Turning the Princess Narrative Sideways

This is a guest post by Lynne Murray and Debbie. Debbie Notkin is a body image activist, a feminist science fiction advocate, and a publishing professional. She is chair of the motherboard of the Tiptree Award and will be one of the two guests of honor at the next WisCon in May 2012. Her co-blogger Laurie is a photographer whose photos make up the books Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes (edited and text by Debbie Notkin) and Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes (edited by Debbie Notkin, text by Debbie Notkin and Richard F. Dutcher). Laurie’s photographs have been exhibited in many cities, including New York, Tokyo, Kyoto, Toronto, Boston, London, Shanghai and San Francisco. Her solo exhibition “Meditations on the Body” at the National Museum of Art in Osaka featured 100 photographs. Her most recent project is Women of Japan, clothed portraits of women from many cultures and backgrounds. Laurie and Debbie blog together at Body Impolitic, talking about body image, photography, art and related issues. This post originally appeared on Body Impolitic.

Lynne Murray and Debbie say:

Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, blogs about her struggle with the creeping princess contagion:

When I first started writing about the Disney Princesses, people assumed my beef was with the girl waiting around to be rescued by the handsome prince. But honestly? I don’t get that passive vibe from little girls playing princess or from the merchandise sold them. For instance: how often do you see a prince doll at Toys’R’Us?

No, today’s princess is not about romance: it’s more about entitlement. I call it “girlz power” because when you see that “z” (as in Bratz, Moxie Girlz, Ty Girlz, Disney Girlz) you know you’ve got trouble. Girlz power sells self-absorption as the equivalent of self confidence and tells girls that female empowerment, identity, independence should be expressed through narcissism and commercialism.

Orenstein is halfway on to something here, but she doesn’t take it far enough. “Girlz” is a commoditized and commercialized version of “grrrls,” as in riot grrrls (and it’s not hard to find “riot girlz” in uncommodified contexts on Google). The motivation behind the new spelling was to break the old associations with the word “girls” (at that time, more about passive romance than about privilege and entitlement) and to create a new identity:

Young women involved in underground music scenes took advantage of this to articulate their feminist thoughts and desires through creating punk-rock fanzines and forming garage bands. The political model of collage-based, photocopied handbills and booklets was already used by the punk movement as a way to activate underground music, leftist politics and alternative (to mainstream) sub-cultures. Many women found that while they identified with a larger, music-oriented subculture, they often had little to no voice in their local scenes, so they took it upon themselves to represent their own interests by making their own fanzines, music and art.

The insidious ability of capitalism to take any radical idea, commoditize it and thus defang it, then came into play. It’s easy to imagine a board room conversation in which the (mostly male) executives decide that “grrrls” looks a little violent, but “girlz” has almost the same power and is catchy besides. And fewer people will mis-spell it. And it makes trademarking easier than trademarking something with “girls” in the title.

Thus, young women’s rage gets silently transformed into profit-making ventures which build, encourage and reward, as Orenstein says, “narcissism and commercialism.”

So what’s left for a parent to do?

I’ve mentioned here before that I’m not a graphically gifted person but still remember standing in a tiny little crafts store in Fairbanks, Alaska in the 1950s asking my parents to buy me a Paint by Number kit. The store owner said, “You could just get paints and paint your own picture.” At the time my father pointed out that the store sold local artists’ work and I think he guessed that the Paint by Numbers fad probably drove the owner and probably the other artists up the wall.

Even though I now paint pictures with words, this moment having a grownup suggest personal creativity over slavish imitation, influenced me. Adult intervention and encouragement can make a difference.

Aya de Leon presents a strategy in this interview by shosho at Mothership Hackermoms, describing a creative way to confront the overwhelmingly pervasive princess myths.

Last year, when my daughter was not quite two, we loved to go to this Salvadoran restaurant that had plenty of toys and books for families with toddlers.

As I sat on the couch by the kids’ table, my daughter handed me a board book about the size of my palm: Disney’s Snow White. The classic story was cut down to just eight pages, but it was the usual gist: Sweet princess, evil queen, apple, sleeping forever, kiss from the prince. You know the drill. This was before my daughter could even say the word princess. I was in charge. I had the power to define her world. Maybe that’s why, without a shred of defeat, I just offered up an alternative freestyle narrative to the pictures.

As the restaurant activities bustled around us, it was as if my daughter and I were in a little bubble of our own. I looked at the first picture, and tried to imagine a caption where the princess was a badass instead of a sweet young thing. I took a breath, and said the first thing that came to my mind: “Snow White was an animal rights activist…” With no one to contradict me, my daughter accepted my version and we turned the page.

With each new photo, I freestyled an alternative storyline.

De Leon’s freestyle Snow White narrative and a few other empowered princess stories can be read here. They made me laugh–and think! And they apply equally well to fighting the someday-my-prince-will-come narrative and the I-deserve-the-most-expensive-accessories narrative.

Clearly, parents who have daughters enthralled with the princess myths are involved in a serious cultural wrestling match with commercial giants. De Leon is up to the struggle. Here’s her conclusion about the power of personal intervention:

I can’t help but believe that re-writing the Disney stories aloud will help my daughter become a freestyler herself. I just want to encourage her in the business of making up the lyrics to her own life.

Yes, one day my daughter will learn to read and she will watch television shows and movies. But she won’t have me co-signing on each of those insane messages, she won’t have me passively accepting the narrative like a kiss on a sleeping woman’s lips.

Thanks to Natalie Boero, author of Killer Fat: Media, Medicine, and Morals in the American “Obesity Epidemic,” for the pointer to the de Leon post.


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42 Responses to Turning the Princess Narrative Sideways

  1. (BFing)Sarah says:

    SIIIGH. Yup, the days when my son can read are here and it is really hard to deal with some of the messages he is being given. We try to expose him to lots of different types of stories, but we definitely have some Disney stories that he now knows do not end with the “prince and princess having lots of fun adventures as friends.” Even worse, he found the religious kids books we hid in the closet and read them on his own as well. I didn’t even know what to say to that. The other day he asked me what “fat” means and why Francis was calling her friend that because he thought it was a bad word we don’t say. I was at a loss. Ummm…because its an old book and old books are sometimes filled with hateful crap? I don’t think that answer would have really helped. For now, I try to talk about the problematic aspects of the stories in a way that a 4 year old would understand. And we still revamp the stories we read to the two year old (as long as my son isn’t there to say, “THAT’S NOT WHAT IT SAYS”).

    • Emolee says:

      The other day he asked me what “fat” means and why Francis was calling her friend that because he thought it was a bad word we don’t say. I was at a loss.

      If you want to, you could tell him that fat is not a bad word; it is just a word to describe someone’s body, like tall or short or thin. I know this is a little tricky because while the word fat is not an insult, it is often used as one in our culture. On the one hand, if you tell him that fat is a neutral word, then he tells someone ze is fat, that person could become really offended if ze is not aware of the ideas of fat acceptance. But on the other hand, letting him believe that fat is an insult will inform his ideas about fat folks, and may contribute to the overall culture of fatphobia.

      Just my .02, obviously, handle as you see fit, definitely not trying to dictate to you, just give you a fat person’s perspective.

      Anecdote Alert:
      Many years ago, I was really close to a friend’s child because I took care of him a lot. One day he called me fat in front of his mother. He was smiling when he said it, and I did not detect any animosity and was not offended (and this was before I knew about fat acceptance). I was rushing out the door for an unrelated reason, so I don’t think I said anything back. But the next time I showed up at their house, his mom made him apologize, and *that* made me feel bad, like she was saying that something about me was so awful that it should never be spoken aloud. This little boy was someone who had told me many times before that I was beautiful, but when his mom made him apologize for calling me fat, it may have made him think of fat people negatively, when he had not before.

      • (BFing)Sarah says:

        That’s something I have not considered before! I’m so glad to get your perspective, because I think it would be ideal if it were neutral. I think my concern would be that most people don’t see it as a neutral word and even if he says it as a descriptor term without judgment I would worry that it would hurt people’s feelings. I know most people in my family don’t see it neutrally and I don’t even know what kind of chaos would ensue if he called anyone that. I try never to use that word because it has so many negative connotations for me. I was raised in a house with someone who was hospitalized for an eating disorder and who still struggles with it, so it makes me really uncomfortable to discuss our bodies or anyone’s bodies in ways other than clean vs. dirty and healthy vs. not. I also avoid the words thin, chubby, skinny, and ugly. But this definitely gives me something to think about when he is old enough to really discuss it. I think that fat acceptance is the way to go and I def want to promote that in any way I can (without him getting slapped by a family member)! Thanks so much for responding, because I really appreciate your perspective on this!

      • Emma says:

        Hi there,

        I wonder if it would work for you (now or at some point in the future) to talk with your son about it being inappropriate to comment on other people’s bodies without their permission (if it can be helped, which it usually can). I find that this is a pretty solid rule that can really help define boundaries of personal conduct for both kids and adults.

        (At the last family gathering, my dad, who’s generally a great guy, tried to compliment his partner’s step-mother by commenting on how thin she looked. To her credit, she made him feel every awkward second of that all while being incredibly gracious.)

        Depending on the way your son tends to work around other people and how he tends to understand the world, this could lead to a more nuanced conversation as time goes on about how people’s bodies (and many of the descriptors that are used for them) are neutral even though a lot of people don’t treat them that way.

        Anyway, that was more unsolicited parenting advice from another fat girl which you are (obviously) free to accept or reject (or just tell me to gtfo) as you like! In any case, it sounds to me like your kid is lucky to have someone so thoughtful guiding him through all this life stuff :)

    • josephine.e says:

      just to throw in my .02$ … we don’t have “bad” words at our house, but we talk a lot about how to speak respectfully to different people. yep, even the 4year old gets it. we know we don’t say shit or fuck to great granny, and we don’t tell christians that we disagree with them (we live in the bible belt, so i do this to protect my kids from getting into conversations with grownups who just can’t handle religious diversity), and we know that calling people “fat” can make them feel really disrespected. my take on it is, if they watch television or read books, they are quickly going to know it’s used as an insult and you can’t pretend it’s not. but we don’t avoid saying it because being fat is bad, we avoid it because we want everyone around us to know that we respect them. this issue never even came up until a few years ago when my now 5 year old said “[one of our family’s close friends] is FAT!” and laughed about it. so she already knew fat was “funny” or “other.”

  2. MissWhich says:

    There are so many amazing writers out there who are invested in dismantling this kind of princess/ girlz culture. Beyond the big names like Angela Carter, Anne Sexton, and Emma Donoghue (all of whom I can’t recommend highly enough), there are zines like Goblin Fruit, Cabinet des Fees, Niteblade, Mirror Dance, and Rose Red Review that publish revisions of the “traditional” fairy tales. Most of these versions aren’t for young children, but they might be inspiring to teenagers and adults who are craving something different.

  3. martian says:

    We haven’t yet encountered a princess problem with my two and a half year old daughter as she and her twin brother have not yet seen any Disney and I don’t have princess (or diva) stuff in the house. Which I don’t say to be sanctimommy, our time will come, I’m sure. We plan on letting them see Disney movies eventually (I think), and the princess culture is so pervasive that I’m not sure it can be entirely escaped regardless. I honestly don’t know how I’ll handle it once it starts. I feel like I’m already floundering a bit sorting out how to filter out the truly awful social messaging directed at both of my kids without being draconian.

    I have been wondering what other parents here think of the super-saturation of pink for girl everything. We avoided pink but weren’t religious about it, tried to include a lot of neutral clothes that both kids wore in the wardrobe (my son wore a fair share of the girlier things, too, whatever), and still my daughter started expressing a clear preference for pink by about 18 or 20 months. Now we’re well into her wanting pink and purple and butterflies and flowers and what the fuck? I’m pretty extremely ungirly, I guess I thought she’d take more after me. I always said that once she could express a preference, I’d just go with it, but I am a bit torn now. I don’t want it to be like things coded “girl” are bad, and I really don’t want to take away her pleasure in her girly girlness, but the contrasting messaging betweeen the boy and girl stuff is galling. Am I over thinking this? How much does it matter? It’s been really eye opening experiencing how hard a strict gender binary is pushed by just about freaking everyone from the minute you announce your impending parenthood. I don’t remember feeling it personally as a kid, maybe I got the tomboy exemption and people let me be? And people assuming I’m gay never fazed me, so maybe I was a bit oblivious to some (certainly not all) social pressures. How do you set about insulating kids from some of this cultural conditioning?

    • Arkady says:

      Some ‘positive’ princess stuff might help – Studio Ghibli has a lot of good female protagonists in its films, some of whom are princesses (Nausicaa is a leader of her people for instance). I had a lovely picturebook as a child about a princess who loves dressing up in the palace jewels, gets kidnapped by a robber who she then ties up with the jewellery!

      It isn’t always worrying when girls want to play at being princesses, though: SMBC comic

      • martian says:

        Thank you for the suggestion! Will be back to reply at nap time. Toddlers.

      • martian says:

        That SMBC comic is funny. It really nails the mental contortions I go through sometimes when it seems like the tiniest thing can set off this anxiety bomb where I map out decades of potential, alternate futures in a flash. The artist hardly exaggerated at all, sadly. It’s exhausting, absurd, and I hope my kids have no hint of it.

        I’m definitely going to have to watch the Studio Ghibli stuff, it looks amazing. Thanks!

      • Andie says:

        I had a really cute book for my girls called “Do Princesses Wear Hiking Boots?” And of course you can’t forget “The Paper Bag Princess.”

      • martian says:

        Thanks for pointing me to Do Princesses Wear Hiking Boots? That looks worth checking into, and it’s part of a series. The central message reminds me of the Frances Hodgson Burnett classic A Little Princess in that it’s all about how it’s what’s inside that defines you, not external circumstances.

      • Past my expiration date says:

        The central message reminds me of the Frances Hodgson Burnett classic A Little Princess in that it’s all about how it’s what’s inside that defines you, not external circumstances.

        Well, except that at the end of A Little Princess, Sara’s reward is to be very rich again, and Becky’s reward is to be Sara’s maid.

        It’s a thrilling princess book, certainly, but it has, um, problematic aspects.

    • Miriam says:

      Your memory isn’t wrong. The supersaturation of color coding and princess culture are both relatively new phenomena, coming from the power of microsegmentation. It sucks and is very challenging to deal with as a parent. I am relatively girly–I’m into glitter and sparkles and fairy wings. So I have no personal objection to the idea of playing those things with my daughter. But what I do object to is the idea of my daughter being pushed away from her current interest in pirates, planes, and motorcycles and towards fairies and princesses because there images of girls only appear in the latter. I want an entire world of possibility open to her in which ordinary girls get to have extraordinary adventures.

      Peggy Orenstein sums up of the issue as when does get to play become have to play? I find that the best succinct expression of the issue. It’s ridiculous to me that the US has regressed instead of progressed in terms of portrayal of gender roles in children’s media and the marketing of toys.

      Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone has good individual solutions for those of us wrestling with this. We plan to try watching the Miyazaki movies as an alternative to Disney when she gets old enough for movies (she’s 2, so we’re guessing that will start over this coming year). We prefer them, and they seem to fit the bill about what I want in a kid’s movie with a female protagonist… movies in which the protagonist simply happens to be a girl who does stuff. I’m curious about Lilo and Stitch, though, because it seems like that may be a Disney movie that fits my bill.

      • martian says:

        Peggy Orenstein sums up of the issue as when does get to play become have to play? I find that the best succinct expression of the issue.

        That’s it exactly. I want to be supportive of her preferences – sparkles and cupcakes and butterflies are all joyful things and there should be more joy in the world – but I see this noose only tightening as she gets older and it concerns me. Her possibilities should be expanding as she grows, not contracting. The same for her brother, but the pressures don’t feel quite as strong there, at least in the large city environment we live in. Maybe it gets worse for boys when they hit pubescence – maybe society expects more gender performance then.

        Interestingly, I’m experiencing more gender policing now than I think I ever have by virtue of being my daughter’s mother. Multiple relatives have admonished me to “let her be a girl”. Much of my family seems amused that I have a girly girl, almost like it’s a comeuppance of sorts, or the natural order has been restored after the blip that was me. Such weirdness. And this is after I was casual about letting her wear pink things if she was given them as gifts and have done nothing to discourage any femme anything that she expresses an interest in.

        Oops. More to say, but gotta go. Back later.

      • martian says:

        It has been years since I’ve seen it, but I thought Lilo and Stitch was wonderful. An irrepressible, nonconforming girlchild being raised by an older sister in a relationship that is both loving and full of sibling conflict that felt emotionally true. While it has a lot of fantastical elements to the plot and it gets wrapped up Disney neatly, in the midst of all that the older sister is looking for work and struggling to take care of her little sister under the threat of child protective services removing her in a way that is more reflective of life in the working class than I’m used to seeing. I loved it. It might be the best of the Disney films in terms of message, though the competition isn’t stiff. I youtubed a couple of Lion King songs for my kids recently and the clips were so Welcome To The Patriarchy that I had to just laugh. Seriously, what the hell?

        Maybe you’ve heard of it already, but in the book lists that Katharine linked down thread, there’s a book called Pirate Girl that looks really good. I guess it is for slightly older kids than ours, but I’m going to try and find it and just see if mine have the patience yet.

      • Miriam says:

        I am familiar with Pirate Girl, although it’s not really what I want for the lone book with a pirate girl. The main character isn’t a pirate who happens to be a girl–she’s a pirate who’s kidnapped and threatened and is rescued by her mom. We will probably get it, but I want the type of thing boys get… stories that are simply about pirates doing G-rated pirate things except with girl or women pirates. So far the best we’ve found is actually a random Sesame Street book we stumbled on where Prairie Dawn is the pirate captain (although we managed to lose it *sigh*).

        At least, there are a lot of historical female pirates that I can tell her about.

    • er says:

      I’ve been just going with it myself. I think if you make alternative messages available – in the media you chose to let them watch/read and the toys that are available to them, then they pass through the intensely gendered phase to something else. 2-4 y. o.s are all about gender policing and identity policing; they are also notoriously sensitive to peer pressure. When they get older, they’ll start thinking for themselves more, and as long as we as parents, provide an alternate narrative for them, they will learn from us, and gather their ideas about who they are from us. I have boys, so I don’t have the princess problem, but I have the police-trucks-superhero problem. I know the saturation wasn’t as intense when we were little, but I really believe I learned how to be a woman from my mother, who always set me the most important examples about how to want things for myself, believe in myself, not worry about what I looked like, etc. (my mother never talked about her appearance, her weight, or what she ate. Ever. And I think it had a profound impact on me, even though I never noticed it until I was in my 30s)

      • martian says:

        Your mother sounds amazing. I really want to believe that living the example will shape the path. I’ve become very conscious of needing to have my own stuff sorted out properly and being the best version of myself that I can.

        I’m getting the gender policing on my son, too, (he’s all boy!) but it doesn’t seem nearly as exacting yet. A lot of the clothing is ridiculous, but I can avoid the worst easily enough – it is more work finding things secondhand. I get way more bothered by the fact that colours for him aren’t as bright, and while I can find tigers for him, it’ll be kittens for my daughter. Tigers are great, but he likes kittens and flowers too, damnit, and she needs a tiger.

    • Past my expiration date says:

      I have been wondering what other parents here think of the super-saturation of pink for girl everything.

      The pink goes away again, in my experience. Maybe by kindergarten or first grade? That is, there’s still lots of pink (for girls; no pink for boys EVER!!!!!), but it’s not nothing but pink.

      And, really, the princess stuff goes away too. It seems to be mainly a toddler/pre-school thing. So if you could just casually kind of happen to not have princesses at home until the children are 5 or 6 (and your gender-policing relatives would keep their noses out of it), things would probably turn out ok.

      (All of the “little princess”-type clothing we were given went straight into the thrift store bag.)

      • martian says:

        But if the gender police stop sticking their noses in, they’ll be forced to turn in their big, shiny badges which is just too sad, and I won’t have anybody to tell me what women really think about things (note: has actually happened to me), so where would I be then?

        It’s encouraging to hear about the pink and princess things fading. I have some family for whom it will never end, and that maybe skews my perspective a bit. I did find a really nice pink polo for my son. At least, I think it’s a boy shirt, but who cares, he wears it and looks fab. I have a nearly nine year old nephew in Texas who loves the colour pink, and I really feel for him. he’s so hesitant when he talks about it.

      • martian says:

        Responding here to your comment above about A Little Princess because I can’t reply above for some reason…
        Yes, definitely has issues with classism and racism just for starters. It’s a book I’m fascinated by both in its historical context and its present meaning, though, and have recently reread. Burnett was quite radical and was really trying to get at conveying Becky and Sara’s equality of humanity. She has Sara speak to Becky more than once about the differences between them being only circumstances of luck and birth, not merit – it’s one of the overtly intended political messages of the book. And I was startled to realize when I reread it, that Sara’s ferociously civil resistance to her abusers was a formative influence for me. Her stoicism and determination to hang on to her own sense of dignity and identity really spoke to me as a kid. I’d forgotten.

        But this is probably a complete derail and I should drop it. I’m just excited that someone else has read and remembers the book. I will let my kids read it, but there will obviously have to be a lot of discussion about Big Issues like what it signifies when Sara entirely credits “the Indian Gentleman” as her benefactor and completely overlooks the contributions of “the Lascar” who both came up with the idea to help her and did all of the work. I think that bugged me even as a kid.

    • Katherine says:

      My daughter is 5 and just started school 6 months ago, so I’m having to deal with this princess stuff big time.

      Basically, all you can do is offer alternative views of things, and model habits of questioning easy assumptions.

      And you won’t be able to escape Disney alas, but there are better and worse characters and stories. Brave isn’t half bad. The more recent Rapunzel was less passive than classic versions. And so on.

      Also, there are various books that wear their feminism on their sleeve. For example, books like The Paperbag Princess, of the Princess Smartypants series.

      Plz to see:

      http://www.thealphaparent.com/2012/05/feminist-childrens-books-part-one.html

      http://www.thealphaparent.com/2013/02/feminist-childrens-books-part-two.html

      • martian says:

        Those book lists are awesome. Thank you so much – I Know a Rhino went right into my Amazon cart, and a bunch of the others will be going onto the wishlist for later if the library doesn’t have them. Pirate Girl looks especially good.

      • Mirshana says:

        In the realm of books I really liked “Miss Twiggley’s Tree” as a kid. I always liked how she was a bit odd and that was still okay. She could still be helpful and awesome while still being herself.

        I always felt odd as a kid and I realized that this book helped me to remember that its okay to be me even if that odd to others around me, and heck my differences might end up being really useful someday!

    • (BFing) Sarah says:

      Commenting here from work, which I have not tried to do yet…hopefully it works!

      My daughter kinda sorta loves princesses but she is also into cars and superhero stuff (which she gets tons of exposure to because of her older brother). The pink thing might be a personal preference, and I think its okay to accept that while also exposing her to different things and reminding her that its okay to try out other colors, too. My daughter’s fave color is blue or yellow depending on the day…her fave shirt is an angry birds shirt my mom got for her from the boy’s section of the store (go grandma!) and I am a girly girl…so I guess you just never know! I’m pretty glad I have both genders because this way both kids are exposed to clothing, toys and play that are stereotypically “boy” and “girl.” My son is pretty into fairies and asked for a Tinkerbelle pj outfit and expressed sadness that they don’t make shirts with Tinkerbelle on them in the boy’s dept… I said I thought that was very sad, too, and that we’d keep looking for a good TB shirt for him. He doesn’t want a “girl shirt,” he wants a “boy TB shirt.” Not sure what that even means…

      • martian says:

        There are all sorts of Tinkerbelle iron ons, maybe you could make a shirt he was comfortable with. I don’t know if he’s picked up on the girly styling or on the flirtatiousness of a lot of the Tink wear as not suiting him. I had a niece heavily into Tinkerbelle for years and there was a ton of stuff I wouldn’t have considered buying her either because of how suggestive it was or the “Miss Attitude” nonsense. There are some nice iron ons, though. If you could find a small patch, I bet it would look terrific as the logo on a polo shirt – perhaps your son would find that boyish enough. Or maybe a sweatshirt or hoodie in Peter Pan green instead of that pastel Tinkerbelle green with a nice iron on transfer or applique?

        Personally, I’m mulling over learning to sew so that I can make my son a cupcake shirt – just for starters.

  4. Past my expiration date says:

    I am wondering about

    “Girlz” is a commoditized and commercialized version of “grrrls,” as in riot grrrl

    because I also see a lot of “kidz”. I mean just the spelling. The story of how “girl” went from riot grrrls to Spice Girls seems pretty clear to me.

  5. kathleen says:

    FYI your link to the tiptree award is broken.

  6. Librarygoose says:

    I looked at the first picture, and tried to imagine a caption where the princess was a badass instead of a sweet young thing. I took a breath, and said the first thing that came to my mind: “Snow White was an animal rights activist…” With no one to contradict me, my daughter accepted my version and we turned the page.

    I did this with my niece, and had her make up stories to go along with the pictures. Not just because I hated reading the whole “damsel in distress” thing. I am firm believer in kids playing by themselves and learning to entertain themselves without electronics. I wanted her to build her own imagination.

  7. My parents got around the princess deal by… well, it was a three-pronged thing. 1) When I was read out to, it was stuff by Isaac Asimov, Gerald Durrell, James Herriott, etc, so there was actually very little/no romance from that angle. 2) Most of the stories I heard that did involve romance were from the myths, and they were usually the ones where the women were strongly involved, or the protagonists. 3) My mother flat-out forbade me to watch or read fairytales; I sneaked my first peek at any of the Disney fairytale-based movies when I was nine or ten, so a bit late for it to define my gender stereotypes. I never noticed the lapse, largely because I had so, so much to read thanks to my compulsively book-hoarder parents.

    Personally, I wasn’t around for my kid’s little years, but my wife dealt with it by showing her lots of anime and Miyazaki movies. (Speaking of kickass princesses who are sometimes feminine and sometimes not and all of those are okay!)

    I cannot recommend many anime highly enough, for people who want positive, fully-fleshed-out feminine female role models. Card Captor Sakura, Kodocha, Pretear, hell, even Sailor Moon (as much as the dub grates on everyone’s last nerve, apparently), etc. I’ll be happy to provide a list w/ warnings/age groups, if anyone’s interested.

    • Librarygoose says:

      OMG, I loved the Card Captor series so much as a kid. So much.

      ….That’s all.

      • >_> Okay, I don’t want to be That Person, but…did you watch Cardcaptors or Card Captor Sakura?

        Not that there’s anything ‘wrong’ with Cardcaptors itself, but I would 100% not recommend it to others, for its erasing of gay crushes/couples, and also turning the protagonist into one half of a pair.

      • But yeah, no, MAJOR CCS love over here! (Also, I may/not have a couple hundred thousand words of somewhat-badly-written fanfic for Touya/Yukito, lol.) That series made me very happy, and still does. I mean…look at all the positive lessons in it:

        a) just because there’s magic in the world doesn’t mean that it’s all monsters and badness,
        b) sometimes things suck and it’s awful, but you’ll manage, because you are awesome
        c) crushes are cool and being respectful with/of your crushes is not just good, but expected.
        d) you are not entitled to a person’s affection because you were Aggressively Adorable And Nice at them. (Seriously, is there any other series in which literally all but one main characters have been dumped and reacted in non-douchey ways?)

      • Librarygoose says:

        It was Card Captors Sakura. I also secretly loved Sailor Moon, (first dubbed, then subbed) secretly because my brother teased me mercilessly about it being “girly”.*

        *I was his shadow when we were kids, so I had to be a smaller version of him.

    • (BFing) Sarah says:

      I’d love a list!

      • Hmm. I’m going with the ages that I exposed my cousin/Val exposed my stepdaughter to these. Keep in mind that I’m pretty much of the “if you can comprehend it, watch away” camp, but from everything you’ve said, you seem to be, too.

        CCS, as I mentioned above. Ages 5+ (Watch in dub plz, there’s some Icky Stuff mentioned in the original version, of the “teacher having relationship with student” kind.)
        Kodocha (Kodomo no Omocha). Age 6+. The series deals with a whole lot of issues that kids face, including parent loss, emotional neglect, etc, BUT it’s really good for presenting those issues clearly and simply, and as a starting-point for discussions. Also, Val would like to add that the English dub is AWESOME.
        MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO. 3+? So, so adorable, no warnings, and very sweet and still dealing with a lot of issues (parental illness, being a latchkey kid, etc) in a very gentle way.
        Kiki’s Delivery Service. 4+. Same as My Neighbour Totoro, but with fewer capital-i Issues being dealt with, even.

        More mixed-groupy anime include things like Detective Conan, Princess Tutu (I haven’t seen it in a long time so I don’t feel comfortable saying I know all the warnings).

        I’m afraid of wall o’ text sending this into mod, so anime for older kids follows in separate comment.

      • Anime with strong female role-models for older kids – I’m thinking 9+ here, and assuming that they’re watching in the company of adults, to unpack the stuff that happens in it. Val and I both like to use media that way, so this is a fairly “heavy” list, issue-wise.

        Miyazaki:
        Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Issues: environmentalism, habitat destruction, imperialism (sort of), xenophobia (sort of).
        Mononoke-hime (Princess Mononoke). Issues: environmentalism, habitat destruction, industrialisation. Warnings: violence. All the violence. And then some violence. Though it isn’t glorified or objectifying in the least.
        Howl’s Moving Castle. Issues: imperialism, war, beauty standards, female gender roles, Undouchebagging 101.
        Spirited Away (Val’s rec). Warnings: no-face is kinda creepy. Also sorta-kinda indentured servitude.

        Non-Miyazaki:
        Ouran Host Club. Issues: GENDER. (It’s surprisingly subversive.) Gender roles, parent loss, asshole families, CLASSISM (though very snarkily done).
        Fruits Basket. (Though, I should point out, Tohru doesn’t grow into being a strong character until much later.) Issues: holy hell all the things. Also, major warnings for abuse of all non-sexual kinds, though it’s presented as a horrible thing.
        Soul Eater. 2/4 female protagonists. Issues: ptsd, war, child abuse of the kind that kids might slide by but adults really really won’t (hoshit Chrona needs to come with a “must hug” warning for going through all the shit.) Warnings: nudity, objectification of some (adult) characters, and okay, Ashura is goddamn creepy.
        Seirei no Moribito. No warnings, really. Deals with a lot of coming-of-age stuff, and gender roles, and politics to some extent.
        Saiunkoku no Monogatari. No warnings, again. Think of it as Parks and Recreation, Fantasy Medieval Japan style.

        Teens/really really mature pre-teens:
        Fullmetal Alchemist/Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. (Only 1/3 female protagonists, but tons and tons of major female characters and ALL of them kick ass.) Issues: parent loss galore, racism, imperialism, xenophobia, religious tensions, science and ethics, definitions of humanity, child loss, slavery, PTSD, depression, suicidal ideation. Major warnings for violence, but this is probably the best Not About Nazi Germany story there is.
        I have heard many good things about Revolutionary Girl Utena, but I haven’t been able to watch it.

        Non-anime:
        I heartily recommend Avatar: The Last Airbender (though I haven’t seen the sequel), Teen Titans (9+), and Young Justice, if you don’t mind ensemble casts.

    • Alexandra says:

      OH MY GOD another person who read gerald durrell as a kid!!!

      those books were my CHILDHOOD.

  8. Kerandria says:

    BSSM (Sailor Moon) was a favourite of mine growing up. That said, I don’t think it has great examples of healthy relationships – the protagonist commonly bites off more than she can chew and requires rescuing by a strong, mysterious male figure who in her ‘real world’ life treats her like shit until he Decides That He Loves Her. There’s so much dysfunctional shite in the Usagi/Mamoru/Sailor Moon/Tuxedo Kamen pairing. One positive point for the show is that two of the Sailor Senshi (Neptune and Uranus) are a couple. That pairing was one of the first exposures I had to a lesbian pair in entertainment – it was a pretty big comfort to me as I identified (at the time) as bi but mostly into women.

    Utena is NOT a story for kids. It features incest, rape, child sexual abuse, coercion, rampant misogyny, violence, emotional and physical abuse. As an adult, I was able to enjoy the story while deconstructing and interfacing with it on a feminist level.. but still, not really the best story for kids.

    It’s a good list! Studio Ghibli is a sure win.

  9. martian says:

    That list is going to be so useful, macavity. Thank you! My Neighbor Totoro will be immediately checked out as a First Movie possibility.

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