As the mom of boys, one of the benefits is that I can ignore pretty much all things princess. Instead, I know what differentiates an excavator from a bulldozer from a backhoe (lucky me). Even though I’m not exposed to the princess thing on a daily basis, it’s still everywhere. TV shows, dress up bins, Halloween costumes, movies, Disney vacation photos on my Facebook feed. It seems to dominate the current play culture for our young girls right now. And it’s never more apparent then when I need to buy a present for a girl – my nieces or a friend’s birthday party. The toy store. The book store. The card aisle. Princesses, princesses everywhere!
I was thinking about this princess phenomena as I read an article about this cartoon gone viral. The cartoon pokes fun at Lego creating Lego Friends specifically to market to girls. I too loved Legos growing up and never for one minute thought it was a “boy’s toy.” I played with the sets I enjoyed. I built skyscrapers and houses and whatever else my little heart desired. My particular favorite, however, was one of the castle sets. I was thrilled to receive it one Christmas and loved building it, rearranging it and using the pieces in a variety of ways. Never once did I think I needed a princess in the set to make it complete.
And yet, today? Apparently we can’t just market toys to kids we have to market them to boys versus girls. And we wonder why gender equality is still a problem in the workplace?
I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with princess play. It’s creative dress-up and narrative play, and I think those are both important. The Anna and Elsa model, although not perfect, is a step in the right direction for independent girls not needing a man to solve their problems (although that storyline was so unique because of what we expected – we expected the true love to be that of her prince or even of Kristoff. The true love between sisters was considered a “twist” ending because we never saw it coming. *sigh*). What I do find compelling is that there is not a comparable marketing effort for “prince” toys for boys. There aren’t any princely role models in the same vein as the Snow Whites, Cinderellas, Ariels, Elsas, Belles, Rapunzels of the world. I’m not sure I could even name one of the Disney princes. My boys pretend to be firefighters and astronauts and chefs and puppies and construction workers. They don’t play prince. Even when they play with their girl friends. The only prince they know is his purple majesty who is a regular in our dance party rotation (you haven’t lived until you’ve seen my five year old bust a move to “What’s My Name”).
So why aren’t princes an appropriate, equally engaging role model for boys? Is it because they are unobtainable? After all, you can’t “become” a prince, you are either born one or not. Sure, the same argument could be made for princesses, but Diana and Kate have managed to capture America’s attention and prove otherwise (although the odds aren’t exactly in the rest of our peasant favor). Is it because being a prince isn’t a “job?” What exactly does a prince do? Other than rescue damsels in distress that is? But by the same token, what exactly does a princess do? Other than wait around to be rescued, according to the fairy tale model? Perhaps it’s because a prince doesn’t have any cool equipment? Or he just hasn’t had the right story line? Or is it because we currently don’t define our boys based on their relationships, but we historically define girls that way?
My ultimate unanswerable question, I suppose, is why is it okay for us to foster a culture that not only accepts but seems to encourage and expect our girls to emulate women who they can only become by marrying a specific type of man – specific type of man, apparently, that boys aren’t aspiring to become? The princes of fairy tales aren’t all that interesting. Or all that kind. Or all that bright. Why should we encourage our girls to find their “princes” when they seem to be a bunch of bums?
Kids are going to be inherently drawn to toys they identify with, whether that’s by color, feel, shape or application. I played with my share of Barbie dolls. I coveted a Cabbage Patch doll the year they came out and parents were punching other parents in the aisles for them. I made my fair share of too skinny clothes with my fashion plates imagining all the fancy places I would go as a grown up in the types of dresses I created. I baked gooey, fairly disgusting creations by lightbulb in my Easy Bake Oven that I then forced my poor parents to eat. But I also had a microscope and rock collection and the aforementioned Legos. I played in a treehouse and climbed trees in the woods. I built forts and played army games with the boy across the street.
My point is that kids will play with the toys that engage them. That might be a girl who plays with lots of traditional “girly” things or a boy who plays with dolls or a girl who plays with dinosaurs or kids who play with a balance of both. Let’s help our kids find toys that speak to them and their dreams. But maybe, just maybe, we let the girls know that the real princes of the world aren’t the two dimensional ones of story books and animated films with generic Ken doll good looks and a sense of ownership post rescue, but instead are the boys who grow up to respect the women in their life. The real princes slay dragons side-by-side with the princesses and may even stay home to make sure a delicious Easy Bake Oven strawberry shortcake is waiting when she gets home from a long day of kingdom saving.