I gently said, "There are lots of options for party themes, would you like to talk about some other possibilities?" She agreed and we talked about sea creature/mermaids, superheros, horses, Little House on the Prairie, Fancy Nancy, Dinosaur Train... and when I got to the latter one, her eyes lit up and she started squealing: "Dinosaur Train! Dinosaur Train!"
We all love this show around here: Z loves the characters and information about dinosaurs and we adore its (relative) gender neutrality and its introduction of "I have a hypothesis" into our daughter's vocabulary.
So we're throwing our almost five year old girl a Dinosaur Train birthday party.
It's not exactly a coincidence that I helped guide her to that decision - and away from a Barbie/ Princess party - as I just finished reading Peggy Orenstein's "Cinderella Ate My Daughter". If you have a daughter and haven't already done so, I highly recommend you stop reading this post right now and go get yourself a copy of this book. It is an illuminating look at the insidiously omnipresent, stereotype-entrenching, hypersexualized girlie-girl culture. While reading, I found myself nodding and note-taking and shuddering with equal, frequent, ferocity.
Unfortunately for my oldest daughter, I also found myself jettisoning a large portion of her birthday wish list. Anything pink and Barbie and Cinderella on that list now has a big ol' blue line through it.
Of all of Orenstein's thoughtful, thought-provoking assertions, one stands out: that the overwhelming marketing of pink and princess to little girls doesn't provide for their protection and innocence like we naively assume, but rather, since it teaches our girls to primp and preen, to value their looks above all else, it is a de facto training ground for their later sexual objectification.
I believe that what we buy for our girls tells them what we think of them, what we expect of them, what is possible for them. There are so few strong female toys, movie characters, or even popular book characters (who aren't from before the turn of the century). Most are fairly limp and others derive any power or heroic qualities solely from their beauty.
The offerings in popular teenage role models are also troubling. Orenstein's dissection of the rise and fall of pop princesses, the baffling social media landscape and teen girl hyper-sexuality is enough to make me wish, if only for a moment, that I could take my girls to a desert island for their teenage years.
"... Britney [Spears] embodies the predicament of ordinary girls writ large. They, too, struggle with the expectation to look sexy but not feel sexual, to provoke desire in others without experiencing it themselves. Our daughters may not be faced with the decision of whether to strip for Maxim, but they will have to figure out how to be sexual beings without being objectified or stigmatized." (page 123)Obviously what really resonated with me was some of her thoughts about hyper-sexuality in teen girls, something I will not deal with for some time, thank goodness. As it is, I am horrified at how suggestive even little girl clothing has become. The tarting up of our little girls is disturbing to me, as some of Z's friends watch movies meant for teens and just today were practicing their "runway walks". I wonder daily how to help her navigate a world which over-values beauty and allows for only the narrowest definition of femininity.
If we aren't going to totally remove our children from the dominant culture - something Orenstein perfectly refers to as "going Amish" - then how do we teach them our core values without rendering them social pariahs? None of us want our children to be left out of playground friendships, un-liked and picked on, because they don't know the cool TV shows or have the latest gadgets. But how do we raise our children to be critical consumers rather than naive drones who are irrevocably molded by the media that surrounds them?
I know we're supposed to limit their exposure to adult material and images whenever possible a well as talking as a family about advertising and media messages and CG and I do those things. We also try to broadcast our values in everything we do: how we dress, what we say about our bodies, their bodies, other people's bodies; what we watch, what we allow them to watch; what we buy for them and what we DON'T buy for them. I do think carefully about that stuff, most of the time, when I'm not overwhelmed by life and just hanging on by my right pinkie nail, and I will continue to do so.
Today, though, I am trying to figure out how to explain to a sweet, almost five-year-old girl that she won't be getting some of the things on her wish list. (Truly, she needs no more Cinderella items and wasn't going to get everything on her wish list anyway. Reading this book, however, sealed the deal.)
I wonder, too, how to help her deal with the fact that some of her princess-loving friends might not embrace the idea of a dinosaur birthday party for a girl. I feel weary knowing this is just one of the many battles to come. But I am willing to fight.
Edited to add:
Crap. Given some of the comments, it appears I gave y' all the wrong idea about Ms. Orenstein's book. Her book is thoughtful and engaging, personal and political, and it is in NO WAY preachy. Her book does NOT tell you not to get your daughters anything pink (I like pink too!) or to banish princesses (I wouldn't dream of it and Ms. Orenstein didn't either). Her book is about her own struggles to understand the deeper issues and nuances within the girlie-girl culture as she raises her daughter. Where my brain took me is my own responsibility.
(Sorry, Ms. Orenstein. I promise I won't be sending you my resume to be your book publicist any time soon.)