The Princess Gambit

I finished reading Cinderella Ate My Daughter a couple of days ago. It covers the difficulties in raising a level-headed, freethinking daughter in a Disney Princess world. Gender typing is nothing new, and I don't think it's ever been easy to grow up, whether for boys, girls and others in between, but reading this really opened my eyes to just how hard girls have it.

For as long as I've known, girls have had pressures to be liked, to be smart and good looking, to be good at everything. Those pressures are perfectly normal as far I'm concerned -- as a boy in the 80's and 90's I struggled with the same things.

What troubles me about raising a daughter now is that, as media and marketers would have it, it's not enough to be liked, girls have to be peerless and idolized. They can't just be pretty, girls have to be the singularly gorgeous. Being good doesn't cut it, girls have to be great without ever having tried. As for being smart, that's something girls have to be in secret and without ambition.

My wife and I are concerned about building on good habits, but how do we educate our daughter on the importance of a good diet and exercise without validating what TV and toy stores and the playground are saying; that appearances are important above all else? How do I balance telling my daughter that she's beautiful against telling her that too often or for the wrong reasons?

Before Amelia was born, my wife and I agreed that we would praise her for working hard, not just for her successes, and to have open and honest conversations about the challenges she'd face. The most frustrating thing I learned from this book is that we'll be a couple years behind the marketers if we wait until she's old enough to understand what we have to say.

Disney and Mattel work to get their hooks in little girls between the ages of 2 and 4. How do we counter that? "Yes it's fun to dress up and be the center of attention, but looks aren't what make you special." At what age could she possibly understand that in full? From the grocery store to Sesame Street, there's a barrage of information that's trying to shape what little girls think it means to be feminine. How do we avoid or combat this bombardment?

"Barrage", "combat" and "bombardment". These words make this sound like a war, and I'm sure some parents see it that way. However, I'm media-savvy enough to know that you can't stop the signal -- the message is going to get through one way or another -- and I'm empathetic enough to know that we're not going to win over our child by rejecting everything she shows an interest in.

I think that in the end, all my wife and I can do is guide and encourage our daughter with love -- with patience and devotion -- but Samantha and I need to keep in mind that marketers are trying really hard to manipulate us, too. They're working to convince us to "preserve" Amelia's innocence with princess fantasies (and then its tween equivalent as she ages).

I learned a whole lot from Cinderella Ate My Daughter -- I went into it thinking that there wouldn't be an easy answer and, at the other end of the book, I was a little disappointed to learn that I was right.

Sorry, Amelia, shit's going to be hard but Mommy and Daddy are right there with you.