Do we really want little girls to grow up into damsels who need to be saved, always by wealthy and powerful men?
Wider Angle | S.Mitra Kalita
I wish the princesses would stay poisoned, in deep slumber, locked in towers. Really, they should just stay away.
For my daughter’s third birthday, celebrated in the US, she received a half-dozen odes to junior royalty, on T-shirts and pyjamas, tiaras and wands, even a huge pink rucksack stamped with the Disney characters who have been princesses: Ariel, Jasmine, Belle, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella.
I thought India would be safer.
Then, the other day as I bought a lehenga for a friend’s baby, the store attendant says in broken English, “Beautiful. She will look just like a princess.”
It got worse this past weekend when a Wall Street Journal story, published in Mint’s Lounge, reported all the ways Disney is innovating to keep little girls dreaming of being princesses—even until they become grown-ups (think brides dressed like Snow White prancing down the aisle). Still, I chalked the phenomenon up to the wacky ways of the West, until I came to this line:
“Disney has been trying to introduce the brand in countries like India, where it launched a search for an Indian princess.”
My heart sank. We are not safe.
Leave aside the marketing gimmicks, for a moment. What is it with this newfound aspiration to princess-hood? We cannot even blame little girls because the desire is so clearly something we are encouraging, looking for, egging on. Why?
The feminist writer Peggy Orenstein got so fed up with America’s obsession with princesses that she penned a New York Times Magazine article last year on the subject headlined, “What’s wrong with Cinderella?”
Her conclusion really summarized my frustration: “Maybe Princess is the first salvo in what will become a lifelong struggle over her body image, a Hundred Years’ War of dieting, plucking, painting and perpetual dissatisfaction with the results. …In the end, it’s not the Princesses that really bother me anyway. They’re just a trigger for the bigger question of how, over the years, I can help my daughter with the contradictions she will inevitably face as a girl…”
Despite a few progressive exceptions —namely Diana, although she got much cooler after she stopped being the prince’s prize—princesses basically connote major neediness, damsels craving saving: often with a kiss, sometimes true love, always wealth and power.
In India, many of our girls sadly require a different kind of “saving” (in the womb). Then if they make it, they still grow up against messages that undermine them as less worthy and capable, for no other reason than gender. And now we are asking them to be princesses, to dream of the days when a man will enable escape?
It seems such a step backward from all that has suddenly become possible in this economy for women.
By now, my fellow mothers are either nodding their heads in agreement or have just relegated me to the crazy stepmother category.
The Walt Disney Co. India clarified that the search for the Indian princess was a one-time event staged last year when the products were introduced in India. “Princess is one of our extremely popular franchises in India,” said K. Seshasaye, Disney’s India spokesman. “When the toys were launched, within 45 days, the licensees told us all the products were off the shelves. ...Basic family values are pretty strong here in India. And Disney stories around princesses encourage these girls to take the right values.”
What’s the harm? you ask. They’ll grow out of it. They’ll grow up to be astronauts and managing directors.
Will they? Have they?
This week, a study released by education training institute Career Launcher shows the number of women who receive coaching for the Indian Institutes of Management entrance examination is between 28% and 33%. Yet, batch profiles at the prestigious IIMs indicate that just 10-15% of students who gain admission are women.
Despite a steadily increasing female presence on campuses, the discrepancy between those who aspire and those who gain admissions stems from more men having engineering backgrounds (a popular precursor to B-school) and more men having work experience, the study found.
About one out of 10 students in the nation’s top B-schools is a woman —yet double that number wants to be there. And we still want our little girls to be princesses?
As we opened the gifts at the birthday party, I hung on to my mother’s first words to my daughter in the delivery room, minutes after she was born: “I hope you grow up to be president.”
Already, India has achieved the milestone my mother alluded to, while the US is just beginning to consider it: A female president.
Skip the marketing hype. Our girls need to move on to bigger titles—the kind they can earn and seize themselves.
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