So my daughter O. is about to turn 2.
I’ve been worried about her being enraptured by the pink princess culture from the moment I found out through a scan I was having a girl, and since then I’ve been adamant at not buying into this trap. For months I refused to dress her in anything containing pink, ruffles or bows, and avoided girly toys such as baby dolls and little prams like the plague, but then I realised that forbidding her to wear or play with whatever she wanted was not the point, really. If anything, instead of leading her into a path of critical-thinking and self-fulfilment, my shielding tactics could do the exact opposite, and eventually push her straight into a pink, glittery pool of extreme girliness. What she needs to understand is that there are options.
So I’ve relaxed a bit, and lately a fairy dress and a tiny buggy made their ways into our house (via two mischievous aunties who insist on ignoring my silly feminist ways), but so did little cars and trains and even a toolbox. She plays with them all, although she does give preference to the buggy lately because, I assume, it’s something on wheels. She does the same to walkers or scooters that appear on her way, so I’m guessing the she doesn’t make any elaborate considerations on the impact of a toy pushchair upon a little girl’s psychological perspective of motherhood. Not YET.
She’s also started making distinctions between her clothes, and so far, to my surprise and amusement, she always wants to wear trainers rather than the girly shoes with sparkly detailing (I have no idea how these things end up in her wardrobe), and her favourite coat is an enormous boy’s puffa jacket that honestly, must feel like wearing a cloud. There’s something about the making of some girls garment that evoke feelings of stiffness and constraint in her, and at her age (and any other age, I suppose) there’s nothing more important than being able to move freely.
So far, so good.
And now she started paying attention to films. Possibly failing only to peer pressure on the influential stakes, films worried me a lot more than any frou frou garments or gender-segregating toys. Storytelling, as we know, is a powerful vehicle of ideas, values and principles, and it goes without saying that some vacuous Disney princesses were not exactly the best embodiment of what I considered to be important: independence, self-confidence, inventiveness, and fearlessness.
Take Ariel, for example. In the Little Mermaid, she starts out wanting to explore the world outside the ocean, but before she even has a chance to do it, she falls in love with a handsome prince and is willing to chuck it all in, including her voice, her friends and family and her ideas of adventure to simply stay by his side.
Then there’s Snow White, who escapes enslavement by her stepmother to work as a cleaner for the Seven Dwarves, and then is rescued by a prince. And who else is rescued by men? Oh yes. Belle, Cinderella, Aurora, Jasmine, Rapunzel, Pocahontas, etc etc etc.
And then l I saw Brave. Merida, the film’s heroine, is a teenager princess who loves nothing more than her freedom to ride her horse and shoot arrows with masterful ability. She refuses to accept imposed marriage as her fate, and will go to extreme lengths to fight her decisive mother who just wants her to be a “proper princess”.
The news that Disney gave Merida a sexy makeover, complete with eyeliner and a shoulder-baring dress, made my heart sink a little. She’s wild and authentic and self-assured throughout the film, at one point ripping a tight dress that’s impeding her to show her archery skills. She wouldn’t fall for the sexy shtick – she barely accepts hiding her wild hair under a medieval bonnet. She, most importantly, does the rescuing rather than being rescued, sword in hand and all.
As with fighting the dumbing-down of women’s magazines, the battle against gender stereotyping and segregation in children’s culture is a hard and most likely a long one. Thank goodness for the existence of organizations such as A Might Girl, a website that promotes books, films, toys, music and clothes that involve girl empowerment. Their petition to keep Merida Brave instead of turning her into a Babe so far has garnered nearly 200,000 signatures – a sign that maybe parents and consumers are ready to move on from silly princesses.
To my surprise, O’s favourite films right now are Hotel Transylvania, about a teenage vampire who wants to explore the world but is kept confined in a hotel by her worried father, and Finding Nemo, also about a worried father going on a huge adventure across the oceans to find his kidnapped son. No strong female leads yet, but then again, I don’t think she even knows the difference between boys and girls. Wouldn’t it be nice to keep it that way?
In the meantime, here’s a few ideas for girl-powered films that could serve as an antidote to simpering Cinderellaness to little girls. Let’s hope there will be more alternatives soon. For more ideas, check out the wonderful collection put together by A Mighty Girl.
Kiki’s Delivery Service
These days we can’t barely imagine letting children play on the street unsupervised without having Daily Mail headlines screaming inside our heads, now imagine letting your 13-year-old leave home in the middle of the night for an unsupervised, unplanned gap YEAR? That’s what Kiki, a young witch, does. In order to become a training witch, and encouraged by her own parents, she simply takes off on her own in a flying broom, taking along a moody talking cat and her endless optimism. It’s basically letting your kid go on an exchange program, except there is no program; you have no idea where it is, how she’s going to feed herself or who she’ll be talking to. The fact that she comes up with a business idea to support herself, works hard, and even rescues a boy and saves the day, makes this story truly ingenious. Talk about a fearless role model for young girls.
I discovered Matilda way too late in life, in my late twenties, and was somehow sad that I didn’t get to know her in my childhood, when I started developing my obsession with reading. Imagine how inspirational to find a girl who could read entire libraries at the age of four and then develop super-powers to fight OPPRESSION (in the form of ignorant parents and teachers). She’s my hero to this day.
Monsters Vs Aliens
This film was a very pleasant surprise. A young bride, before living in the shadow of her jerk of a boyfriend, becomes a giant monster after being hit by a meteorite. As soon as she understands her capacity for greater things – and that includes saving the planet from a Saturday Night Fever-clothed Alien Octopus – she realises she doesn’t need any man to take care of her. Definitely a role model.
My Neighbour Totoro
Oh, where to start? This is one of the reasons why Studio Ghibli is such a magical studio. There are always stories about little girls going on amazing adventures by themselves, being in charge of their own destiny. In Totoro, two sisters, Mei and Satsuki, move to a house in the countryside with their Professor dad, near the hospital where their mum is recovering from a long-term illness. Mei soon discovers the invisible rabbit-shapped spirits that live around the house while playing outside by herself, and they lead her to the cuddliest monster ever, Totoro. Totoro and his friends, including the coolest and fastest Cat Bus ever (because it’s probably the only one to have ever existed anyway) take the brave sisters on magical flying adventures and help them out when Mei gets in trouble. It’s the sweetest tale, one to make you all nostalgic about childhood and invisible friends.
Talk about brave little girls. I don’t know about you, but if I were Chihiro, the girl who sees her parents turn into pigs and has to work in a SPA for spirits to try and save them, I would be FREAKED OUT. But not Chihiro. Maybe a little in the beginning, but not for long, specially when a boy-dragon helps her to understand what the hell is going on and how to get her shit together. And she does big time, specially when she helps a horrendous stink spirit to clean himself and tackles the disastrous hunger of a confused spirit called No Face. Not even a crazy big-headed witch with a twin sister and a giant talking baby scares Chihiro, and she does whatever she has to do to free her parents and help Haku, the boy-dragon. It’s an amazing tale, full of Japanese folklore characters, sure to inspire little girls everywhere to deal with their imaginary monsters.