Attack of the Plastic Princesses

I never made a conscious list, but if you’d asked me what kind of mom I’d be before I had kids, I would have said:

-My children would play primarily with non-toxic, sustainably harvested wooden toys.

-I would nurse every child until at least age 1.

-Organic fruits and veggies would be part of every meal (after age 1).

-Cloth diapers only!

-My children would not watch videos — or anything on a screen — until at least age 2.

-Disney princesses, Barbies, and any other plastic characters hawked by ginormous toy companies with questionable ethics would NOT be part of our family culture!

Now, to be fair to myself, I did do a few of those things…for the first year of our first child’s life. But somehow, three years later, Barbie has taken over our house.

More accurately: the Disney princesses wore down our resolve, and Barbie was the second line of attack.

It’s still a mystery to me HOW Fiona first became obsessed with the Disney princesses. You may be thinking: “You don’t KNOW? Where were you? Weren’t you watching?!?” All I can say is: Yes, I was watching, but I still don’t know. What I do know is that — despite the fact that I’d never bought her anything Disney, never knowingly exposed her to anything Disney — a few months before Fiona turned 2 it was like a switch flipped on in her brain and suddenly it was ALL about Disney princesses. Almost exactly one year later, the Barbie switch flipped on. As younger sisters, Campbell and Georgia never had a chance of avoiding the obsession.

Of course, nobody really had a chance of avoiding the obsession, and I was naive if I thought that this was something I could control. One mom vs. the combined force of Disney and Mattel: sounds like a pitch for the next Michael Moore documentary (Mike, call me). Maybe, maybe if we never left the house, I could have shielded them from the pervasive marketing of these two companies. Because this is how I think the switches in Fiona’s brain were flipped: all it took was one trip to Target — or, for that matter, the grocery store, where today she noticed Barbie mouthwash. And we don’t even go shopping very often, but the girls can (and do) check out Disney/Barbie books and DVDs from the public library.

It’s a humbling business, this parenting. Could I have fought against the marketing that spurred Fiona’s insatiable desire for anything Disney princess/Barbie? Could I have sat her down and said, “In our house, we don’t play with these things?” Of course I could have.

Did I? No, I did not.

And sometimes, I feel guilty about that decision. But mostly I’m okay with it.

Why? Well, first of all I’m not convinced that Disney princesses and Barbies pose an inherent danger to my children. I’m aware that they’re not the most intellectually enriching toys — although they certainly keep the girls engaged in imaginary play for hours — but it’s not as if these are the only toys or books available in our house. I do recall a big brouhaha over Barbie dolls some years before I had kids; I believe the debate centered around the (valid) accusation that Barbie dolls provided young girls with unhealthy body images and shallow role models. I’m also fairly certain that, if I scratched the surface, I could come up with numerous ethical concerns attached to both Disney and Mattel companies. I could easily look both of these issues up online, but I haven’t, because I know what I’ll find: lots of loud opinions.

You could accuse me of moral laziness, and to some degree you’d be right. Especially when it comes to corporate ethics; I’d like to take ethics into account in everything I do, but frankly, I just don’t have the energy. I’m more than willing to boycott some obviously bad things, and write letters, and so on. But my first priority is to keep a household (mostly) afloat and relatively peaceful.

I’m also trying to equip my children to function in the big bad world out there, not subject them to some experiment in absolute moral purity — in the same way that I’d prefer to allow my kids to have chocolate and learn how to eat it in moderation, rather than ban sweets altogether. As for the morals of the Disney princesses and Barbie themselves: they’re certainly shallow, cliched, and unrealistic looking — plastic, in every sense.  But if a 6-inch plastic toy is what my daughters are ultimately going to choose for their lifelong role model, there’s a lot more wrong in our house than the toys we play with. Furthermore, the stories that go along with these plastic princesses ultimately have to do with the power of love, friendship, and being true to yourself. And that I can work with.

The other reason I haven’t banned the plastic princesses from our lives is because, in the big scheme of things, any gains to be had from booting out Barbie don’t seem worth the ensuing battle. If my preschoolers love a certain toy (and they DO), and I don’t believe it’ll ruin their characters for life (and I don’t), then it’s not worth the fight. Some things are worth the fight, like sharing and washing your hands and keeping your underwear pulled up, and sometimes I feel like I’m fighting all day long. But who was it that said: “Tyranny breeds resentment”? (Just Googled it: turns out it was me, and a handful of online gamers. But nobody suitably quotable). I think that my kids will be more likely to respect my position in the bigger fights later on if they know that I’m selective but serious, rather than if they perceive me as wantonly denying them anything fun. You may ask: “But aren’t you worried that you’ve already lost control, and that they’ll be smoking crack outside the A & W at age 16 because you let them play with Barbies?” Absolutely. I’m worried about a lot of things, but only time will tell.

Here’s what I can control: the attitudes I model to my girls about Disney princesses and Barbies. So I don’t go overboard with enthusiasm when it comes to these toys. During Fiona’s Disney princess mania, I quietly steered her towards Pocahontas and Mulan, and she remarked, with admiration, that they were the “strongest” princesses. I have personally bought them almost nothing related to Disney princesses or Barbies; they have one tub of my old Barbies (Doesn’t recycling offset the ethical concerns?), and their grandparents supply the rest (and if parenting’s taught me anything about grace, it’s that you don’t muzzle the grandparents!). Never once have I said, “Hey, let’s play princesses/Barbies!”

But Erick and I still feel like Barbie has taken over our house.

POSTSCRIPT: Just so we’re good: I did not write this to justify myself, or, GOD FORBID, to suggest that anybody should go and do likewise. I wrote this because it’s something I’m right in the middle of, something I’m still struggling with. I wrote it to share, because I’m more and more convinced that the best thing we can do for each other as people – aside from babysitting each others’ children – is to share: that it’s hard, that it’s confusing, that we’re not the parents we expected to be, that if we hear the theme to “Barbie’s Fairy Secret” one more time we are going to LOSE IT! So please, feel free to share back. Feel free to completely disagree with me, and pass along any tips on how I can get this stuff out of the house without alienating my children forever!

9 responses »

  1. I was having a really stressful day. On my way to give a presentation on Development Induced Displacement, and being stressed out with the bus not moving fast enough for me. . . I took a minute to read this. It made me smile and relax a little. 🙂 Love this post… and thanks for helping me relax for my presentation! hahah

    • Happy to help, Steph! Although I personally find Barbies verrrrrry stressful 🙂 Hope the rest of your day was better, and your presentation went well!

  2. Hey Faith, I think you are doing great. Hey, I loved Barbies and look how I turned out…Well that is a matter of opinion.
    I think that if you provide a nurturing environment your kids will be fine. I doubt Barbies will drastically make your kids one way or the other. As a kid I dont recall thinking of Barbies as “plastic” or unrealistic. I Ioved using them in role play and I actually liked the clothes they wore. I used to collect the special dolls like the Christmas doll with the huge puffy red dress. I think as long as your kids feel unconditionally loved they will be ok. Plus, it’s true that they need exposure to the world. Too much shelter I think is worse for kids.

  3. This is great – something we’ve been thinking about with trepidation with the pending arrival of #2 (girl). So far we’ve managed to keep a muzzle on the superhero/action figure-type toys but girls seem to be so much stronger willed and somehow the princess/barbies seem more offensive.

    Then again, our battle with this as parents may seem silly – this was all a part of our normal development as little girls and boys and I think we all turned out pretty well.

    • Kathleen, that’s so exciting that #2 is a girl! They’re a whole lot of fun, those girls 🙂 You’re right that we probably overthink this — I think 😉 But seriously, I’d say you have a few years to figure it out with your girl. It really seems to kick in at age 3 — and then preschool cements things!

  4. Faith, I have no tips to share re: Barbie and the Princesses (our girl is 17 months old, so we’re not there… yet), but I just wanted to share with you how much I enjoy your writing. I’m not sure you even remember who I am – we took a prenatal yoga class together at Kaiser in Oakland when you were pregnant with Fiona and I was pregnant with Miles… a lifetime ago. Good luck with the Barbie battles (in your head) and keep the posts coming! =)

    • Hi Meridith,
      Of course I remember you! And I hope you and your little ones are doing well! Thank you so much for your kind words — I am having a lot of fun writing, and it’s always nice to hear that someone is actually reading and enjoying it. Good luck with the Barbie/princess phase if and when it kicks in for you 🙂 The plus side is that 3/4 is a SUPER fun stage, regardless of what they’re playing with (as I’m sure you’ve found with Miles)!

  5. Pingback: Crafty, Continued… « THE PICKLE PATCH

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