By the time Melissa Atkins Wardy's daughter celebrated her seventh birthday, the gender stereotype crusader and author of the forthcoming Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, Birth to Tween had (proudly, purposefully) yet to buy her little girl a single item featuring a Disney princess. Then Merida came along. A strong archer with serious spunk, Merida's plotline didn't revolve around landing a man, and her long red curls were less Ariel the Little Mermaid and more Julia Roberts-as-Erin Brockovich. The character was so different from her fellow Disney starlets - the ones who stand with their petite hands perfectly poised for bluebirds and butterflies to alight upon them; the ones who sing of their prince coming one day soon - that Wardy opened the door and invited Merida into their family's home.
"She was brave, daring, athletic," Wardy recalls. "She didn't look that typical female protagonist. I thought it was a wonderful message for girls and boys. So we got Merida pajamas. We saw Brave three times. I totally bought into that brand."
Then, about a month ago, Disney pulled what Wardy calls a "bait and switch": As Merida was officially coroneted as a Disney princess, a makeover took her from Katniss Everdeen to Bratz Doll.
Wardy was incensed, as were her fans - she quickly received thousands of comments on her Pigtail Pals Facebook page and blog - and so she decided to not just sit by while a hyper-sexualized tween icon took over her daughter's bedroom.
Partnering with Inês Almeida, the activist-entrepreneur behind TowardtheStars.com (which describes itself as "The World's Largest Marketplace For Empowering Gifts For Girls"), Wardy co-launched The Brave Girls Alliance, a gender equality think tank and advocacy group dedicated to communicating with and influencing media, corporations and retailers. "Passive princesses don't mesh with today's girls who are being raised by their families on the girl power ideas their mothers grew up with," their website declares. "The diva fashionista is overdone and boring. Families are looking for multi-layered, diverse, intelligent, and strong media characters to enrich their girls imaginations. If our girls can see it, they can be it."
I had the opportunity to ask Wardy a few questions via phone:
LG: What is your goal with the Brave Girls Alliance?
MAW: We want to show companies that if they don't change their products, they're going to get left behind. The negative effects that sexualized media have on children - especially girls - are well known: Body image issues, poor school performance, eating disorders, drug use, early sexual activity. All of this stems from the messages they get from media, and from their parents failing to repackage those messages. Much like a parent picks and chooses among all the foods at the supermarket, parents have to give their kids a healthy diet of media. We need to show the content creators and retailers that this isn't just a fringe parenting movement.
LG: It's not just one corporation's fault, though, right?
MAW: It's not just Disney princesses. Cartoons show all-male casts with one female sidekick - I call it "The Smurfette Principle." There are rows and rows of Barbies at the toy store but no Amelia Earhart or Rosa Parks dolls. That sends the message that a girl's job is to be pretty; boys will go out and run the world. LEGOs are a great, brain-boosting toy, but they lack gender balance. Dora the Explorer used to be an adventurous character who showed agency and character, but she was changed to a sparkly, hyper-feminine character who fits into that pink box girls are stuffed into. Children learn about the world through the media and through toys, but they're learning limiting messages about what it means to be a girl or a boy.
LG: So what are you asking of content creators?
MAW: We are here to ask media creators to expand their version of what it means to be a girl, and recognize our girls as whole, complex people and not as gender stereotypes. Stop profiting from selling girls short. Rethink branding that pigeon-holes girls into the lowest common denominator: glitter, sexuality, hetero-normative femininity. Practice corporate social responsibility now - take the sexy out of childhood. Reducing female characters' value to being about physical appearance and nothing more damages girls.
LG: What kind of difference do you think you can make?
MAW: I compare this to the BPA-free plastic movement. When I was pregnant with our daughter in 2006, I was reading blogs and learned about BPA. I went to the store, and there were two little BPA-free bottles, and they were $20 each. I bought them, even though they were expensive, because I was convinced that was the healthy choice. Now, BPA-free is an industry standard for children ages three and under, all because of massive education and aggregation of parents telling the plastic industry: Change your product if you want us to buy it.
Follow Melissa Atkins Wardy @PigtailPals
Follow Inês Almeida @GirlEmpowerment