This morning, my daughter cried - well, she's two so she cries every morning about something - but today, it was because she didn't like her new scooter helmet.
Photo by YAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV/Shutterstock
"I want pink!" she said.
"Already?" my husband said, looking at me as if it were my fault.
In my daily black yoga pants and T-shirts (hey, you never know when you might work out), I'm probably more of a Sporty Spice than a Posh one. But I eschew boxes and embrace contradictions: I'm a feminist who gets manicures (then chips my nails two minutes later); I like hot pink but never wear heels. What can be so bad about a kid wearing gendered clothing?
But when my daughter declared it again - "I want pink!" - I felt a vague sense of uneasiness.
She was already showing a predilection for tutus, and anything that sparkled, lit up, bowed or twirled. And although her screen time was limited to Elmo, Cookie Monster and Paw Patrol, I wondered if I really could fight the Disney machine and its Princesses.
According to Devorah Blachor, author of the book, The Feminist's Guide to Raising a Little Princess: How to Raise a Girl Who's Authentic, Joyful, and Fearless - Even If She Refuses to Wear Anything but a Pink Tutu, feminist parents have been concerned that princess culture will make their girls suffer. They worry about the images of helpless princesses waiting for a man to rescue them. They worry about their daughters being under the spell of savvy marketing. They worry that girls will be forever fixated on how they look.
Shy of throwing out all our devices, locking ourselves in our home, and never letting her play with other girls, I wondered how I could still help my daughter become a strong, feminist leader. Here's what I'm learning parents like me can do:
Take the Politics Out of Pink (It's Just a Colour!)
For Blachor, it all started with Colour Week, when each day her toddler wore a different colour to school. Friday, the day of pink, turned out to be The Psychotic Toddler Threshold for her daughter Mari, the point at which, she explains, "your child makes the switch from a mild-mannered adorable little person to a being whose sole purpose is to make everyone around him or her miserable."
But Blachor - who never was a pink, tulle or tutu fan herself - learns to see beyond the colour. "All the fears I had for my daughter compressed into one soft, innocent colour," she writes in her book. "Mari had no such fear. For her, pink was the colour she loved. There was no baggage weighing it down, because she wasn't carrying any yet … Pink was the focal point for her expressions of fun. Pink was her enthusiasm, her joy and her uncomplicated, beautiful, sparkling love of life." I love that!
Kids, however, do eventually start to get different messages from TV, the toy aisle and their peers. When his daughter came home from school one day saying that a boy told her that pink is a "girl colour", writer Mike Reynolds had to do some strong convincing that the statement isn't true. He writes on HuffPost:
My goal was to get her to the point where every colour is known just as a colour, not a boy colour or a girl colour. "A girl can like pink and a boy can like pink," I tried to explain. "A girl can like blue and a boy can like blue," I went on. "There are no colours that only boys can like or that only girls can like - they're all the exact same."
I settled for the night on calling every colour a boy colour AND a girl colour, and I told her she could tell (Specific Boy) that very thing the next day if she really wanted to. Because (Specific Boy) must not be hearing this enough.
For now, in any case, I keep telling my toddler her favourite colour is green.
I knew even before I had a daughter that I was going to raise her to laugh in the face of sexist stereotypes, to be whoever she wanted to be and to do her part in keeping the world safe for others to do the same. And then we got the ultrasound and it turned out I was having a boy.
Balance Out the Princess Stuff With Content You Love
I'm OK with being "that mum", the one my mother and mother-in-law make fun of for my rigorous "Nos!" As in, "No, she doesn't even know what ice cream is - can we leave it that way?" So I know how to take the heat.
What am I to do about culture, though? It's a lifetime fight.
One mum in my daycare with two daughters has never let a Disney movie into her house. Do I want to do that, too?
"Part of my problem is that I don't want to be the weird mum or daughter-in-law, nor do I want my daughters to be 'the weird kids'," writes Christia Spears Brown in Parenting Beyond Pink & Blue: How to Raise Your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes.
I was the weird kid. Forget princesses - I wasn't even allowed to watch The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. I missed out on a lot of schoolyard conversation. I won't subject my daughter to being left out. But I'm going to avoid the princess complex for as long as I can, perhaps instead getting my daughter involved in Pixar films. My all-time favourite animated movie is Inside Out, which focuses on a tween's complex inner life and not her appearance.
Look, I'm not worried about my daughter becoming a passive wallflower - she's determined and fierce (and to be frank, probably closer to a bully). But I don't want the world to make her that way either. I don't think one pink tutu will do it - but if it's a slippery slope, I'm going to stop it right now.
Change the Ending (and Have Fun With It!)
With Moana, Elsa and others, modern heroines are getting better - less passive, less dependent on a man's love. Still, I've been scared senseless reading all these books on the culture stacked against little girls - written by mums who are trying, in some ways, to fight it. I really do want to hop into a time machine and go back to 1983, where there was no gendered toy section and nothing on Saturday morning TV except Planet of the Apes. I have the urge to control every single thing my daughter wears, watches and consumes.
But as Blanchor advises in The Feminist's Guide, parents should have a sense of humour about it. "Make a list of wishes your daughter might ask to be granted from her fairy godmother. When the list is completed, tap your daughter's forehead gently and then say excitedly: 'I found your fairy godmother! It's your brain and she's been right here all along!'" Blachor writes.
Remind girls that they are their own heroes.