“Oh! How cute! You’re Snow White!” I exclaimed over the blue-and-yellow-clad puffy-sleeved curly-haired moppet standing in front of me. Her face was orange and sticky with Tootsie Roll Pop, but she beamed, suitably princess-like, as I oohed and ahhed over her costume.
Thanks to some perverse karmic glitch, I was once scheduled to work Halloween night at a retail store in the local shopping mall, and that particular mall promoted safe celebration of the holiday by offering candy to all the little tykes who come trekking by in costume begging for their requisite tricks-or-treats. So there I stood behind my counter, watching as throngs of small children descended upon the store like a plague of locusts, eager for a sugar fix. Little boys streamed in dressed as Batman, Superman, Spiderman, Iron Man, and all sorts of other heroic superheroes sporting the suffix “–man” who embark on deeds of daring and have hair-raising adventures.
As the night wore on, however, I began to notice that roughly 95 percent of the little girls who came into the store were dressed as Disney princesses. While I am as much of a princess fan as the next girl (it’s no secret to anyone that at the ripe old age of almost-28, I still sleep under The Little Mermaid bedsheets), and being married myself, I have no particular beef with the institution of marriage, I couldn’t help but wonder what this stark contrast between little boys and little girls’ costume choices says about the Western zeitgeist.
For as much as we, as a nation, claim to have produced several generations of independent, bright, motivated, “free-thinking” women, to have successfully flouted and defied traditional gender norms and done away with the atrocity of sex-based discrimination — we still fundamentally subvert our own best intentions by raising our daughters on pink frilly fantasies and unrealistic expectations.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t consider myself a rabid feminist (maybe a moderate one). I believe in marriage and motherhood, and I believe that both are beautiful and necessary vocations for those to whom that opportunity has been given. There is certainly nothing wrong with a little girl aspiring to such a future. But as Princess Odette so poignantly asks Prince Derek in The Swan Princess (not a Disney film, commenters, I know!): “Thank you… but what else?” We have fundamentally and tragically, I think, etched into the subconscious minds of our children that boys have superpowers and fight crime while girls sit around being beautiful and having tea parties and taking ballet lessons for about twenty years until some Prince Charming comes along and rescues them from their trite and meaningless existence. We might as well be actively telling our daughters that life begins at marriage, because that’s the message we are unintentionally sending them from the day we first plunk them in front of Sleeping Beauty. (Seriously, does Princess Aurora do a damn thing of her own initiative in the entire movie? And that’s bracketing the fact that she spends half of it asleep.)
Then, perplexingly, we have the gall to wonder why our little girls wind up with body image issues and dazzlingly low self-esteem, why they’ve got such a fragmented sense of identity, why they are increasingly defining themselves by the size of their jeans and by whose elbow they’re dangling on that particular week, why they’re losing their virginity at progressively younger and younger ages out of a desperate desire to feel loved, validated, and appreciated.
We do a far better job of instilling a sense of independence and self-reliance in our boys, and it’s about freaking time we did our little girls a favor and let them know that they can choose their own adventures all by themselves for a while (or forever if they so choose), that they don’t need to be a doe-eyed ingenue with a tiara to have human dignity and worth, that singleness is a richly fulfilling lifestyle as well, and a lifestyle to which all of us, at least at some period in our lives, are or were called upon to embrace. They need to be taught that marriage isn’t the sum and summit of a girl’s life, but rather a happy and lovely part of some girls’ lives. The inevitable princess phase must be counterbalanced by a lineup of well-rounded flesh-and-blood female role models in both their daily lives and in their media consumption, lest they come to idolize Cinderella for snagging Prince Charming and Ariel for her killer abs and preternaturally small waist.
Fantasy has a very important role in both the fully fledged childhood and in the fully actualized adult life. There’s no denying that. But it’s all about balance; it’s about beginning — or continuing — to impart to all the little girls we love that life is about more than fitting a glass slipper, that marriage is a lifelong mutual partnership intended for the good of both parties and not a magical fairy-tale panacea to all human ills.
So, to that sweet little girl who came in that night dressed as Snow White: don’t ever forget that you can be a princess AND a superhero. With or without a sidekick.