Thursday, May 9, 2013

Princess Power

"What do you want to be when you grow up?"

It's a loaded question and I'm still not sure I know the answer. But if you would have asked me that question at age 5, I would have answered: an archaeologist.

At age 7, a veterinarian.  At 12, A novelist.

At 15 ... nothing.  At 16, an artist.

At 21, a journalist.  At 30, an editor.

At 32, a mother.

But I've always been on a career path, a path that has taken many twists and turns throughout my life. On that journey, my two daughters have tagged along to become well-versed in the pro and cons, ins and outs, ups and downs of having a working, single mother.

When my older daughter was 4 years old, a class project prompted her: What do you want to be when you grow up?

 I asked her. "Anika, the world is yours. You can do anything you can dream of! Don't answer right away, just think about it: What do you want to be when you grow up?

"Ehh... I don't know. A princess?"
A princess?? The world is at your feet and you want to be a princess?

 A princess.

Princess pop culture wasn’t appealing to me in my formative years. I never owned a Barbie doll and was more concerned with trying to play on the baseball team with the neighborhood boys. My own Disney exposure was limited in my youth. By limited, I really mean none. My parents never took me to a Disney flick and I can't tell you anything about the princess films - current or past. While this may seem like I missed out on a childhood rite of passage, in all honesty, even my adult self finds those movies pretty frightening – on more than one level

 I tried to be involved with her interests, our attempt at watching Sleeping Beauty, Disney-style, for the first time together. was a failure After the dramatic close-up of the shiny, sharpened knife that is intended to kill Princess Aurora, Anika matter-of-factly announced, "Mom, this is scary. It's not an Anika movie." And she wandered off to play dress-up in a poufy princess dress.

 And yet, with her own minimal pop culture exposure, Anika still manages to be a princess fanatic with a closet of the frilliest, pinkest dresses ever sewn.

 I made a conscious decision to skip over those classic and current fairy tales in our nightly reading ritual mostly because, as a single mom, there may be a day when my children have a step parent and I don't really want to start out an already complex step-relationship with the common storybook adjective, "evil."

 And let's face it... There are a few varieties of princesses Anika could be talking about. There is the sophisticated, college-educated Kate Middleton-type princess... or there is the codependent Cinderella-type princess, who needs a man to help her find a pair of matching shoes.

Is the Princess Message that a young woman needs a prince to ride into the sunset on horseback to find happiness? or worse, that beauty is life most important attribute? Or maybe, and hopefully, it is much, much simpler than that. But I didn’t read years of feminist theory to sit back and allow my children, my daughters, to think it’s acceptable to grow up to become a stereotype. It was time for this professional mom to investigate her daughter's professional aspirations.

 I asked her if princesses went to college. She slowly nodded a wide-eyed yes as if to imply (and rightly so) that she would never suggest a future without college. Whether a princess by birth or a princess by marriage, I assume most modern-day princesses are expected to attend college. So I guess  it's a starting point.

 "So really," I pried, "what does it mean to be a princess?"

 My daughter answered, "Well... A real dress."

 "Your dress is real. You can touch it, so it's real, right?"

 "Hmmm... Shoes. It's definitely shoes."

 After a lifetime of exposure to the negative connotations of "princess," maybe I was the one who had the wrong idea. Maybe this independent feminist mother could encourage - even accept- a sliver of princess culture. Eventually I started to come around. I slowly found her professional goals easier to get behind, even if it means we tweak her royal dreams of being a fancy dress-wearing princess into a goal of being the fashion designer who creates those dresses.

Through that conversation, I learned I will always support my daughter, even if I don’t necessarily understand her choice. Although it is easier now, when her fantasies don’t involve any mention of princes, horses or sunsets.

 But as I've never been the princess type, I was still hoping for some more definitive answers. Anika quickly tired of this line of questioning. Overloaded with conversation, she took a deep breath and said, "Mom, all I really want is to be taller. AND a princess ...  Like YOU."

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