Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Hey, Prince Eric, Wipe That Smug Look Off of Your Little Plastic Face

Last week, as Erin played happily and mostly every toy in the house got along with one another, all hell suddenly broke loose in the imaginary world of princesses and dolls.

"Eric was mean to Sleeping Beauty, so she's crying in my backpack," Erin announced very authoritatively, taking me by the hand to witness her favorite blond-haired princess Barbie doll, hands posed over her face, zipped tightly in her Tinkerbell school bag.

"He's in love with Mermaid and he's going to marry her instead," she continued. "That's why Sleeping Beauty is so sad."

I had no idea any such drama was unfolding in my living room. But apparently, it's been brewing for a while.

Let me break it down: At Christmas-time, my mom and dad bought a six-pack of princess dolls which Erin adores. Sleeping Beauty, Mermaid, Jasmine, etc. They all got along famously - playing dress-up, beauty salon and sleepover, you know, all the usual stuff that dolls do - until some additional gifts arrived from Aunt Jeanine.

"It's Prince Eric!" Erin shouted when the plastic-coiffed smug little womanizer arrived, that sly grin of his peering at us through the plastic box.

The next morning, all of the BFF princesses quietly started to bicker.

"Mermaid and Cinderella both want to hold hands with the Prince," Erin said.

There were so many things wrong with that statement, I simply didn't know where to start. I tried to reason a little, asking why the girls no longer played happily together. I got a very real reply.

"Eric picked one princess to kiss and the rest of them are mad," she said.

"Tell me about it," I wanted to respond. "Wait til you're 22 and..." But I bit my tongue. After all, this is my three-year-old innocent daughter we're talking about.

How in the world does she even know anything about kissing and boyfriends? I refuse to let her watch any of those big-kid shows: Hannah Montana, High School Musical, iCarly, etc. Until she's a teen herself, they're off-limits - no matter how much she begs. And I've protected her little eyes and ears from anything risque - we're strictly a happy-slappy, princess/fairy household. Disney movies are the only movies she's ever seen. How could she learn the dramas of dating by watching "Finding Nemo?"

But as my husband and I were hashing out our new found problem the other day - Pat made the revelation: "You know all those Disney movies she watches end with the Prince kissing the Princess, right? And they get married and live happily ever after."

Holy crap, he's right. It all seems harmless, but when everything she sees is focused on marriage and magical, wake-you-out-of-your-sleep kisses, that's what she's going to concentrate on too.

The idea brought me back to a discussion I had with some of my students a few years ago. I was teaching an Intro to Communications class at St. John's and the text devoted a few pages to what they labeled "the Disney effect."

It's a philosophy adopted by many, stating that Disney movies are loaded with gender stereotypes. Women are either portrayed as princesses, queens or homemakers (Cinderella, Snow White - think about it and it starts to make sense) whose main mission in life is to wait around for a prince to come and make their lives complete.

If there's a powerful female in the movie, she's almost always evil (stepmothers, sea queens, etc.) and continually tries to thwart any chances for the princess to reach her main goal of marriage. But in the end, one big magical kiss makes everything OK.

Without even knowing it, I've subjected my daughter to a skewed vision of life. How will she grow up to be a strong, independent woman, when every shred of evidence points to the fact that some prince on a white horse needs to kiss her first?

I know it sounds a little extreme and I'm not one of those crazy, blame-it-all-on-Disney kind of moms, but if the glass slipper fits...

So we've come up with some temporary solutions: Prince Eric is hiding in the trunk of the car for a while, a sort of time-out for all of his philandering. We're weaning Erin off of the books, movies and other princess paraphernalia too, filtering in some non-threatening pals like Care Bears and Dora the Explorer. (She never had any kissing scenes with Boots, right?)

We'll see if any of it works.

But a new player emerged in the saga on Easter Sunday. Mom put Malibu Ken in Erin's Easter basket. He's still in plastic, spending a little time with Eric in the trunk. Once they can learn to behave like gentlemen, we'll let them back in the house.

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