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.