On the first day of school after winter break, all of the girls at my daughter’s preschool were sporting their new Christmas duds: Sarah with her pink cowboy boots; Jane in her sparkly cardigan; and my daughter, dressed in her white button-down shirt (“like Daddy’s”), draped over a Spiderman t-shirt, and her navy clip-on tie with a pattern of white reindeer. She had asked Santa for a solid black tie, but we couldn’t find a toddler tie quite so…adult.
The Anti-Princess Problem
This outfit had been her lone Christmas request, the apex of a gradual, year-long shift toward all things boyish. My daughter, 3 and a half, had spent her first couple of years at a daycare where girls were dressed in Disney princess outfits with their nails painted purple and pink. We noted with humor that she always looked a bit like a drag queen in such getups, with those frilly, fluffed sleeves drooping over her lumberjack-inspired plaid jacket.
When she switched to a preschool where such outfits were verboten—they keep strips of fabric that can be imagined into any costume—she announced almost immediately that she no longer wanted to play princess. Or, rather, she would play princess with the girls—every single one of whom engineered those malleable yards of gingham or tulle into something from a royal fairytale—but only if she could be the dog, or the police.
My heart swelled with pride. I mean, my only hesitation about having a girl was that I’d have to endure the dreaded princess phase. And—lucky me!—as it turned out, we’d be skipping it.
She insisted on being Spiderman for Halloween, and on getting light-up superhero sneakers “like my friend Luca’s” when she needed new shoes. They told us at school that she gravitated toward the boys, and though she is quite small for her age, and not particularly hearty, they told us she could hold her own with the rowdy bunch of them.
And again, I thought, “How great is she?”
Well, okay, 90 percent of me said that. The other 10% thought, “uh-oh.” As she started to announce in ways both subtle and direct that she’s a boy, and ask me questions like “Why can’t boys have vaginas and girls have penises?” the ratio of heartwarming to heart-sinking has shifted.
When Kids Gender Bend
Let me say that I don’t hold particularly conventional views about gender or sexuality. There are so many lesbians in my family that I fully expect either or both of my daughters to be gay (though of course I will love and accept them if they turn out to be heterosexual). But there is something about having the only girl who won’t play princess, the only girl in the school who thinks and says she’s a boy, that has shaken me a bit. Dressing like a boy? Cool. Thinking you actually are a boy? Way more complicated.
Feeling fairly confused, I called Peggy Orenstein, author of “Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture.” Indeed, she set me straight. Only in America at this time, said Orenstein, would not being a girlie-girl, not identifying as a princess, be seen as a problem.
Orenstein makes a lot of connections in her book between girls who consume a tremendous amount of media infused with these traditional notions of femininity, of worth defined by beauty, and later life struggles. Such girls are more likely to have low self-esteem, or to have a less pleasurable sex life when they become sexually active, and are less likely to be ambitious. She calls this princess obsession, and the media’s proliferation of it, “a gateway into a femininity defined by consumption, beauty and narcissism.” There is a fairly direct line, she says, between Cinderella and Kim Kardashian.
And, yeah, it would be upsetting to think that my daughter would grow to idolize reality stars with a lifetime’s worth of plastic surgery at 25. But I suppose my fear is about what’s on the other end of that direct line when your kid wants to be the royal dog? Because rejecting the princess model, the modern paradigm of girlhood, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re locked in for a lifetime of high self-esteem. It might, in fact, mean the opposite.
Some of my fears for my daughter are rooted in reality. It’s a much harder way to move through the world, identifying with the gender you weren’t assigned at birth. I fear she’ll be rejected, first for insisting on being the royal police, but later for not participating in a host of feminized activities, from nail-painting to chatting about boys. Already she has separated herself from “the princess girls,” as she calls her classmates (without a drop of derision—it’s just who they are), and they’ve begun to impose their lacey worldview, their appreciation for and demand of beauty, upon her. She told me this week that the princess girls told her not to “scribble scrabble” all over her paper during art time because it’s “not pretty.”
And I’ve already endured the heartbreaking experience of having long-haired, pink-and-purple-clad girlie-girls look at my daughter and say, “Is that a boy or a girl?” Her predilection makes her vulnerable, and that’s what snaps my parental sentry into action. Orenstein says that there is absolutely nothing wrong in rejecting the princess model of play, but she admits that it can be difficult for such resisters. “One of the unfortunate outcomes of this one mode of play is that it excludes and makes freaks out of girls who aren’t into it,” she says. “And that’s really sad.”
Looking at Myself
My daughter has made me realize how conservative and old-fashioned some of my ideas about girlhood are. Like most parents, especially parents of girls, I have conflicting desires for my child. I want her to be exceptional, and yet I want her to fit in. I don’t want her to be judged or defined by her looks, but I want her to be adorable. I don’t want her to need male approval, but I want her to have it. It’s embarrassing how relieved I was to hear that one of the boys in her school wanted to marry her, even as I was so unhappy that, at ages 3 and 4, they’re already discussing this subject.
Girls, our society seems to think, should be strong and smart and bold, but also pretty and sweet and demure. Let’s be honest: the ultimate girl is someone who chooses to be a rock star, a spy, or a high-powered politician…but not because she couldn’t get a job modeling. It’s a very high bar for girls these days. They’re expected to grow into women who have careers and run households—big brains and breadwinners—but are still objects of beauty.
And this is where I struggle. I love that my child has rejected this restrictive, dominant paradigm of girlhood to forge her own path—it’s exactly what I wanted. But I don’t want her embracing of all things boy to be a rejection of all things girl. I want her to feel pretty enough, worthy enough, to even be a princess if she so desires. When she goes to school in a baggy soccer t-shirt, two sizes too big, I find myself worried that she’s expressing low self-esteem sartorially, that some part of her has absorbed the idea that she’s not princess material.
The solution, I think, is to encourage girls to diversify their play, and for my daughter to be seen as a trailblazing, ass-kicking cool kid, instead of a freak. Teachers and other parents should celebrate her for introducing other modes of make-believe to the one-note princess girls. “Before the princess onslaught, little girls did play at being dogs and ponies and cats,” says Orenstein. “Now they only play on this one script.” It’s a script my daughter is trying to rewrite, and I’m lucky in that none of the girls, or the boys, at her school rejects her for it…yet. They’re fond of the royal dog, or the royal police, and content to let her play with them. For now.
There’s really only one remaining objection to my daughter's proclivity: we have the loveliest assortment of hand-me-down dresses, ones that currently she refuses to wear but that I don’t want to waste. For this, though, I have clear-cut solutions. We wear dresses on Thursdays, and any time she wants to wear her tie, she has to wear a skirt, too. Which she does, as long as she can wear jeans underneath and, as always, her Spiderman shoes.