‘When I grow up I’m going to be a doctor who fixes people with cancer.’ This from the mouth of my six year old. And she hasn’t just said it once. She’s come out with it at least weekly for the last couple of months. Yes, I know she’s only six and that she will change her mind and could end up being anything from a plumber to a – god forbid – writer. But as well as being proud that she had such a lovely ambition I was also secretly relieved.
Why? Because I’ve been reading a slew of books and journal articles over the past few months about the idea that girls are growing up too quickly. Much of the reading discusses the supposed divide that society throws at girls – they are either princesses or hookers. And much of the advice dished out to parents in these books and articles is that letting young girls watch/play with/read anything with the words ‘Disney Princess’ means your daughter will grow up thinking that all she’s good for is washing up a pile of dishes while she waits for her prince to come.
I have read these books with a certain amount of skepticism. Surely it’s not that simple: Disney Princess at playtime = Passive and helpless daughter. Of course I would like more for my daughter than that. Of course she plays with Disney Princess toys, books, games, clothes – the list goes on. But she plays with, reads and wears many other things too.
As a mother, I can’t help but stop and think when I read things about raising children. What if, I question myself, Disney Princesses really are as bad for a child as an unlimited supply of red cordial? But, especially after hearing my six-year-old’s fledgling ambition, I know that the books aren’t quite right.
It’s all about balance. Having a Cinderella doll does not mean she will grow up thinking that all she can be is Cinderella. Wearing a Sleeping Beauty T-shirt does not mean she will grow up thinking her only role in life is to win the heart of a princely man. She can read a story about a beautiful princess and still dream of being a doctor who looks after people with cancer because we show her that other stories exist, we let her imagination run free and we discuss her ideas with her as she forms them. I think the problem with these books is that they assume the Disney Princess doll-playing happens in a vacuum with no parent to show the child other ways of being. Of course that would be a problem, if it happened. For now, I’m going to let my daughter keep her Cinderella doll, alongside her Play-doh and her sandpit and her tap-dancing shoes because it’s my job to show her how Cinderella fits into the larger narrative of life – that princesses can be fun, but helping people with cancer is heroic.