THE BLOG
09/11/2014 01:09 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2014

The Princess's New Clothes

GUY ORMISTON GNU FREE DOCUMENTATION LICENSE

As if being the mother of a 3-year-old girl isn't enough like dodging rolling boulders in a Goonies gauntlet, the computer store (watch that screen time) in our city is directly across a mall hallway (watch that consumerism) from the least fair of them all: The Disney Store (watch that princess complex). Inevitably, there is a 17-hour wait to get my laptop fixed, so denying my squealing and wildly gesticulating toddler entrance to the Disney Store requires nothing less than the heartlessness of a Disney villain.

Because -- here it is -- that Disney Store is beautiful. I mean, if you're 3. If you're 3, walking in there must feel like walking into imagination itself. It's not brightly lit; it's dark, like the reaches of the subconscious; there's a glittering midnight-blue path that beckons passersby. This siren trail leads to a shadowy, mirrored castle, where you see not only yourself, but holograms projected, sort of like in the wicked queen's mirror in Snow White -- though instead of the spooky face of an aesthetic seer (or pageant judge: tomayto, tomahto), these holograms are pictures of the various Disney Princesses. They gather 'round your toddler so that s/he (I mean, she; let's get real) can know, in her very heart of pink-and-purple hearts, that she is the fairest of them all.

Our first time at the Disney Store, I veered right off that path, dragging my then 2-and-3-quarters-year-old with me toward the Spider-Man costumes. She saw them and got excited. And I was like Rocky at the top of the steps. I was, like, "Yes! I have done it! I have effectively f*cked with gender!" And with a champion fist-pump, I grabbed a long-handled hook and pulled down that Spider-Man getup, lickety-split.

She tried it. She loved it. I was so thrilled I promised to get it for her (dodging the booby trap of sexism only to head-on the pitfall of sweatshops. Nicely played, Darley).

But then she turned around.

"Look, Mama!" she said. "Party dresses!" She was sprinting toward the castle in her little Stride Rite sandals.

"Don't you want Spider-Man?" I asked weakly. I mean, I asked it with great spirit, because I didn't want her to sense any lack of enthusiasm -- but I felt weak inside, like someone asking a completely irrelevant question, like someone offering pot in a heroin den.

"I want that one! I want to try that beautiful blue one!" So I helped her into the Cinderella dress, consoling myself that she didn't -- yet -- know Cinderella's name.

Once she had it on, and stood turning back and forth in the mirror like a clock gear, I tried to lure her out of it. It was November; I promised a visit to Santa.

What my almost-3-year-old said to me was: "No, Mama! I want to stay here and be beautiful."

It stopped me cold, the way she put it. As though beautiful were not an adjective, but an activity. A choice to make and a thing to do; beauty as performance. Had my 3-year-old been reading Judith Butler? And if my daughter, who must think she's inherently beautiful if she thinks of inherent beauty at all (short of not leaving the house coated in peanut butter, we try not to talk much about appearances, but she's happiest strutting about our place naked, her adorable pot belly leading her around like a tugboat; she can't get enough of mirrors, mugging perpetually) -- if that wonderfully un-self-conscious daughter of mine wanted to stay at the Disney Store to keep being beautiful, what did it mean that I didn't want her to?

If I had a little boy who wanted to don ball gowns, would I mind? Nah. His will to adorn would tickle my fancy. So why does the same choice in my daughter worry me?

Part of it is that I don't want her to be a stereotype. A little boy playing dress-up remains a kind of queering, while a girl doing the same is gender-normative. But that's not all of it. Because I wouldn't mind if my little boy wore Spider-Man.

Not just the stereotype, then. But the female stereotype. Egads. There's some misogyny.

Don't throw like a girl. Don't run like a girl. Don't scream like a girl. Don't cry like a girl. Don't be such a girl. These adages are so commonplace that even tampon ads are starting to critique them. But if you want to be taken seriously in your career or in your personal life, becoming a woman often means eliminating or closeting stereotypically feminine traits. The inequality here is that men don't suffer similarly for openly joining in "male" activities. We all like something a little bit silly, but we tend to make girls ashamed of it. Dude who lifts weights perpetually? Strong. Lady who does makeup perpetually? Kardashian. Six hours of football on Sundays? Grab a beer. Six hours of soaps? Get a life.

Before you say -- hey, wait! I'm a girl and I've never wanted to watch a soap, ever! -- I'm not claiming any activities as inherently girly. I just mean that many things American culture creates or deems to be female-y -- Lifetime movies, Midol, princess accoutrements -- get a deep whiff of embarrassment and frivolity attached to them. And that embarrassment is the result of an insidious kind of misogyny -- the same kind that informs the phrase "throw like a girl."

To my horror, I realize that I may be on the brink of passing that embarrassment down to my 3-year-old, who, up until this point, has shown nary a sign of social self-consciousness. By affording Spidey's clothes more respect than Tiana's, maybe I'm saying to her: For God's sake, don't dress like such a girl.

Of course, my wariness of the TPC (toxic princess culture) is not unwarranted. I don't want anyone to tell my daughter she needs to become a wasp-waisted courtier to be worthwhile (which is why, despite the narrative advances of The Princess and the Frog, Brave and Frozen, I'm still waiting for a feature cartoon whose female lead isn't a royal, or eventually married to one). Girls get so many messages from the TPC that it's impossible to determine which came first -- my daughter's predilection for sparkles, or the economy's exploitation of it.

Maybe I failed to protect her properly from corporate and cultural brainwash, and that's why her favorite color is pink. But then I did, and it is, and I don't want to make her ashamed of it. Because I know what girl shame feels like, and she deserves better -- especially from me.

What I replied to her last November was that she is beautiful wherever she is, and funny, smart, brave, kind and strong, which are more important. I guess that's a pretty good answer. But maybe, in that context, it was a miss. Maybe I wasn't even having the same conversation she was. After all, she wasn't talking about spiritual beauty, or even beauty in her body, but just a passing bliss of decoration. She believed that, just as she was, she had every right to frolic in the world she saw around her.

And maybe that understanding of beauty -- I mean, not Disney's, but my daughter's -- can even help me revise my own in a healthier way. Because her impulse to wrap herself in glitter is active, not self-conscious -- not correction, but creation -- less like a beauty queen, more like a drag queen.

If beauty is something she's making, even if Disney provides the palette (which admittedly discomforts me), then she's a subject and not an object. And that part, at least, is empowering.

Now, my question is this: As she enters her ever-more-perilous childhood and teenage years, is there a way she can keep her subjectivity intact? Can she keep making beauty in a sexist world? Will she keep this power over what's beautiful, or will her desire for it turn on her, make her turn on herself?

I am dogged, even haunted, by the question. But regardless of its answer, I want to be newly wary of making her embarrassed or ashamed of what she likes, especially if it seems girly (superficial, vain, pastel, frivolous, princessy). Because misogyny gets internalized. Because fantasy is the one game in which we all have autonomy. Because that unembarrassed power is a thing I want to preserve for my daughter.

So I'm trying to let her dream in every direction. Toward sports, science, superheroines -- and even toward that apex of girliness, the cloudy castle on the mount. She can fly up there on the winged unicorns she wishes for ("They're actually called pegicorns," I told her. "How do you know that, Mama?" she asked, her crayon still over her coloring book, her eyes wide as if I'd recited pi. I said, "I used to love them, when I was a girl.").

After all, my daughter can't grow up to be a princess -- but little boys can't grow up to be superheroes, either, and we don't bother them about it.