Thursday, December 12, 2013

Why I Will Never Invite Cinderella to My Daughter's Birthday Party

(cross-posted at

My daughter is not a feminist.  She is an almost-three-year-old tornado whose favorite color is blue, but who enjoys dressing in pink and purple tuille and dancing around, proclaiming, "I'm a PRINcess!"

To which I respond, invariably: "You are always a princess, because you're smart, and beautiful, and kind."  (Or some drek-y thing along those lines.)

Because, really, what else can you say that is uncomplicated enough for a well-indoctrinated three year old girl to understand?

We don't have TV in my house.  She doesn't watch many movies, and most of the ones she's seen involve Dora or Kai-Lan.  We've dressed her in hand-me-downs since birth, sifting through the piles to find the items of clothing that are most innocuous (no leopard print spandex. thanks).  Still, she has more shoes than Emelda Marcos (well, at least more shoes than I do), a closet full of clothing (of which only three or four outfits are acceptable), and a fondness for Disney.  She has to function on a preschool playground, and princess knowledge is playground currency.  My daughter is savvy; it's not surprising that she picked up and now uses the currency she needs.

Understandably, she was interested to learn that her friend would be having a birthday party at which Cinderella was going to make an appearance.

We arrived at the party, she dressed in a frilly purple number from her dress-up box.  Her friend, dressed in a blue Cinderella ball gown, hugged her fondly and ushered her into the basement.  And for a while, it was a standard happy pre-K party, with a small bouncy house in the basement, and a minature trampoline, and kids running amok.

via flickr Creative Commons
from user BalloonLady
Until Cinderella arrived.

N's friend, who had previously been animated and talkative, stood dumbstruck, her little eyes wide, her mouth hanging open.  Cinderella proceeded to make much of her, then invited the kids to come forward for "makeup" (face painting), informing them that "princesses need makeup."  I restrained myself, thankful that my daughter didn't want any, despite everyone's encouragement.  "It's ok," I reassured her. "You don't have to if you don't want to."

Then, there were lessons in waving in curtseying, and twirling around to "show off your dress" for the girls (yes, seriously), while there were lessons in bowing, showing off your muscles, and a primal yell of "charge!" for the boys.  For the whole group, there was a story about Cinderella going to visit a girls' boarding school, where she was going to choose one lucky girl to be a princess for a day.  And finally, a coronation ceremony, with sequined tiaras for the girls, and full crowns for the boys.

To say that I was grateful to see Cinderella go would be an understatement.  After we paraded upstairs to eat pizza (which my daughter would not eat, because she thinks pizza is "yuck"), and cake (which she also would not eat, because she doesn't like cake, which makes me wonder sometimes if we're really related), and strawberries (which she devoured), we took our leave, too.  And when I asked my daughter what she liked most about the party later, she told me, matter-of-factly, to my relief: "the strawberries."

I will not be inviting Cinderella to my daughter's birthday party.  I'm not anti-Disney; I think that princess play can be fun.  I played my share of "princess" in my youth; usually there were three of us, and the unlucky one with the short straw got to be the wicked witch who lived in the woods, and who was vanquished through our magical powers.

But that's just it.  We weren't playing a princess game in which makeup and dresses and waving and curtseying were important.  We played at a game that involved establishing, and tapping, our own powers, not relying on a fairy godmother and a dress to get us into a ball where we can show up the ugly (and admittedly, unkind) stepsisters.    So when I see things like yesterday's Chronicle of Higher Education article on how women's leadership in academe remains largely unchanged, and yesterday's article in Nature about gender disparities in science, and Monday's NPR commentary on how women's representation on corporate boards remains unchanged, I start to wonder where, as a nation, we are going wrong.


As princesses in the woods of my neighbor's back yard, we were not playing in a male-dominated world.  We were playing in our world, by our rules.  And now, we're not playing there any more.  As adults, we continue to create a world that is not equal.  The same people who are encouraging Cinderella to be our daughters' first idol may not realize that they are perpetuating a culture that places the U.S. 23rd in the Global Gender Gap rankings.  It may surprise those people to learn that the U.S. ranks 60th–below India, China, and Uganda–in terms of political empowerment, and that U.S. women also still struggle with a significant wage gap, making an average of 77 cents to every dollar that men make, that African-American women make an average of 64 cents to a man’s dollar, and that Latina women make 55 cents.

I continue to be frustrated by what I read.  I know one thing for sure, which I've written here before: leaning in isn't enough.  We can and should raise daughters (and sons) who can speak up for themselves, who are willing to make choices, who have high aspirations.  We can't send them mixed messages about what we value, and we have to believe what we tell them, modeling it for them ourselves.  But we also need to change the adult world we're preparing them for, because we can't expect them to change it for us.

What will your first step be?
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  1. The last line of this gave me chills. Because until this really does change, we do have to prepare our daughters for what the world is really like. It's not equal. Women will be judged differently and paid differently and treated differently. Thank you for your always honest, always insightful, and always informed discourse.

  2. PS - this is VOTY worthy. Just saying.

  3. Fight the patriarchy!

    Oh man, the relatives are starting with the girl toys for DC2. They're SO BORING compared to what DC1 got.

    What am I doing to fight the patriarchy? A lot of NSF funded work. And a lot of being comfortable in my own skin and telling/showing other women it's ok for them to feel comfortable as well.

  4. I'm not a world changer. I don't have the drive or the brains or the charisma, but I do know women who have those things, and I try to connect them to each other when I see how they might help each other.

  5. Ugh... I have very strong feelings about the topic you brought up and am wondering how to word my thoughts without getting into too much trouble. Let's put it this way: women's economic independence comes before economic equality, which comes before everything else. I will stop here.

  6. Hear, hear. If little girls want to be princesses, they can decide for themselves what is a princess (or read Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess, which is an utterly wonderful book.) Disney princess, bleah. Not coming to any party of any hypothetical daughter of mine, either.

  7. I'm echoing VOTY-worthy.

    Uh, that was an intense birthday party. We never encountered something like that. I think it would have made me uncomfortable.

    I was all for meeting Cinderella at Disney, but it was like meeting President Obama -- they didn't want to BE Cinderella, but it was cool to meet her for a second and then go on with our own life, being sort of happy that we're not Cinderella and don't need to stand all day greeting people.

    I do think that it gets better as they get older because you can have an in-depth discussion after an event like that. Point out the things that bothered YOU and why. Sometimes it's something that bothered them but they didn't have the words to explain it in the moment.

  8. Here via the Grumpies. I'm raising a son, so mostly "just" trying to make sure I get "the other side" right. I'm a WOHM with a SAHH, so at least DS is seeing a pattern of mom-as-breadwinner, though it's not a big deal in our day-to-day life (nor of course should it need to be).

    Something I have recently started to puzzle over in this same general topic area is: where are the girls in youth sports? We have plenty of active youth sports teams in my area and e.g. in the schools and universities plenty of examples of good women's teams (not that it's not still easier to get tix to the women's bball game than the men's). But at age 6 -- in the past year my son has participated in tball, soccer, golf, and bball teams, all either town rec-league or non-profit. All co-ed, all really, really friendly and kid-positive and everything you'd want. And at most, I'd say 1/3 of my son's teammates (or fellow players) are girls. I do wonder why.

  9. I was very proud the other day when my daughter told her daddy to get out of the driver's seat in our car, cause that's mama's seat. Yep, I do usually drive. And I take care of myself, never criticize how I look, etc. I am trying very very hard to be the woman I'd like my daughter to think is usual -- self confident but generous, compassionate but strong, feminine but powerful. It's hard, but I hope it helps her a little as she confronts our world.


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