Dear Aunt Debbie,
The Fairy's Return is next on our list of chapter books after The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle. Eleanor really likes the cover, natch. I'm glad to know that it's a little post-modern (though what else would I expect from the woman who bought me the anthology Stories for Free Children?). In the last month or so, Eleanor has been hitting the princess obsession hard, and it's driving me a little crazy.
We've written before (here and here, among other places) about the inescapable allure of princess stories, and the ways in which the Disney machine has commodified what might have started as a natural interest into a full-scale kid lifestyle. Eleanor's 4th birthday brought a host of new princess products into our house (mostly courtesy of her friends, who got her what she asked for), and with them and the post-birthday letdown has come a period of trying behavior. At preschool, she told one of her teachers that she was bored with Circle Time and only wanted "to talk about princesses." Coming home last week, she was asked by a neighbor if she liked cats: "No, I only like princesses." It doesn't seem to matter to her that this isn't objectively true: the Doctor Dolittle she's so heavily into right now is about the farthest thing possible from a princess story, and over the weekend she had a great time at the Brooklyn Children's Museum watching sea anemones, then painted a pretty awesome underwater scene featuring a jellyfish. But there's something about the marketing of Disney Princess that has infiltrated the way she conceptualizes what she is, and should be, interested in.
In short, I am the target audience for Peggy Orenstein's new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter. I bought it this weekend at our local independent bookstore after reading Eleanor yet another godawful flat story from a Disney Princess Golden Book. (Our bargain is that I'll read them to her in the store or the library, but we won't take them home because they're badly written.) I'm only a couple of chapters in, but let me tell you, Orenstein speaks to my soul. She's recycling some of the material that has appeared in the NYT magazine over the last decade (I linked to my favorite of her pieces here), and has expanded and added new iterations of the same basic idea: Yes, your experience as a parent that girls' choices of what to play with and how to play are being steadily pinkened and narrowed is correct. This is what's happening, and it may seem fairly innocent, but it's actually kind of scary. I am filled with righteous outrage!
And so again, what do I do about it?
My mother-in-law gave Eleanor a new alternate-princess book for her birthday, and she's been enjoying it. Babette Cole's Princess Smartypants is written in the mode of The Paper Bag Princess. In this story, Princess Smartypants wants to hang out with her monster pets and stay single ("She enjoyed being a Ms.") rather than marry any of her many suitors. She sets them all impossible tasks, then watches happily as they fail. Then Prince Swashbuckle shows up. He seems a good match for her -- he too can roller-disco till dawn -- but when he passes all her tests, she turns him into a toad with a magic kiss and gets to live happily alone again.
On the one hand, I like the humor here, and the reversal of expectations, and Princess Smartypants's overalls and monsters. On the other, her name bugs me: "Smartypants," in my experience, isn't a positive thing to be called. (Did I mention that several of the princess-y things Eleanor got for her birthday were made by a brand called "Klutz"?) Also, she's kind of a jerk to Prince Swashbuckle, who looks a little smarmy but just does what she's asked him to do.
Reading this book, among all the others, makes me wonder what I'm really looking for. Do I want a better model of princess, or just less princess in general? Am I overreacting to what will turn out to be a nice little pre-feminist stage? Thank goodness for Isabel's taste in books and products, which has lately expanded from dog ("Aaa-ooooo!") to monkey ("Mun-kee!"). Animals feel like such a relief.