’d hoped that princesses and Barbies would be part of a short-lived phase, but I also knew I needed to let her go where she needed to go.

Lily picked a scary monster face paint design while wearing a pink dress. I loved the contrast.

Lily picked a scary monster face paint design while wearing a delicate pink dress. I loved the contrast.

And she’s obviously fine, having developed into an outspoken, smart kindergartner who also happens to be a fantastic big sister to Neve. (I knew we were OK when, at 3, while deciding on a face paint design, Lily picked the scariest-looking monster while also wearing a pink dress with white polka dots. She trucks effortlessly between socially constructed gender modes, as she should.)

So while I understand feminists’ annoyance with pink’s dominance in products geared to girls – believe me, I get it, and even share it at times – I also must admit that the knee-jerk, intense hostility to all things traditionally viewed as “feminine” strikes me as a strange brand of feminist misogyny. Because if we’re teaching our girls that all things that have come to signify the feminine are “less than” and bad, then … what are they to make of themselves as young women?

This isn’t just a rhetorical question; I have an answer. For as a child of the ‘70s who grew up hearing that women could now pursue any field they wanted, I came to look down my nose at my own stay-at-home mom (an embarrassing memory that pains me me confess) while trying like mad to be as much like my sports-watching, engineer father as possible. To my childish mind, the feminist equation boiled down to this: to be a strong woman, you had to be more like a man.

I was wrong, obviously. But I was also just a kid who had her wires crossed about a challenging issue.

So I eschewed all things girly as a kid, including dresses; I kept my things in a wallet, never a purse (something that holds over to today); I soaked up the lexicon and rules of football and basketball; I didn’t get my ears pierced, nor did I ever wear makeup; when it came time to choose an instrument, I picked a traditionally male one (trombone); I actively sought male friends; and I echoed men in the way I generically criticized other women (prone to cat fights, too talky, too focused on trivial matters, too obsessed with appearance, etc.).

I’m cringing as I write this, believe me – especially now that I know precisely how hard it IS to be a stay-at-home mom, and have come appreciate (too late) how crazy-successful my mom was at her job – but I’m afraid it’s all true. For more years than I care to admit, this kind of behavior is what I thought made one an empowered woman.

Which brings me back to my point: when we shut off young girls’ access to what we collectively consider “feminine,” or do nothing but bad-mouth it, aren’t we sending them this same message of self-loathing? Isn’t feminism about having choices, instead of simply replacing all-things feminine with all-things masculine? Yes, we should support and champion girls and women who break down long-established barriers, and who resist traditional roles and categorization. But isn’t there room for all kinds of young girls within the tent of feminism, not just those who prefer the Batman and Star Wars sections of the toy store?

Frankly, it took me too damn long to untangle my own very, very confused ideas about feminism, and I don’t want my daughters to have the same misconceptions. I want them to find their own way, having all kinds of options available, and I’ll see where they go from there.

So I’m not scared of the color pink, or Barbie, or the Disney princesses. And here are a few reasons why.

1. I can choose to discuss what I most admire about a story’s characters. This is sometimes a challenge (see Ariel, Aurora, etc.). But Tiana knows that wishing for something has to be followed up by hard work, or an ambition isn’t likely to be realized, so she pushes herself with discipline and focus. Mulan bravely takes on the role of a soldier to protect her father. Merida knows her mind and is willing to stand up for her right to not marry. Belle has a passion for reading and isn’t seduced by a brainless pretty face. Elsa and Anna value the bond that comes with sisterhood. On and on and on. If we only harp on the negative in these narratives, I think we lose an important opportunity to reinforce the good stuff.

2. I consumed far more retrograde stories about girls/young women as a child, and I grew up to be a feminist anyway. The movies we watch, the stories we absorb, and the toys we play with as kids aren’t our destiny. They’re just pieces in a pretty complicated puzzle, and I’m inclined to think that my girls bearing witness daily to the equal partnership that is my marriage, and the way I pursue a healthy lifestyle, and the passion and pride I have in regard to my work will have a far greater influence on their conception of what it means to be a strong, self-respecting woman than any doll or a pink toy store aisle.

3. You ultimately choose how much you buy into a kid’s obsession – which is to say, while you can’t easily keep something like Barbies out of your house entirely, you can limit its presence. This struck me particularly when shopping for items for Lily’s birthday party. I could have bought Rapunzel napkins and Rapunzel plates and Rapunzel cups when she was at the height of her “Tangled”-mania, but I opted instead for rainbow-colored items. And while she has a Rapunzel blanket – purchased when luring her into a toddler bed from a crib – her room has no theme. It’s purple, with a few framed pictures on the wall. She has a few shirts with characters on them, but not many. As parents, we don’t have to join them in their all-or-nothing fervor. And we probably shouldn’t, given how temporary their manias are.

4. Because I don’t pressure Lily about playing with one thing or another, she accepts other kids’ taste in playthings without a second thought. She has one little gal pal who’s into Ninja Turtles and superhero weaponry, and a little neighbor boy she used to play with, before he moved away, had a dollhouse, and none of it matters. Lily just wants to play with whatever catches her fancy at any given time, and engage with her friends.

5. You can argue for “gender neutral toys” all you want, but I’ve witnessed how my daughter plays, and for better or for worse, it bears out the statistics – which is to say that when she’s playing with Legos, she builds a house for her little Lego people, complete with a table, a bed, a cool, elevated loft, etc., and creates a narrative. So while I had knee-jerk doubts about the whole Lego Friends thing, it totally clicked for Lily, and she suddenly showed an interest in Legos that she didn’t have before. Meanwhile, the supposedly STEM-geared Goldie Blox game I ordered, lured by the Kickstarter video that baldly played to feminist moms, has been played with just two or three times since Lily’s birthday last May, and we exhausted its possibilities pretty quickly and got bored. So nothing’s a surefire panacea.

One reason I was inspired to write this post is because, at Halloween, some feminist groups’ Facebook pages made a point of featuring photos of girls who dresssed in costumes that were decidedly “un-girly” – costumes that suggested fierceness, and power, and independence.

My witch and little Elmo at Halloween

My witch and little Elmo at Halloween

While clicking through these, I sheepishly thought of my own daughters, who dressed as a little witch and Elmo. A photo of them, though cute, would never rack up the “likes” and adulation that was piling up for others. But then I thought, who cares? Whose approval am I seeking, for God’s sake? I know Lily and Neve are smart girls who speak up for themselves and fight for what they want, and for what they think is right. I know how invested I am, and how invested my husband is, in focusing on what’s important – like education, communication, family, good health practices, engagement, compassion, and love – and letting the rest fall away. And I know that parenting is a marathon, not a sprint.

So I’ve just had to make peace with finding clusters of wet Barbies around the house, and endlessly laundering an Ariel nightgown we found at a moms sale.

For I’ve recently come to realize that – in our house, anyway – these items often feed into the spontaneous construction of things like aluminum can houseboats.

And far be it from me to shut down such imaginative impulses.

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