The moment I learned I was pregnant, I grew excited to read to my unborn child. Books mean a lot to me, and I was eager to share my favorite narratives with my kid. To re-experience the joys of a story through the eyes and ears of a fresh human specimen—what a delight!
But something deeply disturbing happened as I sorted through old copies of the children’s books my parents had tucked away for so many years, hoping for grandkids. I realized quite quickly that a lot of books for kids are riddled with not-so-subtly sexist messages.
Let’s face it: Amelia Bedelia is a well-meaning idiot. And the gender norms baked into the Frances books and so many others are strikingly outdated. In one study published by the journal Gender & Society, 6,000 children’s books released between 1900 and 2000 were evaluated. Researchers found that male central characters were almost twice as likely to be featured as female ones, an imbalance that exists whether the characters are human or animal.
As a new mom, I crave better, more equitable stories for my daughter, and I know I’m not alone. I have friends who regularly change the words while reading books aloud to their children, haphazardly censoring the sexism as they go.
Last week, I had lunch with a girlfriend whose 12-year-old niece recently asked her to watch The Little Mermaid. My friend sat in discomfort as she digested what unfolded on screen: “A prince falling for a woman who literally has no voice!” Should you be watching this??? she wondered. In the midst of the #metoo movement, the issue of consent at the heart of Sleepy Beauty’s “awakening” by a prince has also come into focus.
And the list goes on.
The fact is that many beloved classic children’s books and films are highly problematic, or at the very least, no longer relevant.
While Disney executives struggle to find the right balance in modernizing classic princess characters to salvage longtime profitable franchises, I say screw princesses altogether. Screw princess culture and the toxic lessons it teaches our sons and daughters. Screw the lazy damsel-in-distress plotlines underlying so many “romantic” narratives from decades past.
What is a princess, exactly? Someone entitled, by birthright or marriage, to a tiara and a relatively easy, glamorous life. No matter how many layers you add to her personality or trials you throw her way, a princess is still, effectively, a super-privileged girl by way of birth or nuptials. By romanticizing the life of princesses, we teach young girls to aspire to something unattainable (unless you’re Meghan Markle, I guess), and, well, silly. It’s like teaching your kid economics by encouraging them to play the lottery.
Becoming a princess doesn’t involve developing valuable skills, or figuring out how to live a life of purpose. Of course, neither does becoming a unicorn. But unicorns are vehicles of imagination that lack any real world ties whatsoever.
The solution? I don’t know!
But, I figure, we might as well start by writing some updated stories to read to our kids, thereby providing them some better role models.
In a frenzy of inspiration during pregnancy, I wrote my debut children’s book: You Are Not A Princess (And That’s Ok!), which is now available. This book is a manifesto for modern moms and dads and their kids. It’s about the importance of understanding the difference between dreaming, and reality. It’s about developing a sense of self-worth rooted in your authentic desires. It’s about grit.
Above all, You Are Not A Princess (And That’s Ok!) is about rejecting the limitations of being a princess. I truly hope your family enjoys it, and the progressive message it reflects. If we want to raise our girls and boys to be more evolved, we need more modern books for babies and kids.