We tried to avoid gender stereotypes and failed

This mama of three daughters swore she’d never let a princess dress enter her house. Here’s what really happened…

girl in princess dress

I remember the first time I saw a preschool-aged girl at the supermarket decked out in a poofy pink princess dress covered in sequins. She was also wearing a tiara and carrying a wand. She looked so happy as she pranced down the aisle enchanting the cereal boxes, but I was horrified.

“Do you see what I’m seeing?” I whispered loudly to my husband-to-be. “If I had a daughter, I’d never let her wear THAT in public. Costumes are for Halloween, not every day. And don’t get me started on the stupid princess fantasy! The poor maiden who’s stuck in a tower all on her lonesome with no one to admire her beauty and who has to wait for a dumb prince to come and save her with a kiss. Ugh!”

Fast-forward six years and I can frequently be found grocery shopping with three princess-fairy-ballerinas twirling at my feet. But unlike the poised little beauty I’d spotted all those years ago, my ruffians don’t have an ounce of poise or decorum. Their dresses are always covered in food stains, their hair is unkempt and their voices are MUCH too loud. It’s really the worst of both worlds. I have my very own crew of pirate princesses.

The slow erosion of my principles

“So, what happened?” you ask. The truth is that I was gradually worn down by the indomitable power of the almighty princess industry. I had three girls (including twins) in less than three years. I was tired. I was weak. I had no fight left in me and Disney won the war.

It all started when my eldest daughter watched Frozen for the first time when she was two. We were at my friend’s house and I’d had a glass of wine, so my guard was down. “Can I put Frozen on?” she begged. “My girls love it. We’ll get at least half an hour of peace!” I looked over at the comfy chair I’d be able to relax into while the movie was on and I caved.

My sweet baby girl turned into a rabid Elsa fan overnight. Within two weeks, she knew every word to “Let it Go” and she spent about 10 hours a day begging me for an Elsa doll and an Elsa dress. (I eventually let her earn both with a reward chart.)

I was equal parts horrified and fascinated. I still loathed the princess myth, but seeing my baby girl twirl around and sing with so much passion melted my heart. I realized with dismay that I was being sucked in.

Girls will be girls

When I spoke to friends and acquaintances about the tug of war between my principles and my desire to let my daughter live out her Frozen fantasy, I was often met with clichés like, “Every little girl wants to be a princess! There’s no harm in letting her dress up.”

I smiled and nodded, but every fiber of my being wanted to scream, “You’re wrong, Rhonda! Read the research!”

The debate as to whether children’s preference for gender-specific toys is innate or learned has been raging for years and there’s still no clear answer. But one thing that is crystal clear is that gendered toy marketing reinforces gender stereotypes. Girls should look pretty and boys should blow stuff up.

These stereotypes are far from harmless. They limit children’s perceptions of who they are and what they can become. They restrict their opportunities in life and their freedom of choice. They also reinforce gender inequality, which in turn fuels violence against women. Is it just me or does that princess dress not seem so cute anymore?

Making peace with princess culture

It wasn’t until my twins were born and their big sister kept trying to dress them up as mini Elsas that I finally… *cough*… let it go. Before I knew it, the little ones were Frozen fans too and we had a whole rack of sparkly hand-me-down costumes in our toy room (and at the park and at the supermarket… sigh.)

I came to realize that a piece of cheap polyester didn’t have the power to define my girls or to make them buy blindly into old-school gender roles. It’s what my husband and I teach them about who they can be and what they can accomplish that really matters.

I’m up in their faces every day questioning the gender stereotypes we encounter at every turn. We were listening to the Beauty and the Beast audiobook a few months ago and I was shocked to hear chauvinistic hunter Gaston tell Belle to get her nose out of a book because women shouldn’t read!

My impulse was to start ranting about how outdated and ridiculous that idea was, but instead I took a deep breath and asked my big girl what she thought about it. She simply said, “That’s funny, why would he say that women shouldn’t read?” I used the opportunity to explain how women used to be considered inferior to men and unworthy of receiving an education. She was fascinated and agreed with me that we’re lucky that times have changed.

I’ll never stop engaging my daughters in dialogue about what it means to be a woman and what we’re capable of achieving. I’ll never tire of telling them that they can do anything a man can do. My daughters will grow up knowing their worth.

So, maybe the odd tiara isn’t so bad after all.