“Ask the Matriarchy” is a four-part advice series running on Thursdays.
I’m a mom to a four-year-old girl, who is obsessed with princesses. As a feminist, I do not like princesses and I don’t let her participate in princess culture. I don’t want my daughter wearing any clothes branded with Disney princesses. I try to only buy her clothes in neutral colors, with few dresses, and she looks adorable. But the pull of culture is too strong. She’s been begging for tutus and crowns. She had a meltdown at Target a few weeks ago, calling me the “worst mom ever.” My mother-in-law keeps a stash of dress ups at her house that only makes things worse.
Now, my daughter is invited to a princess party and I don’t want her to go, but she’s throwing a fit. What do I do? Should I stick to my principles or do I crumble in the face of the princess machine?
Dear Princessed Out,
I understand your stand against princesses. I too had a similar stand—no princess books, no movies, no princess shows, or paraphernalia. I kept it until my daughter was two and she broke into my closet, draped herself in my scarves, and came tripping down the stairs declaring, “I a pincess now, mommy!”
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I was crushed, but I gave up. How do you explain to a two-year-old that the things she likes are capitalist, tacky, and play into gender stereotypes? You don’t. Because making a little girl feel bad about a bit of glitter and a tiara is just as bad as making her feel compelled to wear that glitter in the first place.
With respect to Peggy Orenstein, the problem isn’t princesses, and the problem never has been princesses. Princesses are a symptom. They are not the disease. The disease, in this case, is that we conflate a young girl’s clothes with her self worth. Take a look at the boys’ clothing department in comparison to the girls’ clothing department—the girls’ clothing department has every array of tutu, dress, pants, shirts declaring her the next president, and shorts declaring her ass the next DIVA. Boys clothing departments? If you’re lucky, there are a few jaunty hats. Maybe a tumbleweed.
This isn’t because we love girls more (obviously). It’s because we’ve decided that clothes are girls’ entire identity. But you can’t buy your way into or out of feminism. You can’t buy empowerment. If you think about it, when you tie concepts of character to clothing, you are actually buying disempowerment, whether that looks like a tutu or black leggings. The real freedom comes from disengaging from concepts of self worth from clothing. Just by opting out of Princess Culture (™), and purchasing all neutral items, you haven’t somehow liberated yourself or your daughter. Similarly, a tutu does not mean subjugation. So, while I admire your principles, you aren’t teaching your daughter anything remotely feminist. Instead, you’re teaching her that clothes have intrinsic moral weight, when they’re really just a tool.
So much of a woman’s life is learning how to navigate the world through her body and her clothes. Teaching your daughter that Princess Culture and all its trappings are bad and that black leggings are good won’t do her any favors. Instead of making hardline rules, how about talking to her about them?
We have a lot of conversations about clothes in our house with my daughter who is now six and spent two years of her life entirely in dresses, which was super fun, because we live in the midwest and we can get sub zero temperatures. So, cue the before school fight of “PRINCESSES DON’T WEAR PANTS!” And me saying, “Okay but what about Jasmine?” And then her wiping her eyes, smiling and saying, “So, I can wear a belly shirt too?”
Instead of focusing our discussions on what is appropriate or right, we talk about comfort, confidence, and choice. I tell her I always want her to feel comfortable and confident. Right now, that means no pants with buttons. Also, confidence—is she going to feel good running in gym with a tutu? Okay. Then, cool. But maybe some shorts underneath for an added boost.
I think it’s hypocritical to teach kids that they are in charge of their bodies and then micromanage their hair and clothing choices. Instead, teach her how to navigate those choices. Let her go to the party. But maybe you can find a princess-y dress at Goodwill. Maybe you can make your own crowns. Maybe you can buy a book of princesses in history for a party gift. When it comes to princesses, there are more ways than all in or all out. Find a way to work with what your daughter loves. Chat. Find some middle ground. Give her some control here. The clothes battle begins now. It’s something we all wrestle with and will all wrestle with unless the end finally comes and we are forced to wear the clothes we strip off from the bodies of the dead or steal from the palaces of the rich. But even then, I can imagine clothes still being a marker of which side of the great war with the aliens we are on.
Right now you are making your child dress to please you. Instead, try teaching her that clothes are not a performance of morality.
Also, it is pretty passive aggressive of your mother-in-law to have the dress-up stash. But again, can you work with her? Add some gender neutral clothes to that stash. Throw in a dino costume. Again, you need to find a way to work with this lady, and your daughter, and the world we live in.
Also, to give you some perspective: Dress-up is fun and play acting is part of child development. And princesses are just a phase. My six-year-old is no longer a princess. Now, she is obsessed with lady superheroes. And now our conversations before school are like, “Okay, but maybe not a cape today.”
“But you want me to have the fonfidence!”
“Yes, but what if that one mean kid grabs the cape and chokes you?”
“Then, I will destroy him.”