Monday, January 13, 2014

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My Daughter is Not a Princess (A Father’s Struggle with Disney Princesses)

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My six-year-old son, Tristan, had soccer practice at the high school. I always brought Norah, my four-year-old daughter, to practice so she could play with her friend Eva (they went to church together), and a little boy named James, who was the younger brother of one of Tristan’s teammate. Eva was a sweet little girl with spindly dirty blond hair and a similar small build to Norah’s. James was a very blond boy, with blue eyes and a handsome smile.
A perfect prince.
Both Eva and Norah were into Disney Princesses. I have to doubt that James was into them, but I can say that he seemed to really be into attention, particularly from girls. More or less, he followed Norah and Eva around like a little tool, doing whatever they asked of him. I often thought about pulling him aside and giving him a bro talk about the Friend Zone, but I never did.
Anyway, the three often played a game called The Prince. This game had many variations. Sometimes Norah acted like she was sleeping on the grass. She’d always hold a dandelion against her chest like it was the rose Snow White held after biting the apple. Eva would cry next to Norah, morning the loss of her dear friend. And then James would creep up, hunch down, and kiss Norah on the cheek. Norah would open her eyes, stretch out her arms, and sit up. Then she would say something to the tune of, “My prince. You are so wonderful. You saved me.” 
Sometimes one of the girls was a monster, and it was James’s job to fight his way to the princess and save her. And sometimes both girls took turns dancing with James, slowly and gracefully as though they were at a ball. And when things got really crazy, usually near the end of soccer practice, one of the girls was locked in a tower (usually the tower was behind a bush near the top of some steps leading to the high school).
There were a few things that bugged me about this game.
First off, Norah was always helpless and waiting for a man to save her. I couldn’t understand why she didn’t get off her ass and slay the dragon herself. I really like the idea of Norah growing up to be an empowered woman, and I hated seeing her appear so depent on some heroic male stranger.
Secondly, I looked at James as he fought past a dragon to win the hand of my daughter, and wondered what his real intentions were. Sure, he seemed heroic. But I hadn’t seen his resume. Perhaps he seemed like a clean-cut hero on the outside, but was actually a player. I mean honestly, how many princesses had he deceived with this dragon slaying bit? Was this a one-time act of valor? Or was it a clever ruse that he used to get into princesses’ quarters after hours? Perhaps the Dragon was James’s wingman, two old bar room buddies pulling a fast one. 
I suppose what I am trying to get at is that as I watched them play, I worried that Norah was developing unrealistic expectations. Would she grow up and look for nothing but the handsome Prince Charming, the perfect man, who lived in a castle and rode a noble steed? The prince who was soft but rugged, wealthy but humble, war hardened but tender, dreamy yet achievable. Would she accept nothing but this contradiction? This unachievable man that would fight a dragon, climb a tower, or set up an elaborate shoe fitting scheme to find her? 

Sometimes I wonder if Disney is teaching Norah to long for a shady character from the streets that impersonates a sultan to win her love (Aladdin). Or perhaps an eccentric man that traps her in his castle until she learns to love him (Beauty and the Beast). Or maybe the caliber of man that wanders around the forest kissing dead women, hoping to bring them back to life (Snow White). All of these characters have labels in the real world: player, stalker, and creeper.

I’ve never studied Disney. I’m not a scholar in Disney theory (yes, there is such a thing as Disney theory). This is all based on my own observations. And this is not to say that Disney movies don’t teach some good morals. But at the same time they are a cluster of mixed signals and contradictions, many of which make me nervous.
I had a friend after high school. He had dark hair, dark eyes, and olive skin. He came from a wealthy family and he drove an expensive car. He was a really good-looking man, and he came across as charming, humble, and generous. On the surface, he was Prince Charming. But he really had one interest: to get laid. And he did get laid. Often. He was a player in every cliché sense of the word. He lied. He cheated. He broke a lot of hearts, he took a lot of virtue, and he was proud of it. In my early twenties, I recall being a little jealous of his ability to get women. He seemed to have some power, or something. But now I see guys like that as predators, lurking for girls like my daughter. I’ve met many of them over the years. There seems to be one in every town I’ve lived in, every job I’ve worked, and every university I’ve attended.
Every time I watch Cinderella with Norah, I look at Prince Charming and see my former friend, the player. I wonder what his real intentions are. I wondered if he was only looking to take advantage of Cinderella. I wonder if it was all a clever ruse, set up to get all the girls in in the kingdom to sleep with him. 

I suppose this means I’m jaded. Perhaps I am an over protective father.
The biggest problem is that I’m no Prince Charming. I mean, I’m a nice guy. I love my wife and my kids. I try real hard to be a good father and husband. But here are the facts: I’m not tall, dark, and handsome, and I don’t make much money. In fact, I am a stocky 5” 11’. I work in education. This means I have a white-collar education, but earn a blue-collar wage. I don’t own a castle or a carriage, but rather a 1,100 square foot home, and a 13-year-old S-10 pickup with a dented bumper. I’ve never been to a formal ball or even a formal dinner. I don’t know how to dance. When I think of a nice meal, I think of the Olive Garden. I’ve worn a tux three times in my life: at my brother’s wedding, my sister’s wedding, and my own. I hated every moment of it.
Perhaps it’s jealousy. Perhaps I’ve always wanted to be Prince Charming.
I don’t know, but what I do know is that I want the best for Norah. I don't want her to become a princess. I want her to grow up to be a well round woman, who values people for their qualities, not their possessions. I don’t want her to be looking for some man that doesn’t exist, and wind up finding some user. Some player posing to be a prince. And yet, I want her to find someone better than myself. Someone a little better looking, who is sweeter and more understanding. I want her to be able to spot the real Prince Charming. And I want her to be able to spot a player. I want her to love someone, not because they own a castle, or a nice horse, but because they are a good person with values and virtues. Someone who will not treat her like a princess, but treat her like a partner. 

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Clint Edwards is a tutor coordinator at Oregon State University. He is also the former co-host of the Weekly Reader on KMSU and a graduate of the MFA program at Minnesota State University. His writing has been listed as notable by Best American Essays, and has been published in The Baltimore Review, and through The University of North Dakota, Boston College, Emerson College, The University of South Carolina, and Minnesota State University.



Sonia said...

Clint - I found your blog post on The Huffington Post. I agree with you wholeheartedly, and commend you for saying it. Your message showed just how much you see in your daughter, and how much you love the woman she will someday become. I thought I was the only adult who cringed at the way our society and so very many people in it refer to young girls as princesses. Thank you for being the voice who put it out so far online that I found it. (Maybe I'll start marketing scorched paper bags and ratty hair wigs so young princesses can pretend to be Elizabeth from "The Paper Bag Princess") Happy Fathering!

Clint said...

Sonia: Thank you for finding my blog. And thank you for your nice words! It is crazy how this essay has hit home with so many people. I am truly glad to know that I am not alone. My Dad left when I was young, so I often worry that I, like my blog title suggests, have no idea what I'm doing. It has been really great having people like yourself help me to feel like my fears are justified, and my parenting is not totally in left field.

Risa Blakeley said...

Be her first love. Show her how a mans really suppose to treat a woman and by what I've read of your posts I'd say you're doing an amazing job

Clint said...

Risa! Thank you!

Anonymous said...
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Nessa said...

Sorry, I saw this somewhere and just wanted to comment. Hope you don't mind. :)

I think you're over thinking this just a bit. Your daughter is just playing pretend, that's all. I mean, when I was little, I used to imagine my school's playground was Candyland because it was my favorite game! I would go around and pretend to eat stuff. It was just fun and my imagination running wild. No big deal.

As for the disney movies and princesses, again, I think you're over thinking it, especially with the princes in the movies. They're simple stories. Entertainment. They're meant to be positive and everyone lives happily ever after, nothing more. It's all just for fun.

Really, it's up to you to help your daughter see the guys like that friend of yours out for who they really are. A movie can't teach her things like that, but that'll be for when your daughter gets much older. Right now, James is just a little boy, playing with his friends and your daughter's just enjoying a carefree childhood. This year, she's a princess. Next year, she might be a Jedi or a explorer or she might still be a princess (or maybe a queen!), but regardless how her imagination changes and grows, it's all just pretend and innocent. And it's all about fun. As long as she's having fun, isn't that all that matters? :)

Clint said...

Nessa: Thank you very much for you comment. I totally get what you are saying. I agree with you. I think that Norah is just playing. But I also feel that, as a father, it's good to really think about what my kids are doing. What they take in, and how it reflects in their actions. I'm not going to stop her from being a princess, and I'm not going to stop her from watching Disney. What I will do is love her, and guide her, and try my best to make sure she turns out right. There is nothing wrong with thinking long and hard about her life and her influences.

Anonymous said...

such a great daddy :) she very cute!

Samantha Hernandez said...

I love this post. Before my daughter was born I had this elaborate plan to make her be a little Disney princess. Graceful, thoughtful, honest, moral, and beautiful. I only saw half of the story. Each princess is many of those things, but they are also dependant, boy crazy, and a little bit loose. I never kissed a man after meeting one time and I didn't marry my husband after one week. Something as small as play now has the potential to build a foundation for later.
Luckily, or maybe not so lucky, my daughter loves motorcycles, the avengers, Daniel tiger, and super why. Princess movies bore her and she'd rather be outside working on her "tug boat" which is a little play place with a ship wheel.
Thank you for this post. ��

Anonymous said...

If she's playing through the same story over and over again, she might be just itching for some new toys and stories to enjoy. Here's some you might like adding into the mix. ( These are sorted by minimum age, most will amuse an adult a great deal). Bemelman - Madeline, Coulton - The princess who saved herself, Miyazke - My neighbor Totoro, Baum - Oz books, Bobbsey Twins, Miyazake, Gaiman - Coraline, Pratchett - Tiffany Aching books, Tamora Pierce - Alanna,