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My mother gave Rio a bicycle for her birthday. A purple bicycle covered with Disney Princess decals. Safe to say, this was her dream bike, long awaited. She spent many winter afternoons sitting on Nana’s lap fantasizing about the bike that would magically appear to her when she turned five. So of course my mom made it happen. It’s in her grandmother contract, I’m sure.

Since I sent “Santa” a letter last Christmas asking “him” to go easy on the beeping, blinking Stuff, we have received nothing battery operated for the kids. Instead, the bike came with a bright pink, princess-logo-sporting, made-in-china air horn. It might be the loudest thing either kid has ever owned. Conveniently, it was not attached to the bike, so the kids were able to bring it in the house and blare it at the breakfast table for a few days.

A word about my mother. When Rio entered the world, I laid down the law: give nothing to this child that you would not give to a child of the opposite sex/gender. Ah, that was the sweet, naive week when I imagined that child was mine, not a free agent in the world. My mom’s response was to show up at my house the day we brought Rio home with about ten pounds of pink lace and an innocent look. “What?” she said, before I could mention the dresses. “I would have bought these for a boy!”

Of course you would, Mom. And you were surely powerless against the waiter who gave eight-month-old Rio her first Oreo cookie while I was in the bathroom. I love you. Never, ever start listening to me about my kids. You totally know better than I do.

I actually do love that my mom gives the girls Disney schwag, and jelly beans and access to cable TV. That’s a huge part of the world they’re growing in, and they get none of it at home. Somebody has to do it, and Nana is the perfect choice. (She also taught Rio how to slide down staircase bannisters, but that’s another story…)

Most recently, she gave Rio this bike. The bike has a row of princess faces emblazoned on the handlebars. As she climbed onto the bike, Rio looked thoughtfully at the princesses, and pointed to Belle.

“Belle looks very princessy there, Mama,” she said. “This must be after. You know, after those photos we saw yesterday.”

Not sure what to make of that, except to say that I’m grateful to Ms. Dina Goldstein for inviting my daughter to think about the prettiness of her princesses.

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Snow White, as seen by Dina Goldstein

Snow White, as seen by Dina Goldstein

What parent has not worried about the impact of Disney’s princess marketing juggernaut on their young kids? It’s ubiquitous, poisonous and almost impossible to avoid.

Today, a good friend sent me this link to Fallen Princesses, a photo exhibit by Dina Goldstein. She is, apparently, a mom and a photographer, and these photos are her answer to the dark questions the Disney princesses stirred up when her three-year-old became besotted with them.

Because it was sent to me with no warning about what it was, I happened to look at it with my five-year-old daughter on my lap.

Let me tell you, we had some fascinating conversation about what those princesses in those pictures were doing. I was only a little dismayed when Rio cooed at Snow White, “Look, Mama, this is when she has babies! And a husband! And a dog!”

uh…yes. To her credit, a little later Rio looked more closely and said, “They do seem to have a lot of babies.”

After we’d looked at the whole series, Rio wanted to know what was going on with these princesses. Especially with Belle, who is depicted having plastic surgery.

“She’s having surgery on her face,” I said.

“Why?”

“To make her look like a princess,” I said. I did not want to be having this conversation. I don’t want my five-year-old to know about plastic surgery, or the desire to be someone else, or the beauty industry.

“Why would she do that?” This is one of those moments, I realized. One of the moments when my daughter asks me hard questions and I owe her real answers.

“She doesn’t know how beautiful she is,” I said. “She’s confused.”

And then I told her that real women sometimes have surgery on their faces to try to be prettier. That real women sometimes do all the things these princesses are doing – get sick, have babies that no one helps them care for, get sad, grow old and lonely.

Rio expressed the opinion that princesses are great, and she understands why any woman would want to look like one. On cross-examination, she agreed that I am beautiful, and don’t look like a princess. That’s because I’m not one, she explained.

“I wish I was a princess,” Rio said. “But I can’t do anything about that.”

“You are better than any princess to me,” I said.

“No, I’m not,” Rio said very matter-of-factly. “Princesses are better than me. Because they are prettier.”

um…

Deep breath. What to say? This is the textbook Disney-is-evil stuff I’ve read about but never expected to encounter in my own home. Lost, I repeated myself.

“You are better than any princess to me.”

“Even the world is not better than princesses,” Rio explained patiently, the way one talks to someone very slow. “Princesses are the best.”

After that she wanted to know if princesses are real. I showed her a picture of Princess Di, and talked about how hard her life was. Rio wanted to know if Real Princesses are real, and I assured her that all of Disney’s princesses are entirely fake.

I’ve always been a bit of an apologist for Disney. I don’t buy that stuff, obviously, and we don’t watch TV at home. But I haven’t worked to keep it away from my kids either.

Very early in my parenting, a mom I admired made a case for princess-worship as a little girl version of goddess worship, in which young kids deify images of beautiful, magically gifted, powerful young women. I liked that reading, and clung to it when my two-year-old became obsessed with the Little Mermaid.

Beyond the female divinity argument, I’m an avid fan of Bruno Bettelheim. I’m sure he wouldn’t defend Disney; they whitewash fairy tales in exactly the way he advises against. But I think one of his most basic points is that children experience stories differently than adults do. They are drawn into a story for reasons opaque to their parents, and are satisfied by elements that elude us. This should be obvious to anyone who has ever let their preschooler pick the story at bedtime and then been stuck reading a Clifford book aloud for the 37th time. So while the princess schwag looks appaling to me, I’ve rested happy in the knowledge that I am not the target audience, and can’t know what my kid is getting out of it.

Finally, like most of my peers I survived a childhood riddled with Barbie, GI Joe and Strawberry Shortcake, and still grew up to be a self-lovin’ hippy feminist. Rio will do just fine no matter what crappy gender stereotypes she plays with as a kid. By the time she’s old enough to read this, I’m sure the fact that she ever wanted to be a Disney princess will be an embarassing footnote on a glorious life as a self-possessed, beautiful, brilliant young person.

That said, hearing my own daughter (who, let’s face it, has had a pretty sheltered life when it comes to media) say that she thinks princesses are better than her because they are prettier cost Disney all their credit with me and then some. Rio will be fine, but they are not helping. They are hurting.

Why am I posting about this? It’s not because I’m all riled up about how Disney is undermining my daughter’s self-esteem. I do plan to write them a letter, which I expect them to ignore. Whatever.

I am posting about this because Rio asked me to. “Mama, can we put these on your website?” she said. She wanted everyone we know to see these princesses. Because, you may recall, princesses are The Best. I agree with her. I want everyone we know to see this – both the photos and the discussion they provoked – in the hopes that a few more of us will wake up and stop turning a blind eye to what Disney is doing to our girls.

Flickr Photos

A little bird told me…

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