The other day my two-year-old came home from Barnes & Noble with a new book.
My husband tried to warn me. "She insisted on this one. Believe me, I tried to get her interested in something else, but she grabbed this one and held on for dear life."
He did not have to explain further. Our daughter has been headstrong since she was two months old. She knows what she wants.
"I'm sure it's fine," I told him.
"Did you get a book?" I asked her, seamlessly conveying with my tone of voice that "Books are exciting!!"
She grinned and handed me a flimsy paperback with a pink cover. Ah. The Disney Princess Series. I was not thrilled about this, but I have decided not to try to ban princess items from my house, believing that anything banned becomes more enticing. Besides, how bad could it be?
I looked at the cover. A Cinderella Read-Along Storybook and CD, called, "A Heart Full of Love. " My daughter has clearly found the book prominently displayed on a Valentines' themed table in the children's section. On the back it says in purple letters: A Tale of True Love.
We sat down to read it together.
Let me summarize the book for you. The story begins with Cinderella and the Prince happily married and planning a ball to celebrate their first anniversary. Just before the ball, the Prince gives Cinderella "a beautiful sapphire ring." The next day Cinderella loses the ring, and spends the rest of the book looking for it with the help of her mouse friends. When a teary Cinderella confides in the Prince he reassures her that he knows she didn't do it on purpose. Thankfully the ring is found just in time for the ball, and that night Cinderella receives another present -- a sapphire bracelet. End of story.
Now it won't surprise you this book is not "by" anyone. Certainly it does not take Charles Dickens to weave this particular exploration of the human condition. And yet the book has been created, willed into existence somehow. Instead of crediting a writer, the book credits a Read-Along Story Executive Producer. So this must be the person (and yes, it happens to be a man), who, ensconced in his corporate Disney office, has decided this book is worthy of publication. He probably did not come up with it himself. It has probably been pitched to him. I try to imagine the pitch.
You know what kids really need. Scratch that. Girls. You know what girls really need? A story about true love. And here's what should happen. Just listen -- it's got everything -- drama, conflict, heroism... Here goes: The main character should get a really expensive piece of jewelry from her husband, and then lose it, find it, and then get an even more expensive piece of jewelry at the end.
I am also trying to imagine a similar story being proposed for a book about a boy, or one intended for a boy audience. This brings me to my favorite line of the Cinderella book. When Cinderella receives the ring, the book tells us that "for the rest of the day, she could think of nothing else but the Prince she loved so dearly." Really? Nothing else? She's not multitasking even a little bit? Distracted by the latest Facebook post about the castle down the road? Nothing? I try to imagine the Prince having a similar problem. And the only thing that comes to mind is not something I can pitch to Disney.
I realize that there are far more important threats to feminism than this book. I realize that Chris Brown performed at the Grammys, and that Nicholas Kristof has declared on NPR that "The greatest challenge of the 21st century is gender inequity in the developing countries." I do not think my daughter is scarred by having read this book four times now (and listened to the accompanying CD.) I do not think she will even remember the story, probably because it is so astonishingly unmemorable. I know that not every children's book needs to be an inspiration for how our children should lead their lives, what they should value and believe in.
And yet, I can't help but be pissed off that this book exists. That somebody at Disney put resources into it, and somebody at Barnes & Noble gave it a privileged position in a display.
I can't help but wonder if the stories we tell our children shouldn't matter to us, just a little bit.
A few years ago a friend of mine published a book with the subtitle "Why the Way We Marry Matters," which explored what our traditions of marriage tell us about the way our society sees women. The book contained a story about a woman with a giant diamond engagement ring, who was constantly confronted with admiring people saying: "Wow. He must love you so much."
I want a lot of things for my daughter. I want her to be strong, independent, and happy. I want her to experience love someday and never confuse it with a piece of jewelry. And if someday she has a daughter, then no matter how hard she looks, I want her to not be able to find a book like this one.
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