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Sunday, March 10, 2013

Where Have All The Disney Princes Gone?

His question took me by surprise.

We were standing in the middle of the mildly crowded seasonal aisle at Target, trying to find the last remnants of thematic cards at 8PM for the kids to pass out at Kiedis' preschool Valentine's Day party the next day, because if nothing, I am a pro at procrastination.

I was perusing the small plush gifts to see what kind of offensive and disgusting attempts at capitalism had been made this year, when Tova very excitedly discovered a Tangled Rapunzel doll and was emphatically attempting to say "Puh-sell!" while shaking the doll at her father and I. Kiedis saw this and gasped. then ran over from where he was contemplating the copious amounts of candy at child height and began enthusiastically digging around the disheveled display where Tova's small hands had just been.

I spotted a baby bear from Brave (a new favorite of his, though I'm less enthralled with it, as could be said for Tangled) and thinking he would find this discovery equally exciting, I called to him and held the bear out, encouraging him to take it from my hand.

He stopped and looked directly at the plush in my hands, his joy rapidly shifting to disappointment.

"Look, Buddy! It's one of the boys!" I said as I held it towards him a little further, hoping maybe recognition hadn't set in just yet.

His hazel eyes met mine as he gestured towards the shelf.

"Where's Yooo-gene?"

I blinked as I tried to process my sudden disorientation. He waited, patiently, then asked me again, Where's Yooo-gene?

Eugene is the prince in Tangled, if you're not of the animated features on constant repeat crowd. Kiedis loves the movie, for whatever reason. We borrow it from the library occasionally  as we haven't shilled out for it yet, and for Kiedis, it's a constant laugh fest. He loves the horse and the chameleon and the dancing and even the songs -- he's bought the whole shebang. I mean, it's a cute movie, but in my experience with Disney Princess movies, there are many far superior ones.

"Oh, honey, um ... I don't think they made a Eugene doll this time. Just Rapunzel. And Cinderella. And the Brave bears." His little shoulders fell a bit as we both looked at Tova, cuddling the doll she'd grabbed only moments earlier. I looked at Kyle for really anything -- I was out of my element, suddenly.

I couldn't think of a good reason why there wasn't a Eugene doll. Not a reason I could tell my almost four-year-old, that his little mind already so different than most kids', would understand.

His lower lip protruded slightly, in that heartbroken way that can crush a parent in nanoseconds. Kyle stood by, just as lost as I felt. Kiedis looked back to the shelf, scanning it with his eyes as if to prove me wrong, hoping against hope that buried somewhere in that mess of $5 merchandise, there was a prince doll waiting for him to take home.

"Well, Dude, do you want a Rapunzel too?" I offered, as I began to sift through the blonde-and-blue dolls to find another blonde-and-purple one. Surely, another was buried amongst the iconic Princess dolls (interestingly less popular, it would appear), and I offered that to him while discarding of the bear.

"Rahpaaaaaansell!" he said as his eyes lit up, and happily he snatched the doll from me and took off running down the aisle with his sister, matching dolls parading in the air above their tiny heads.

I looked at Kyle, who just smiled and shrugged as if to say crisis averted, but I couldn't shake the look on Kiedis' face when there wasn't an equal character plush for him, a prince to match the princess.

I clicked through a link on a post on BlogHer, a review of Brave stating clearly in the title that it was not liked. I eagerly waited for the post to load, because I haven't been able to place exactly what it is that's left me so disappointed by a movie that was hyped up to be the new feminist princess movie. Sure, it's cute, and I guess in the end Merida's happily ever doesn't involve a man, but it just didn't feel up to Pixar's regular standards. I'm aware there was reason for that behind the scenes, so that leaves me wondering what the original, female director wanted to do with her script that someone else just missed the mark with.

I skimmed through the introductory paragraphs and drank in the digitzed words until I found the meat I was looking for -- this mother's reasoning as to why she so disliked this movie.

Two paragraphs later, I closed the window in disgust.

Her problem with the movie, aside from the violence (which did give me pause as well), was that she felt like the movie didn't have any positive male role models for her sons, of which that is the only child she has. 

That's because they're in every other goddamn movie, lady, I snarked to myself. Your boys have role models, trust. It's my daughter that could use a few dozen more beyond the princess trope.

Growing up, my brother and I were nearly the same ages that Kiedis and Tova are, but in reverse. I'm 17 months older than him, and he's always been big enough that people often mistook us for twins. When we were small, about my kids' ages, on birthdays it was customary that the non-birthday child would receive a small gift to open in conjunction to the birthday shenanigans so they didn't feel left out. This only lasted as long as my infantile logic did, because as soon I began to expect a present on my brother's birthday, I was told that I was too old and I needed to let him have his own day and wait until my birthday ... seven months and the entire holiday season later.

Kyle's younger brother is nearly four years his junior, so this was never an issue for him. I feel like I'm constantly reminding him what it's like to grow up with someone so close in age to you, someone that people treat like your equal until you do something wrong, and then you're old enough to know better, but if they do something wrong, it's because they're still young and you should know better than to let them do that. 

It's kind of a no-win situation.

So once we started having birthdays for two kids who noticed things like balloons and cake and presents, we started doing the same thing. If anything, it works as a solid distraction for the other child while the birthday kid gets a few moments alone with their new things that will inevitably become shared things in a matter of a week.

This was no different for Kiedis' birthday last week -- while he opened his gifts, Tova had a couple small ones to open as well. 

One of her gifts was a set for her Disney Princess Little People castle -- Aladdin and Jasmine. The castle has this spinning part with a central pivot point on it, that if you place one of the princesses on that piston, the character's voice says hello and introduces itself, sings a snippet of a song from their movie, and also has some throwaway phrase about being excited for a ball or not knowing what to wear or some other kind of terrible gendered crap. 

Both kids actually play with the castle, Kiedis being more cognizant of the pairs of characters that go together (we have an Eric and Ariel set already) and being less interested in the ones he doesn't know (like Cinderella and Snow White, who came with the castle). Later in the afternoon, Kiedis noticed there were new princesses, and after playing with the Rapunzel figurine a bit (and discovering that if you wiggled her around on the piston you could easily trigger the Ariel voice) he spotted Aladdin, abandoned by Tova on the other side of the room.

He excitedly scrambled over to where Aladdin lay, face down and half under the couch, and scurried back to the castle to triumphantly shove the figurine down upon that central piston of magical voice making.

All that came out was a waltz.

He picked up the character and slammed it down again, only to the same result. He picked up Aladdin, looked at the bottom of him, then tried again. Still just the waltz. After a few more attempts, he dejectedly tossed the figurine aside, going back to his brand new Buzz Lightyear Little People spaceship and figurine, pulling the Woody we already had out of the RC Car he came with and running around the living room with those two, showing Kyle and I over and over again who they were and making us say to infinity and beyond a zillion times over.

I knew, from trying myself with the Prince Eric toy, that there was no prince voice in the princess castle. Yet I was still slightly surprised to find Aladdin so easily ignored as well -- his movie was not a princess movie, it was his, yet there's Jasmine, saying something about a royal event. I thought of the Valentine's Day shopping moment as Kiedis played with his "action figures" with his dad.

Why aren't there princes for the boys to play with?

I know the answer, sociologically speaking. It has to do with patriarchy and misogyny and gender roles. It has to do with pervasive ideas about how boys and girls intuitively and instinctively play. It has to do with marketing and demographics and the power of suggestion and advertising and society's need for everything to be a certain way in a certain box without room for the reality of a sliding scale.

But it still doesn't make sense. And not for those reasons -- I understand all of that.

What I don't understand is how, if we accept the princess culture for what it is instead of eschewing it, for a moment, that we can present these ideals (if you can call them that) to our daughters as the higher form of character to which they should aspire ... yet we don't of our boys. How can we be teaching our daughters that they need a prince to their princess (again, accepting the hegemony for the sake of argument) but we're not teaching our boys to be princes. 

We're teaching them to be athletes and superheroes and Space Rangers and to avoid anything and everything that has anything to do with love or romance or princess-girly-stuff.

We're setting up our girls for a dream that will never come true.

Simultaneously, we're leaving behind our boys who find themselves more drawn to the heroes of the classic fairy tales then they are to the modern ideal of masculinity.

In some ways, I guess the old Disney movies had it right -- don't give the Princes a name, don't give them a character, don't allow them to be anything but an elegant brute who comes to the rescue. That way the boys are never interested in them because they're boring, save for the action bits. It's the newer movies that blurred the line, giving the Princes names and feelings and their own internal struggles and opinions and often were just as lost as their counterpart Princesses (if not more so), the pairs needing each other to find their happily ever after. 

You know, where everyone is something close to resembling ... human

And equally so.

We make such a big deal, as feminists, to make sure our daughters have equal access to the trappings of childhood usually reserved for boys -- even if they're candy-coated in pinks and purples (however unnecessarily so), our girls have science sets and power tools and race cars and nearly anything else that piques their interest that, hegemonically speaking, would usually be considered for the opposite sex.

But where's the flip side of that? Where's the stuff for the boys who want to ride horses and slay dragons and free genies and still get to kiss the girl in the end? Where's the toys for the boys who see a character they like in a movie -- who makes them laugh, who has faults, who realizes more often than not that they need love and courage in equal measure to see them through to their own happiness -- and who see all their partners, the Princesses, everywhere, without a Prince, so integral to their stories, in sight?

This, to me, is a bit where feminism falters. We're so busy empowering our daughters that we're forgetting to allow our sons to be sensitive. 

We're forgetting that the end goal here is equality -- not that one gender is better than another, but more that gender is an afterthought, because our joint human qualities are what define us -- and our various states of plumbing are merely a genetic consequence.

I still have a lot of feelings I'm trying to work out about all this, because I'm not really sure what it all means for me and my son, as a feminist parent trying to raise egalitarian children. I just know that it's stupid that the Princess castle doesn't have voices for the Princes, (especially the more modern ones that were obviously more than a plot device) and that if you're going to make a Princess plushy, you should make the male counterpart because I bet it would still hit your target demographic.

Because there are little boys out there who don't understand why their sisters can find their favorite characters, but they can't find theirs. 

And that just doesn't make sense.