Why this feminist mom is okay raising a princess

October 26 2016 | Guest post by Megan Kinch
Princess
Princess stencil by mossimoincCC BY 2.0

To my surprise my three year old girl has ended up being SUPER girly, and I feel a little uncomfortable about the degree to which she loves pink and purples and sparkles. After all, I'm queer and I wear overalls and work construction — though I wear dresses too — and I feel like I'm "selling out" if I let my kid wear that pink "Rapunzel" shirt she somehow acquired and insists on wearing. But I also want to support my toddler in her gender expression, which includes supporting her choice to dress femme.

I realized that I feel like there's a certain trend in feminist parenting where we totally support little boys wearing dresses and sparkles… but cringe a bit inside when a little girl wants to do it.

I do keep trying to offer her a variety of clothing options — mixing in overalls, dinosaur shirts, and dark-coloured hoodies from the "boy" section — into her pink sparkle wardrobe of choice. But for those of us parents raised in the '80s, with unisex haircuts, overalls/onesies for both sexes, and girls in Lego ads, the backlash in options for toddler gender can be surprising. Even when we grew up a bit, '90s fashion was deeply influenced by grunge — girls wore Doc Martins and flannel, and even some straight boys wore eye makeup and black dresses at parties. Today, children clothes in stores are almost grossly gendered to my offbeat eyes — my kid rolled her eyes when I told her there were "no girl clothes or boy clothes."

The boy's section is, in a lot of ways, even worse than the girl's section! It's now quite difficult to find anything in the boys section that is not in dark colours or festooned with footballs, gross slogans, camo, or dinosaurs. Not that I'm totally against all of that, but the fact is that little boys clothes have gone over into the deep end of toxic toddler masculinity. Hopefully gender-neutral trends in dress and hair, currently sported by young gender-neutral people, will trickle down into children's clothing soon.

Let's raise empowered princesses who can eventually drop the whole princess thing but keep the empowerment.

I think it's going to be more effective to subvert the whole princess fairy thing with lightsabers and swords and bows and arrows, and raise empowered princesses who can eventually drop the whole princess thing but keep the empowerment. Little girls who know that just because a woman is wearing a dress doesn't make her less of a leader, that you can choose to wear makeup or not wear makeup, that you can choose shave your legs or not shave your legs, that you can wear a blue work coveralls some days and and heels another day. You can choose to identify as a woman, or as a man, or as neither, and you can choose to be butch of femme or neither, or some magical combination. Feminism and Queer-positive parenting is supposed to be about choice, and that sometimes sometimes includes the choice to explore the identities of princess or a sparkly fairy.

For working class, or any non-noble families really, the worship of princesses can have elements of mimicking our oppressors — after all we were probably just dirt-eating peasants back in those times. But what we are also saying is that our little peasant/working-class kid is just as good as a princess. That all little girls everywhere are just as precious and important and have potential leadership ability as a princess. Some of our feminist parenting attempts to steer clear of princess culture are doomed to failure as our kids become increasingly exposed to mainstream culture on the playground or in daycare. But if we think about the against-the-grain, subversive possibilities of princess culture… it might make it more tolerable when our kid insists on wearing that "Frozen" shirt yet again.

While there is plenty that is problematic about toddler princess gender expectations, and most progressive parents correctly attempt to shelter their children from extremes of gendered dress and expectations, there is also another side to this — a celebration of femininity and all things femme. A little girl just starting to express her gender identity, who is tromping around in a sparkly fairy dress, is totally happy and secure. When in the rest of her life is a woman going to feel happy about her gender, her body, being a girl, in an uncomplicated way. She's going to have to face the real world of gender discrimination, unfair expectations, and harassment soon enough, I want her to build a foundation of happiness in her own skin to help her get through the tough years which are surely ahead.

  1. Thank you!

    Lil story about myself. I actually was tomboyish because I (subconsciously) thought I would get more respect. Then I met a woman who inspired me in college. She was super femme — heels, makeup, big earrings, glitter, miniskirts — and still garnered all the respect the more tomboy types got (in my eyes). from then on I started exploring more feminine things and my style is actually pretty femme now. Long hair, obsessed with nail polish, dresses every day in summer, etc.

    Clothes do not indicate how tough you are. A woman wearing hot pink stillettos and a face full of bright makeup can be just as tough as a female construction worker.

  2. I hear you on the super dark/masculine boys clothes. Most of the clothes shopping for my toddler has been second hand (Goodwill doesn't do boy/girl sections so it's automatically gender neutral) but sometimes it's difficult to find brightly colored clothes that aren't pink, or have ruffles, or "girly" puffed sleeves. One pet peeve of mine is the writing on clothes, it's pretty much always objectionable to me. Girl clothes with writing always seem to be about how cute they are, boy clothes with writing always seem to be about how strong or tough they are. Why is this necessary for kids who can't even read yet?!? And can we think about what messages we're sending to their older siblings who can read? Or what messages we're reinforcing to the adults around our babies, and how we're influencing how they act towards our babies?

    • On this subject, I hate that even the darn fonts are gendered! I can't recall ever seeing cursive on "boy" clothing. Sigh.

  3. Thank you for this. Ever since my daughter has had an opinion on clothing we have let her choose what she wears. Even if that means she chooses princess dresses, fairy wings, layers of beaded necklaces, a princess crown, and sparkly tights (and she does most days).

    I have been trying to explain this very topic to several friends of mine but haven't had much luck putting it into words. I live in a liberal political city where most of my friends ID as feminists or at least lefty progressive. And I can not tell you how many times I hear "We don't let my daughter wear princess cloths." or "We're not exposing our daughter to the princess culture." or "I'm surprised you, of all people, are letting your daughter fall so hard into the princess culture." I usually just fall back on "We let our daughter express herself through fashion. She dresses like a princess and plays like a warrior. " But It seems to miss the larger points that you made so well.

    • Grrr, that makes me so mad to hear! "We don't let our daughter wear…" and STOP RIGHT THERE. That's the problem. Doesn't matter if you don't let her wear pink or if you don't let her wear boys' clothes, the whole point of feminism is that we shouldn't make arbitrary, societal RULES based on gender!

      • My Mom's favourite story ever to tell is about one of her friends when all the people in their friend group were raising their kids. My Mom's friend wouldn't let her daughter play baseball because "girls don't do that kind of thing, she'll thank me when she's older". Another one of my Mom's friends was a teacher and after a few glasses of wine just about ripped her head off. My Mom likes to tell it as one of the most important moments in her friends life because it made her realize that by controlling things like that, she was shaping her daughter into an ideal rather than allowing her daughter to be a person. They did end up enrolling her in baseball and she ended up getting a scholarship for university out of it. She loved the sport, but her love of baseball never made her less of a girl, just more of herself.

  4. My favorite kid's book ever, The Princess and the Goblin (which has its problematic moments but is good overall) is such a good princess book. It starts with the narrator talking about how all little girls are princesses, and then defining princess as kind-hearted and truthful &c., no points about submissive or anything (respectful of elders, but not necessarily AGREEING or OBEYING, and in fact standing your ground against elders who are wrong is a huge part of the book) and Our Hero gets rescued once and then rescues the boy who rescued her, with the help of an incredible, magical, powerful female ancestor. It's… so beautiful. And exciting.

    Don't watch the movie.

    tl;dr princesses are leaders and teaching little girls to stand up for what they believe in is good. Sparkles optional.

  5. My daughter is like that. Myself, I dress mostly in jeans and work in a field where there's one woman on 10 guys. So for sure this does not come from me. And yes, I do cringe when she goes straight for princess. When she wears the crown and fairy wings her grandmothers got her. I'm ok with her wearing dresses and pink stuff every day, but I object to this overblown princess marketing directed at little girls. It feels like we're being done in by big corporations who sell a totally fake and unrealistic image of femininity.

    • This. I cringe when Bug wants to dress like a princess, not because she's not allowed to be one but because I can't tell if it's what she wants or if it's what she feels expected to want.

      Granted, she's also pretty happy being a ninja, a doctor, the number 15, and a strawberry so I guess I shouldn't worry too much.

  6. I have a 3 year old princess (although princess/dog/bear/superhero is probably a better description) and some of her favorite books right now are the Princess in Black books. They are about a dainty princess who dresses in frilly pink and wears glass slippers and such, but who is secretly the "Princess in Black" who fights monsters when needed. It shows you can be both a "girly" princess and a tough strong hero. It's not either or.
    I also have 7 year old boy who loves colors and the boys' clothing options are depressing. I did manage to fine him some plain bright blue shoes which he loves.

  7. Have you heard of the Royal Diary book series? They may be (okay, totally are) too old for your toddler currently, but if she continues to want to express her femininity through princesses I totally recommend them. They're a series of books based on the diaries of/historical documents about different "princesses" world over. They've got Marie Antoinette, Mary Queen of Scots, Ka'iulani (Hawaii), Cleopatra… those are just some of the names I remember from my own childhood, too. There are Chinese princesses and Indian princesses and Indigenous and so on. My point is, the books demonstrate the variety of ways to be a princess, and to be empowered. Historically these women may not have been given the same rights as their make counterparts, but the books are told from their voice and you see their creativity and strength — both in more "femme" and "masc" roles.

      • This is super cool, thank you!

        I think you raise an excellent point about the push back against princesses. I might also raise that I think part of it has to do with our own internalised misogyny, even as grown ass feminists. Princesses as a symbol are like, the embodiment of femininity — something that girls and women and men and boys alike are taught to think of as "less than." I mean, girls and women are pitted against each other no matter how they express their gender, and I think that says a lot about how fucked up patriarchy is and how difficult it is to get out of our own systems and brains.

        I'm going to stop myself now before I rant even more, haha. Thank you again for the neato link!!

    • Also the Dear America series is part of that as well! I loved them as a kid and had the Queen Elizabeth and Titanic ones.

  8. Rejected Princesses! It is the best thing. There's a book coming out and everything. It's all about super badass women from all walks of affluence and gender expression.

  9. Standing ovations and the deepest of thank-yous from this queer femme. Growing up, my mom felt like she and I were both failures if I wasn't an athletic, dirty-jeans-wearing, Barbie-shunning, STEM-loving embodied rebuke of feminine stereotypes. Unfortunately, the daughter she *had* was a frill-seeking linguaphile who organized her (inevitable) Barbies into an all-female Shakespeare troupe, used her chemistry set to concoct highly questionable cosmetics, and had to be bribed to play soccer with the promise of new hair ribbons for game day. (Yeah, I was also just kind of a weirdo. Offbeat, one might even say!)

    Ultimately, what I learned from all of this was not that there were many legitimate and equally worthy ways to be a woman, but that femininity was bad, and that the only way to be taken seriously by the patriarchy *and* by my fellow lefties was to excise from myself everything that the patriarchy thought was frivolous and sub-par. So three cheers for parents who teach their femme children that you can, in fact, still be a badass (in whatever form that takes) in pink.

  10. Awesome awesome post, it strikes such a chord with me too!

    I was proud of my tomboy and felt uneasy of her more "girly" looks, although I have never never told her how to dress (I'm sure you can imagine the combinations she's come up with… and the raised eyebrows associated with them lol)

    Now at seven though, it is quite clear that clothes will always be gender-associated (I think I made up a word there) if not by society, then by her. School did that. The incident that made me realize this happened in first grade.

    I dress dapper-boy style for work. Dress shirts, ties, bow-ties, vests, sleek pin-striped pants, etc. I shop equally from "women's" or "men's" sections. Somehow, my six year old made a comment on some boy wearing a pink shirt and I took the opportunity to discuss how clothes were neither boy or girl.

    She contradicted me naively and I gave examples to illustrate my point, such as how I rock ties even if I'm a girl. She rolled her eyes at me and said it wasn't the same.
    When I asked why, she told me "Because they are girl ties." They are girl ties in her mind because they belong to me and I am a woman, even if ties are generally considered male clothes. I'm not quite sure what to conclude, except that clearly there is no way out of the "girl" or "boy" gender identification linked to clothes.

    So I am concentrating on teaching her that neither gender is better or inferior and have stopped worrying about appearance entirely.

  11. Not sure how old your daughter is, but I like "The Princess in Black" series by Shannon Hale. It's about a princess who wears pink and has tea parties, as society expects, but then she has a secret identity as the Princess in Black, fighting monsters.

  12. Don't forget that kids go through phases and change what they like! When I was a young child, there were a couple years where all I wore were dresses. Then I started wearing pants and refused to wear dresses for an even longer period of years!

    • I did the same, but I think a lot of it was because all the girls at my school didn't wear girly dresses. It drove my Mom nuts since she bought so much clothing for me. I cared a little less as I got older though.

  13. The gendering of clothes is super annoying. I am pregnant and my husband and I chose not to disclose the sex of the baby (well, actually we don't know either) but shopping has been nice since we have been going to second hand places that haven't had "boys" or "girls" sections. I am sure if they were in Carter's it would be the "boys" section.

    Some family members have made comments like "just wait till it is a girl and she just wants to wear sparkles" and honestly I WOULD LOVE MY KIDS TO WEAR SPARKLES! But I don't want my boy to think only girls wear glitter, or my girl to think only boys have footballs on their shirts. I try and make it clear that I want my baby/toddler to just enjoy life then start making decisions on what they like on their own. Luckily, I am handy with a sewing machine, so I can try and make some custom clothes if need be.

  14. Let us remember that princesses grow up to be mothafuckin' queens who rule whole big-ass countries. That's not so bad, for empowerment. What if we embrace princesses but also embrace "with great power comes great responsibility"? You can sit around being pampered one day but the next you might have to lead an army.

  15. Though I think this article is great and I am fully prepped to embrace my daughter's empowered princess stage I think this article misses 2 important points: 1) princess culture tends to perpetuate the white beauty stereotype largely ignoring women/people of colour and 2) boys (even most gender fluid ones) aren't subject to the same physical scrutiny that girls and women are that methodically teaches us that how we look is more important than what we think ("Hello, well aren't you pretty!!"). Which is why I think boys in tutus might be an easier idea for feminists.

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