Culture / Guest blog posts / Kids

Princesses can break gender stereotypes

Guest author j wallace writes at Visibly Transparent about life, queer parenting, gender, and life in Canada.  His analysis of gender, gender messaging and parenting are what I aspire to be and how I wish I could write/think (hello? remember when I talked about blog-crushes?).  Moreover, I think the conversation about the difference between how we fret (and over-analyze) as parents vs. how our children (in all their beautiful innocence) percieve the world is a really important topic.  I am so pleased that J was willing to share this post (which first appeared at his blog in June), and hope we hear his voice around these corridors more often.  -Clare

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PHOTO CREDIT: J WALLACE

When I dropped The Small Person off at school the other morning there were already three children in princess dresses playing in a castle they had built out of giant bricks. The Small Person did a basic inspection of what was happening; in the pop-up tent, what was going on with the world map puzzle, and decided that the castle was where it was at. He clambered in.

“Hey!” said the Lead Princess, “We’re playing a princess game, and if you want to play you have to be a princess too.”

“Okay.” said The Small Person, and he promptly went over to the dress-up rack and selected a small suit jacket. He put it on and came over to ask me to help him with the buttons. I helped and he went back to the castle.

I don’t remember exactly what the Lead Princess said, but  it was clear that in her estimation, what The Small Person was wearing was not sufficiently princessy enough. She told the small person that he needed to put on a dress. All the classic ball gowns were already in use, so she suggested the cheongsam. The Small Person came back over to me. “I picked the wrong thing.” He said somewhat mournfully. “Would you help me put this on?” he asked, passing me the cheongsam. I did.

The Small Person in the cheongsam went back over to the castle and joined in with the other three princesses. Peace reigned in the realm.

I went off to work thinking:

  1. I’m glad that who got to be a princess was not defined by a child’s genitals. The Lead Princess’ initial invitation was that, a genuine invitation.
  2. This is obviously a somewhat regular occurrence. The Small Person was totally fine with the idea of putting on a dress, and none of his classmates saw this as notable in anyway. I’m glad that at this daycare who gets to wear a dress is not defined by a child’s genitals.
  3. The Lead Princess, a child who identifies as a girl, felt quite comfortable asserting her royal authority – the game did not need to change because a boy had arrived, and The Small Person did not challenge that. I was glad that everyone was comfortable with a girl being in charge.
  4. My child listened to and cooperated with others!

All of that was great. I could have left it there and celebrated both the daycare and the children there, saving my worries for something else. As a professional overthinker of gender though, I was concerned about the idea that princesses have to wear dresses. To be clear, the problem is not femininity – the problem is that femininity is compulsory for princesses. If my Small Person felt like a princess in his suit jacket, I want him to be a princess in a suit jacket – right along with the princesses in the dresses. I wondered if there were some princess books I could share with the school that would model different ways of being princesses.

Truth be told, I’m not a fan of princesses – kings, queens and princes either. Monarchies are really not my cup of tea. I’ve never been a fan of hereditary authority, wealth being concentrated, “divine right”, state control and all that. I also strive for language that is gender inclusive, and the words we have for royalty fail. I find myself torn between wanting picture books with titles like “Peasant Uprising” or “Creating a Socialist Utopia” you know, in a non-didactic kind of way, and wanting to challenge princess stereotypes.

In my book collection I pulled out the following, all of which I like, and all of which challenge the idea that all princesses must be hyper feminine:

Dangerously Ever After,
The Princess Knight,
The Paperbag Princess,
The Red Wolf,
Princess Max,

That seemed like a short list, so I hopped over to the very fabulous A Mighty Girl to check out their princess offerings.

Please leave in the comments both suggestions of books you like that challenge the notion that “all princesses must be hyper feminine” and that challenge monarchies.

A little later I realized that both I and the Lead Princess were focusing on appearances. The princesses in their ball gowns had built the damn castle. They were not helpless, and there was no compulsory heterosexuality – nobody was waiting on some prince on a white charger. They were not confined by stereotypes of what a princess is – it just looked that way if you only focused on their clothing, and perhaps I as an adult needed to worry less about what they were wearing and pay more attention to what they were doing. Ultimately, that’s the lesson I want to both deliver and embody – words and actions matter far more than appearances, and girls are far more than their clothing. Thanks kids.

Music to accompany this post – Meg Braun’s Tomboy Princess.

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7 Comments

  1. j! you’re here! how fabulous!

    • Right? 🙂

      Also, j, thank you: I loved this. Both for the subtle observations and reflections on our childrens’ evolving self-gendering process, and for the great princessiana book list. I also love that A Mighty Girl resource! So: many many thanks. And I hope you come back soon!

    • Thank you – I started reading your posts over here and this is what it has lead me to.

  2. I have to say this makes me feel a lot better about my almost two year old’s potential exposure to princesses. And a Mighty Girl – such a good resource!

  3. I’m glad the first offering on A Mighty Girl was Princeless, as it is exact;y about a Princess who challenges the idea of what a Princess should be and do. I recommend it to everyone!

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