Wednesday, January 15, 2014

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Why I Struggle With Disney Princesses (Part I)

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I came home from work and Norah was dressed like Cinderella. It was a Tuesday in mid December. This was not unusual. We have many play dresses. Disney or Barbie made most of them. Two of them are former Halloween costumes. Last year Norah was Rapunzel from the Disney movie Tangled. The dress was pink and purple (Norah’s favorite colors) and we put her in a long blond braided wig. Two years earlier, she was Cinderella. And she played the part, posing with grace and dignity for photos, her hands cupped before her face in a soft royal smile. 

The Cinderella dress was blue and shiny with silvery sparkle frills along the base and along the shoulders. On the front was a brooch with a photo of Cinderella. Norah was four years old, small for her age, with short brown hair and a slender frame, and although the dress reads ages four to six, Mel still had to pin it in the back with a large safety pin to keep it from falling off her shoulders.
Norah also had on her blue Cinderella high-heeled plastic shoes. Her feet were far too small for them, so there was a lot of extra plastic jetting out behind her heel. She struggled to walk toward me. The shoes had two and a half inch heels, which is not much for a grown woman, but quite a bit for a little girl. The plastic was slick, stiff, and angled, so her foot slid forward with her body weight. If Norah wore the shoes for more than about five minutes, her feet would start to develop red sores on the roofs. They were also wobbly and stiff and she often rolled her ankle. They were not built for comfort. Yet despite how many times I’ve argued with her to get rid of the shoes because they don’t fit right, she refuses to. And her argument is always the same: “They are my beautiful princess shoes.” She says it with raised eyebrows and a cute smile, as though that is all that needs to be said. As though comfort is secondary to beauty.
I don’t know where she picked up the idea that beauty and fashion trumps everything. She doesn’t get it from me. I had very little fashion sense growing up. This can be seen in old photos of me from high school wearing massive stovepipe Jinco Jeans and offensive t-shirts. I recently posted my senior class photo on Facebook and people said that my long bleached blond hair and hemp necklace made me look like Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the irresponsible stoned surfer played by Sean Penn. I didn’t necessarily take this as a compliment.
Class of 2000
Although Mel is beautiful, and she has grown more beautiful with age, she isn’t one to get jazzed about fashion. For example: she didn’t start wearing makeup regularly until last year. This never bothered me because I viewed it as a sign of confidence. I have to assume that it takes a lot of gumption for a woman to go without makeup. And I have never thought that Mel needed makeup to be sexy. If I were to describe our current clothing choices in one word it would be: pragmatic. We buy clothing on sale and we buy clothing that will last.
But Norah is a different breed. She describes people by what they wear and how they look: “That girl in the sparkle shirt was mean to me. I hate her and her sparkle shirt!” or “That boy with the gross shoes took my blocks!” or “My teacher has big yucky hair.” She always says these lines with a little cock of the head, and half the time I expect her to finish her dialogue with two snaps. I often ask if these people have names, and she always looks at me with a confused look, her lips twisted, as if my question had no bearing.

I have to admit that both times she dressed as a princess for Halloween she looked adorable. And one day a year, I think it is fine for her to dress up like a princess. But dressing up as a princess everyday has started to go to her head.
Norah greeted me with a smile when I got home from work. I set down my bag and said, “Hello, Little.”
“Daddy!” Norah, said. “I’m Cinderella!”
“I can see that,” I said. “You look wonderful. Can I have a Norah squeeze?”
Norah Squeezes are one of my favorite things in the whole world. A Norah Squeeze is where I crouch down, and Norah leaps up and meets me half way. She wraps her arms around my neck, laughs, and as I grip her around the waist, she pulls her little legs up and wraps them around me. Then she clings to me for a bit and squeezes as hard as she can. Usually her face turns red and she cries, “Norah Squeeze!”

“No,” Norah said. “You can have a Cinderella squeeze.”
I crouched down, and Norah gave me a sweet little royal hug. She gently wrapped her arms around my neck, and patted my back, her feet remaining on the floor. Then she kissed my cheek, softly, and said, “You are the king.”
 And while this was adorable, and it melted my heart a little, I cannot help but comment on how Norah changes when she puts on a princess dress. She becomes more formal. More dignified. And much more demanding. Later that night Norah was sitting at the dinning room table, still dressed as Cinderella. She was eating crackers and watching the TV. I was in the kitchen. We could see each other over the bar.
“Daddy!” she cried in a whiney royal tone. “I need water.”
“You can get that yourself,” I said.
“No!” she said. “I don’t want to get up ever again. I am too tired. Get me water.”
I told her no again. And she told me to just do it. I reminded her that she had a bottle of ice water in the living room, not more than ten steps away from her. And she said, “I am a princess. Now get me water!”
This is not to say that Norah doesn’t say bratty things when she is not dressed as a princess. She’s four-years-old. It’s kind of expected. But I must say that she says bratty things more regularly and with more conviction when she is dressed like a princess. She seems to take on a disrespectful persona that I don’t fully understand.
Most Disney princess films follow one of two simple plot structures:
1.     Rags to riches.
2.     Riches to rags to riches.
Both structures are hero’s journeys that result in the princess finding humility through struggle, and satisfaction by overcoming haters. 

The princess is later rewarded with a prince, endless wealth, clean clothing, servants, and big hair. And as Norah yelled at me to get her some water, I pondered locking her up in a tower, making her live under the sea, or adopting some wicked stepchildren to boss her around, hoping that it might teach her some humility. Obviously I was running out of ideas. Instead I put her in her room.
And as she screamed in there, I thought about how I don’t want her to grow up to be a princess. I want her to grow up to be a well-rounded adult with achievable goals. I want her to understand that goals take hard work. I have a long list of contradicting virtues that I want her to master. I want her to be honest, real, and genuine, yet I want her to be nice to everyone, regardless of race, class, or gender. I want her to be strong yet sweet hearted. I want her to be beautiful yet humble. I want her to be decisive yet not demanding. I want her to have faith in herself, and I want her to have faith in God.
And when I read though this list of contradictions, I worry that it is as unachievable as finding Prince Charming, living in a castle, and having your wishes granted by a fairy godmother. I grew up watching Disney. Perhaps my understanding of what a grown woman should be has been impacted Disney movies. Perhaps I want too much from Norah. Perhaps I need to be more accepting. Perhaps I need to stop worrying.

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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.



Marianne Edwards said...

Oh yes! I feel the same!

Clint said...

It always feels good to know that I am not alone. Thanks!