The Princess and the Pink
This is a blog about books. I suppose I could rant on in righteous horror about the excess of children’s literary publications with titles such as Pinkalicious, Pink of Hearts, Princess Poppy: Ballet Dreams and How to be God’s little Princess (Royal tips of Manners and Etiquette for girls). That would certainly be fun – to smite some pinky shit with y’all – but it would just be gratuitous pink-baiting.
If you’re reading this, chances are you’ll have some idea of Pinkified book themes: Princess, Fairy, Mermaid et al. Such books, however attractive (the original and beautifully illustrated Fancy Nancy for example, or the wonderfully visual Princess and the Pea from Lauren Child), all add to the suffocating pinkathon that is currently a girl’s early years.
Vaguely defined sub-themes such as being kind, strong and ‘true to yourself’ are routinely thrown about in said books. These appear to be beneficial characteristics to advocate – but do these token attempts at sincerity really offset the BS implications of being a living frou-frou? Incidentally – and I mean this genuinely – can you point me in the direction of some books ‘for boys’ with equivalent patronising moral instruction – or indeed, a flippin’ love theme? Love is great, but it certainly isn’t prescribed for boys. Why then is it prescribed for girls? It hardly broadens horizons or encourages independence and self-preservation.
Pink books cement the girlicious construct that we know and love today, but go one better by coming complete with their own damning fuschia narrative. After all, a pink bike doesn’t come with an indoctrinating backstory. At worst, pink books can be argued to encourage passivity, vapidity and insipidity; promote unhealthy stereotypes; help to segregate the sexes and deliver insidious, backward messages about being decorative and (relatively) weak. These are presumably not the writers’ aims; I am open to the idea that budding children’s authors aren’t clawing desperately at the pink bandwagon trying to make a hefty pink buck - that they are genuinely inspired to words by pink culture.
Let’s look to the often-proclaimed literary saviours of Princess regression: anti-Princess books. Although these books have a definite place, I don’t believe that Princess Smartypants, The Paper-bag Princess or The Princess and the Pizza are the antidote.
At three, my child, T, rails unconsciously against sexism through her inborn assumption that she is equal. For me, seeking out some of the anti-Princess stories, with their prince-snubbing and money-spurning, would at this point achieve little more than introducing certain concepts that she so far has no notion of. In Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s Zog for instance, the girl shuns Princessery to be an MD, but waits (voluntarily!) as a kidnappee for a bloody year, until a chap does turn up. There’s also a disturbing page with the image of a woman screaming out of a window whilst a dragon tries to kidnap her. Maybe it’s just me, but I find the repeated normalising/romanticising of nubile beauties-in-peril unsettling. Just me? Oh, ok.
So kidnap, beauty, arranged marriage – despite being portrayed as hurdles to overcome – are still standard themes in the anti-Princess. My kid thus far doesn’t know about any of that crap (poor mite), so I’m not about to plant those seeds. But she’s young; I’m sure she has a delightful shit-bucket of peer-pressure waiting just around the corner. What about for girls who are already completely immersed though? Hardened, older kids hell-bent on living the modern Princess dream. Don’t they need lots of anti-Princess books to offset?
Perhaps. But by portraying the spurning of Pink Princessery as remarkable, maybe, just maybe – hear me out here – we’re actually hindering progress? When we give a child a book that says ‘What this girl did was, wow, quite frankly a bit unusual and look how zany she is,’ maybe on some level we reinforce the status quo. After all, all we’re doing is continuing on some level to validate the notion that beauty, propriety and submission were normal expectations for girls in the first place.
For me, the answer lies in lots more literary depictions of strong female protagonists existing without gender oppression. Maybe the Princess-child doesn’t need lots of weird Princesses, but an abundance of strong female protagonists who enjoy adventure and activity. Her potential marital status or physical aesthetics simply cease to exist. Instead of the protagonist breaking out – she’s broken out.
Maybe if we weren’t currently nurturing such a narcissistic, limited environment for girls, Princess could continue to be just another story. Right now – The Princess and the Pink – they’re pushing lifestyle, and it shows.
Strong female protagonists
What am I thinking of then? On a recent, reluctant visit to my city library – fearing the worst – I was pleasantly surprised when T plonked this story on my lap:
Sarah, the protagonist, is signified as female only by her feminine pronouns, name and a bit of hair length. Tick! Sarah rescues little brother Louis from a series of monsters that eat each other (whole). Tick! Each larger monster lives in a more dangerously precarious spot, so Sarah invents complex contraptions that enable her to get to each lair. Tick! Reaching the final beasty, she crawls into each consecutively-ingested monster’s stomach in order to get to her brother. Er…tick! She then uses a hiccup frog – which she‘d had the ingenious foresight to pick up earlier – to burp them both out. Er …tick…I think.
Whilst I don’t deliberately seek out regurgitating monster stories, with T I do feel the need to ‘offset’ due to the surge of limiting messages she receives from pinkywinky society. A good old belching monster story is good for the delicate flower.
A few petty quibbles: the title, The Day Louis Got Eaten wrongly implies that this is Louis’s story. And after Sarah has rescued her brother, she is saved by him when the monsters are about to turn on her – so this girl ain’t wholly without needing to be rescued. And I’m clearly hair-splitting, but I did muse as to whether Sarah is a strong adventurer in her own right, or an intuitively capable carer, getting-on-with-it and putting others first?
But the book is great. The fact is, Sarah’s gender is not defined in any way other than by those signifiers I mentioned before. The narrative wonderfully normalises activity, ability and achievement for a girl with no mention of her sex. She is brave and ingenious. But role-model shmole-model, I don’t even need her to be that – just not defined by hyper-feminine inaccuracies.
Lack of female protagonists
If you’re thinking ‘there must be plenty of strong representations of girls’ – let’s look briefly at the lack of wimminz in kid’s literature. Last year The Daily Mail and The Telegraph reported on what was described as a ‘systematic annihilation of women in children’s books':
‘Evidence of this inequality was noted in how readers 'interpret even gender neutral characters as male' and in the way mums [!] 'frequently label gender-neutral animal characters as male when reading with their children.'
T reads an awful lot of books with potentially gender-neutral animal characters. Since I read about this defaulting of characters to male, I’ve made a concerted effort to change many of the characters in her stories to female. Admittedly, I find myself torn as to whether this is helpful or not. Maybe it will ultimately suggest, long-term, that I believe her to be unable to identify with male characters or project herself into a male role. But I do this gender-swapping anyway, because I’m not sure, and I do think it’s important for her to hear lots of: ‘she did this, she did that’.
Interestingly, it’s strangely hard. I often find myself lisping awkwardly over the unfamiliar gender pronoun ‘she’. And – this is very interesting – you instinctively only include women as token. Should you change the whole cast to female, you start to feel that your efforts are excessive – mean and anti-male (similarly I get this feeling with children’s songs – try it). It’s like you’ve created a ridiculous dystopian environment, whereas one frequently reads books with an all-male cast without even batting an eye. Men are normal/neutral and women are other. Here’s an intriguing insight into Kate Harrad’s project in which she swapped the gender of the characters in some literary greats:
‘For one thing, in this universe, Conan Doyle's London is startlingly female. Seriously, it's as if the late Victorian era didn't actually contain any men, except for the occasional stolid servant or nervous abandoned husband. "Why are there so many women in this story?" I kept thinking – and then realised how depressing it was that even women assume fiction should be male-dominated.’
What good it could do to simply talk of people.
"Girls are becoming increasingly disillusioned about the media's portrayal of women. Over half of those aged 11 to 21 disagree with the statement that 'girls and young women are portrayed fairly in the media'."
The Girls’ Attitudes Survey, Girlguiding UK, 2011