Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/4/2015 (2195 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
I tried to relax about the whole princess thing. You might say I worked hard to let it go. My six-year-old daughter seems OK so far. Yes, she pretends to be Princess Anna from Frozen. But she pretends also to be Piggie from the Elephant and Piggie book series, Paddington Bear, and Orphan Annie. The list goes on.
As far as I can tell, princesses have attracted her attention, but have not entrapped her. Plus, she is on to me. Each time she plays princess, she states "Don't worry! I'm an active princess. I'm not lying around waiting for some prince to save me. I do stuff, and I don't mind getting muddy." In other words, relax!
I tried. I'd like to think I was doing well, for months even. I did not cringe when she got invited to one princess party, then another, then another. In our life of pretending, I happily played the role of Olaf the snowman from Frozen so she could be Princess Anna and her little brother could be Princess Elsa. I smiled as the two of them screamed "let it go" while jumping on the trampoline in dresses and tiaras.
But then I learned that boys do not get invited to princess parties, and I instantly got tense again about princesses. Maybe I'm clueless. I should have known. It was a teacher who filled me in. "Your son is doing well socially," he said during our parent-teacher interview.
"That's a relief," I replied. "I was worried. He's not invited to as many birthday parties as his sister is, even though they play with many of the same kids."
"Nothing to do with him," the teacher said confidently. "Usually, invitations go to girls only or to boys only."
The conversation left me reassured about the kid's social skills but uneasy about the state of the world, or at least about the state of birthday parties for the middle-class, six-and-under set. Then I remembered that my kids have been invited to a few parties together: parties at the children's museum, parties at indoor playgrounds, and good old-fashioned parties at people's houses. While these parties sometimes feature separate goody bags for girls and boys, the underlying assumption is that all kids like museums, playgrounds and tearing around other people's homes. The underlying assumption of princess parties, on the other hand, is that girls like playing princess, while boys do not.
The thing is, though, that the young boys I know do like playing princess. And why not? Sparkly stuff rocks. And who wouldn't want to build an ice castle with their bare hands? At a recent princess party, I heard the little brother of the birthday girl ask, "Please could I be a princess, too?" When the answer is no, boys learn that playing princess is not cool, at least not for them. They can be pigs, bears or superheroes, but not human girls. That would be... girly?
Apparently, we disapprove of misogyny. We decry campus rape culture, and shake our heads at dentistry students' and celebrities' actions. Yet we unconsciously reproduce misogyny too, for instance, by deciding that boys would never consider a princess party. The message we send them is that to be girly is to be less than. If you're a girl, we implicitly agree, you're already less than, and so it's OK to play princess and do other things coded as feminine. But of course we want our girls to be strong, to thrive in this world in ways that they determine, and we want to create a world where this is possible. To do this, we need to open up the full spectrum of feelings and actions to all of our kids, however they identify on the spectrum of gender. And that means the possibility of princess parties for all.
My son's birthday is in September. He says he wants to go to Tinkertown for his party. Perhaps we will take Tinkertown by storm, with all the kids -- or all the kids who want to -- dressed as princesses. After all, it's fun to pretend, and it's exciting to live toward a world where we do not need to unlearn misogyny, because it doesn't exist.
Jocelyn Thorpe is an assistant professor in women's and gender studies at the University of Manitoba. She researches the history and legacy of colonialism in the Canadian context.