Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"Princess" Syndrome

I think I've already expressed my vast contempt for the school of thought, arising mostly from deeply wrong-headed garble-science of the 70s, which says that little boys and little girls raised in an identical fashion will show no discernible forms of gender bias. But if I haven't please allow me to wax eloquent about the pinheaded buffoonery of this position... at least, as based on the mighty population sample presented by my children (and those of a whole bunch of other long-suffering parents I know.)

Most of the parent-types of my cohort have absorbed at least basic ideas of gender equality. We're not out there buying pink for girls, blue for boys. We tend to think Barbie is a particularly nasty form of consumer manipulation, and we're well aware that a large cardboard box is probably the finest plaything any child can ever have. In short, we don't pander to the old stereotypes about kids, but we're too lazy (and possibly well-informed, having ourselves been children in an experimental era) to go all rigidly PC on our kids either.

Mostly, the kids get to choose their own path. We just try to make sure they've got lots of interesting choices available to them.

Now, for my two boys, the path-choosing thing led to both of them building guns out of lego before they could actually talk. Seriously. The first thing Elder Son ever built, when we got him his own bucket of that clunky, over-sized toddler-lego stuff, was a stack of eight short blocks, with one long block sticking over the top. He ran around the house pointing it at everybody, making pssk-chew! and pyew! pyew! noises, and there was no bloody mistaking the fact that we were being blown to bitty pieces by his ray-gun, or whatever weapon it was meant to be.

I quite liked that. Particularly because Natalie had been solidly adamant on her "no toy guns" rule. I did tell her that I thought it was a waste of time, but she didn't believe me... right up until the kid who could barely say "mum" and "dad" shot her full of imaginary death-beams with his Lego blaster. After that, she kinda caved in. And a good thing too, or I couldn't now indulge in the supreme joy of massacreing my offspring with a super-sized waterblaster every summer...

In other words, the boys did Boy Things. Sure, they also played with all kinds of 'dolls' (including wine corks, cutlery, pieces of food...) They both like music, and both spent a lot of time dancing happily when they were small. The Younger Son quite likes to get involved with the cooking. But fundamentally, they did Boy stuff.

The Mau-Mau... well, we had a houseful of leftover toddler toys for her. And heaps of toddler clothing. All of it was for boys, more or less, insofar as toddler stuff is ever differentiated... but we didn't figure that mattered at all. And so, in her early days, the Mau-Mau wore -- pretty much what the boys wore. And she played with the things the boys used to play with, yep.

But... the way she played was different. And her first word - it wasn't "Mum," or "Dad". It was "shoe". Followed very quickly by the plural, "shoes". And as soon as she got old enough to express a preference, she wanted pink stuff. Lots and lots of pink stuff.

She's nearly four now, and the trend has not abated. In fact, it's reaching something of an ugly crisis point. The Mau-Mau is a cute little creature, but she's smaller than her brothers, and being unable to use force to get her own way, she's resorting to emotional manipulation.

This is extremely unpleasant. The boys both went through brief stages of crap like "I'm not your friend any more", and the Younger Son has delivered the inevitable "I hate you!" line in a fit of temper. Elder Son had massive tanties from age two through to age four.

But in both cases, it's been unsubtle, and not particularly well orchestrated or planned, and with patience and firmness and solid boundaries, we got through it all. The boys are open about what they want. If they don't get it, they might grizzle, but that's about it. And if/when they get angry - fine, they get angry. If they overdo it, they get sent away to cool off. Then they come back. So much for that.

The Mau-Mau... yeah.

Neither Natalie nor myself likes emotional manipulation. And to see it becoming a mainstream approach from the daughter is disquieting. To an extent, I'm sure it's being reinforced through her interactions at daycare with other little ones. But how is it becoming her go-to position?

The slightest bump or injury... sometimes they're nothing at all, as it should be. But if she's in the mood, that tiny bump can become a gigantic trauma, with the full range of tears and horrors and wails. Any perceived slight from a brother becomes the greatest outrage of all time, and she performs to the peak of her ability in the hopes that someone will visit punishments upon the brother in question. Natalie and I are now literally at the point where first instinct, when the Mau-Mau howls, is to disregard it completely. (Fortunately, the parental ear is a finely tuned thing. If she really had cause to howl, we'd hear it and know.)

A performance of "but I don't WANT to eat my dinner and your cruelty in insisting that I must is only matched by the viciousness of the Spanish Inquisition, you heartless filth!" includes streams of very real tears, and howls, subsiding quickly into a very prolonged wordless whimpering -- the sort of thing you'd expect from a beaten dog, licking its wounds -- and accusing stares that can last anywhere up to half an hour. That is, unless either parent loses patience and sends her off to calm down, which is the usual result.

And that's the thing, isn't it? We're not reinforcing this shit. It gets ignored as long as humanly possible, and at best, it results in temporary banishment. It doesn't get her out of anything. It doesn't gain her anything.

It isn't as though she doesn't get positive reinforcement elsewhere. She gets her cuddles, and her quality time. She gets books read to her, and we make things together, and do all kinds of stuff. When her behaviour is good, she gets rewarded immediately and clearly.

And yet the awful, manipulative stuff continues.

Then there's the clothing thing. We've tried exposing her to the positive girl image stuff. She's got Dora the Explorer. She's got all kinds of gender-neutral Doctor Seuss. But you know what sticks with her? The fucking princess bullshit, of course.

She has one 'princess' Wii game. She has one pink 'magic mirror' that says princessy stuff when you press a button. There are some pink foofy dresses, yes. And I suspect she's seen some princessy crap here and there at daycare, and at other houses, etc. But the magic word 'princess' is astonishingly powerful, and the clothing...

... I hurried her dressing the other morning. Looked into her room, found her shimmying into a feather-weight pink summer dress with thin shoulder straps. Outside, it was 2C. (That's about 36F). So I told her she needed leggings, and a warm jumper.

The Mau-Mau instantly burst into tears. "But I want to be beautiful," she howled, clutching her totally inappropriate non-winter frock.

Fuck me. Where did that come from?

Naturally, I told her she was beautiful no matter what she wore. (And if there's a man alive who doesn't recognize where this situation is leading to the grown-up version of the Mau-Mau, then he's gayer than Tom Cruise and more clueless than Stephen Conroy) And I pointed out how cold it was, etc... but the damage was done.

When did she decide "beautiful" was something to aspire to? She's not even four years old yet, for fuck's sake. Who told her that "beautiful" had any fucking relationship to the clothing she wears? Half her gear is still hand-me-down rough-and-tumble toddler-wear!

I'm unspeakably furious about this, and I'm not sure I should be. I can accept that girls and boys differ on a fundamental level. I accept that they think differently. And yet this seems to me such an invasive, unpleasant piece of mind-control: someone, somehow has convinced my tiny, lovely daughter that she needs to be 'beautiful'. and that in order to be 'beautiful' she has to wear very specific kinds of clothing.

If that's true -- if there's been some kind of social act, some sort of indoctrination, inculcation and conditioning, then I genuinely want to go postal.

But what if it's not that? I trust the daycare situation. The woman who runs it is amazing, wonderful, fabulous. She's looked after both boys, and now the girl, and all three of them idolize her. I'm sure, of course, that like Natalie and I she's prone to using the word 'beautiful' when the Mau-Mau primps and poses, yes. But I'm equally sure that she would never permit or encourage this fetishizing of the concept of 'beautiful', nor imprint on any of her charges the idea that 'beautiful' came from the clothing they wear. And obviously, as I trust the daycare situation, the home situation is even more free of this stuff. I mean, for fuck's sake: I'm the dad who's proud of his Godzilla-loving daughter, right?

So... what if it isn't socialisation at all? What if this is down deeper, closer to the genetic stuff? What if my response to this sort of thing from my daughter is as ridiculous as Natalie's feelings towards the boys and their toy guns?

There's heresy for you. Naomi Wolf created a huge stir with The Beauty Myth, which (in its early versions) came nearly paranoid-close to positing an outright conspiracy among men to foster the 'myth of beauty', and to use it as a means of controlling women. (She modified some of the more paranoiac lines from the introduction in later editions; I know this because I got into a load of trouble quoting from the introduction to the 2nd edition - the copy I own - in an argument with a bunch of True Believer Feministas from the US.) Wolf offered nearly three hundred pages to argue that the whole concept of beauty was a social construct, and a deliberate imposition.

And while I didn't accept the 'conspiracy' thesis, I did accept the idea that beauty is socially constructed, and the effect of that construction on women is disempowering, and negative.

So now what? I mean, really -- now what?

This morning, I lost patience as we walked out to the car. The Mau-Mau had suffered some imaginary slight in the process of getting ready to leave, and she'd begun the Great Whimper, complete with tears and bottom lip and foot-dragging. I didn't have time for it, so as I passed her, I said: "Princesses don't cry, do they?"

There was a pause. I stopped, and caught her eye.

She slowly shook her head.

"Good," I said. "If princesses don't cry, what are you doing?"

She straightened up, and climbed into the car without another word.

I think I hate myself.


  1. Top shelf thinks Cap'n, thanks again.

    The Bobette was drowned in Fairy literature, Fairy posters, Fairy wings, Fairy dresses et al from an early age from well meaning & childless aunts & uncles. So it was little suprise that she developed a play time fairy identity. As for what is beautiful - I think it may be at the chromasome level.
    I still think that many parents make it hard for themselves by giving in to behaviours like tantrums. Kids are pretty smart & if behaviour X got what the child wanted last time...
    That said, I have recently become a lot less jugemental of other parents coping strategies. I used to tut-tut when I saw a four year old with a can of fizzy drink or a dad buying B'fast for a car full of kids at the Golden Arches - but these days I understand that without the backstory I can't judge.

  2. Eh. Nup. I'm still gonna be judgemental about the feeding habits. If you haven't got the sense not to bulk-breakfast your youngsters at a fast food joint, breeding wasn't your best idea in the first place. I know Mickey Dee has tried to update its food range, but its core business is still nutritionally horrible - and they aim to make their clientele part of a 'culture' of eating.

    The best way to dodge that bullet is not to get your kids involved until they're old enough and educated enough to make smart decisions for themselves -- and teach 'em good eating habits from day one.

  3. My eldest (2 1/2) went straight for toy cars and trucks the moment he had a choice. Give him a doll, as they did at childcare, and he'd look at it quizzically, then stick it in the back of the truck and push that around. His younger bro is four weeks old tomorrow so that story's yet to be told, but I do think the genders have certain predispositions towards different behaviours in play and certainly different psychologies when interacting with others. The pretty fairy princess thing also appears to be relatively spontaneous in that it needs very little encouragement to nucleate. I know my boss and his wife, whose eldest is a 5 yr old girl, are anything BUT pretty princess parents, but that's how the kid's turned out. Whether it's other kids at childcare, or grandparental influence, or TV and movies, or whatever, I don't really know.

  4. Couple of things i've observed.
    We tend to be slightly more rough and tumble with baby boys, making them punch themselves in the face for example, girls we may still do that (cause its fun) but we are gentler.
    When we see a boy toddler in his church finery we say "handsome" with a girl we say "pretty or beautiful" which are english versions of masculine and feminine words. Not intentional and certainly neither diminishes the compliment payed, but it's done. And females love compliments, being "beautiful" gets her more attention (which leads into the psychological manipulation thing to get her way as opposed to physical for boys).
    But baby boys tend to be harder to toilet train, they seem to not mind sitting in a nappy filled with filth, Girls seem to take to it easier (i have a million much younger cousins), so maybe the clean and "pretty" thing is hard wired into girls (dogs and cats seem to be the same way with house training - cats in particular).
    Several years ago a study was done with groups of boys and girls using teapots with spiky nails everywhere and toy guns with lace and frills, The boys used the teapots, the girls used the guns so perhaps females in general like softer prettier things (couldn't find the study).
    I work with a female binder (female binders don't tend to exist outside of myth and legend). She drinks and swears with the boys,is technically unsurpassed and is at the top of a rough game. She is one of the boys. She is also den mother to the whole company. 25 years in a boys club has not killed her maternal instinct.
    I guess what i'm saying is i think that certain aspects of gender are social constructs and certain aspects are instinctual.

  5. Of course it's nothing you've fostered Dirk. The female psyche is hard-wireded and young children with no inhibitions will express what is in every woman's heart...a desire to be the divine creature that men seek. (thought they do get better at hiding it with age)

  6. (posted for Jane)

    Hey Dirk

    I also have the same dislike of princess fairy mentality (and the boy equiv of truck/gun/Spiderman obsessions). Enjoying elements of it, no problem. But becoming the defining paradigm through which their little eyes see the world drives me freaking nuts.

    A few things occur to me, maybe to you as well. Youngest, two elder brothers and wearing their clothes, playing with their toys. She isn't a boy and knows that. So how to define yourself? What's something that's not boy (or daddy), that boys aren't interested in, that she can call her own? Easy - pink princess fairy unicorns.

    As for where the hell did "..but I want to beautiful come from"? Don't underestimate the power of images, even fleeting in ads on TV, pretty dresses in commercials, even "isn't she pretty?" comments made in her hearing. And when someone has an older sister and you see some of the pretty girly stuff they have, well, it can be defining (personally, that's how I found out about Barbies in childhood devoid of commercial TV!). Also, comments by other kids who may already be on the pink/appearances bandwagon can have enormous impact on shaping what's important in a little head (you know, the "I'm the pretty princess 'and you have to do as I say cause I have a twirly tiara and you don't" kind of thing).

    How to fix it? I have no idea. Let some of it happen? Stop the worst of it? Encourage a healthy interested in botany? No idea. Am too making it up as I go along.

    This article is interesting, not really happy reading but it kind of explains a few things. Also points to issues likely to be in all our futures as parents of young girls. Sigh.

  7. Hahahahahaha.

    Welcome to hell.

    Your table is over this way, sir.

  8. LOL! She's got you by the shorties. But who could help it? She's too frickin' cute.

  9. This is one of the most instructive, funny and scary things i've ever read

  10. Hoping it will be the same for you...but my girl went thru a princess/fairy stage and I can assure you it's entirely possible for them to end up on the edge of butch...

  11. Both of my girls went through the Princess stage as well, and the younger one is still kind of there. Both grew up constantly asking for approval of how they look as well, even though it's not something we fostered at home. When they're clean, we tell them they look very nice. When covered in mud, they get a semi-serious "you look disgusting." Unless the mud is from a hard-fought soccer game, in which case they are applauded for their dirty kit.

    I only have daughters, but I've noticed boys can take ANYTHING and turn it into a gun. Hand them a Barbie and they will bend her into an L-shape, grab the legs, aim the head at an enemy, and make PEW PEW PEW noises. Girls will take a GI Joe and make him an unwilling groom in the Wedding from Hell.

  12. For what it's worth, folks: I'm turning the 'Princess' meme on its arse, and using it in what I hope will be a positive way. The "princesses don't cry" was a start. Princesses, from this point, aren't just "beautiful". Princesses eat with forks, not their fingers. Princesses don't scream at their brothers. Princesses brush their teeth when they're asked, because they have nice, clean teeth. Princesses eat their dinner properly...

    ...she can be all the Princess she wants. But it's going to be MY version of a princess: smart, tough, responsible and helpful.

    The 'beautiful' thing is another matter altogether. I'm still horrified by her tears, and the clear connection in her mind between 'wearing the pink dress' and 'being beautiful' -- and worse, that 'beautiful' is some kind of powerful and infinitely desirable ideal that comes from external trappings, not from within.

    Really not yet sure how to combat that, though I'll be changing the way I use the word, and encouraging Natalie to do likewise.

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments, all... even you, Birmo, ya bastard!

  13. Dirk, there's too much stuff out there for the human sponge that is a young child, not to pick up on. Whether it be a chance advert on the TV at the cinema, magazines in waiting rooms, Chance comments by other kids parents etc etc.

    But then a couple of eyars she may become a real tom-boy. You just don't know and that is probably one of the many many challenges of being a aprent..or so i'm told.

    JB LMFAO!!!

  14. "From Eh. Nup. - to -'culture' of eating."
    Aye Cap'n I agree, but my poorly made & entirely off topic point was that in my efforts to be a better man I resist the temptation to Tut tut other parents for doing what I wouldn't - without knowing the backstory.

    A recent example.
    At 19:00 one night I had an ill Bobette on my hands, her temperature spiked I rang the Qld Health advice line. They said "take her in" so off to Nambour Base Hospital we went. In the rush out the door I did grab her waterbottle, dressing gown, ugg boots & a woobie (rug) for her & books for both of us - but not any food. A strategic error - but she was getting "floppy," I was worried & she couldn't have been less interested in eating.

    As with all Public Hospitals if you are not gushing aterial blood they put you on the glacial waiting list. We finally saw a Dr. @ 23:00 (a very kind & obviously competant South Asian chap) who poked, prodded & quizzed her. He was satisfied that her head wasn't about to come off or anything so he sent us home.

    "I'm hungry" she says.
    At least 30 mins to home + 15 or 20 mins at home to put something edible in front of her, no other options in Nambour at that time of night - so at 23:30 I'm buying my coeliac daughter polystyrene McCrap for dinner.
    Without the backstory I was just another deadbeat dad mal-nourishing his daughter.
    With the backstory I was just doing what I could with the resources available at the time. I would have much preferred to have supplied her with fruit, food or even her favourite sushi - but it was just not an option.
    As a result of this & similar experiences I try to withhold my condemnation of parents (esp single parents) who do what they think to be the best they can.
    I can't argue that the decisions some parents make are frequently poor, sometimes tragic & occasionally criminal - but I do try to give them the benefit of the doubt.

  15. It's amazing what kids will absorb, even without the influence of TV. My littlest bloke doesn't see much TV, instead we read with him, play about a lot, all that good stuff. But give him anything remotely gun shaped and he shooting up the joint like a methed up gangbanger! And without prompting he grew to like cars, trucks, all that good 'boy' stuff. And he picks up heaps of pop culture from kindy - Star Wars, various cartoon shows etc. (funnily enough last rainy weekend I tried showing him the original Star Wars. We lasted up to the cantina scene when he asked to turn it off as he was 'scared' - didn't like seeing the 'goodies' hurt and found the whole aura of the show frightening. Still loves his Star Wars toys though).

    Another boy at son's kindy has some real issues though. Mother is a single Mum who actively encourages son to dislike his estranged father, she is a borderline alcoholic, and the kid is an insufferable shit. He bullies smaller kids, thinks 'sharing' means 'give me that now', could tantrum for Australia, I could go on. This kid loves dressing up as a policeman and threatening other kids with gaol, shooting, beating or just tickets. Yet he also loves wearing dresses, pretending to be pregnant, dressing up as a fairy....I tell you this kid if he doesn't get some help is going to be the next 'Buffalo Bill' ala 'Silence of the Lambs'...

  16. Real princesses don't need pink dresses to be beautiful.

    A really beautiful princess can fight off her own dragons, save their own life and get up in time to get to the bus on time without any need for kisses from princes.

    Real princesses ROCK and kick arse.

    Here is a song for Mau Mau

    The Pony Princess

    The fall is waiting after the pride.
    See the fine lady out for a ride
    humming a fairytale fantasy song
    the pony princess gallops along.

    A fever's burning, but her hands are cool.
    She waits in hope but feels a fool
    as she tells herself it will be ok,
    though night is falling on another lonely day

    Find your missing crystal slipper and buy a brand new dress
    step into the folds of its sympathetic caress.
    Find another place to hang your mirror ball,
    'cause princes don't come looking for princesses any more.

    Her heart is breaking but her eyes are dry
    her voice is shaking every time she lies
    as tells herself it will be alright
    though dawn is breaking on another lonely night.

    Time has come for waking, the wicked witch has died,
    the spindle is still spinning and the spots of blood have dried.
    Smash the casket glass and spit the poisoned core,
    'cause princes don't come looking for princesses any more.

    The grain is counted and the golden fleece is plucked.
    After all the trials of Venus, you find your life's still fucked.
    It's never going to be the way it was before
    'cause princes don't come looking for princesses any more

  17. N-Bob: my judgemental self stands mildly sheepish. It is, apparently, possible that under certain rare circumstances one may resort to the Arches.

    And Hughesy - nice one!