Not So Pretty in Pink

by Lois Rubin Gross

Several months ago, I did something that, as a librarian, is anathema to me: I created separate areas for boys and girls. I raised my daughter at a time of liberation. Her “onesies” were sherbet green and yellow. The walls of her room were a sunny lemon. I wanted no gender stereotyping for my daughter. Of course, this all broke down when she didn’t grow hair and old ladies commented on what a cute boy I had. You never saw anyone buy pink and ruffles so fast!

Despite my concession to fashion, my daughter’s bookshelves were fairly devoid of princess books. In fact, my Bible for her was Marlo Thomas’ then groundbreaking Free to Be You and Me. Among my favorite stories in the book was the Greek myth, Atalanta, about a princess who competed with her suitors in a foot race to determine her own destiny; and the incomparable Shel Silverstein’s Ladies First, a delightfully dark story about a little girl who demands special treatment and ends up being the meal du jour for a tribe of tigers.

All of this is by way of saying that I really think there is something of value for both genders in many books. However, I’ve made a choice based on pragmatism. Rather than having to search the shelves on a daily and sometimes hourly basis, I created a “go to” book section with trucks and fire engines for parents of little boys, and “princess” books for little girls.

I do worry, however, about the message that the pink books, in particular, send to our girls. Fancy Nancy, for all the positive messages she teaches about vocabulary and trying new things, dresses up in clothes that are inappropriate for active playground play and teaches young girls that costumes of feathers and lace are appropriate for everyday wear.

As do many others, I blame Disney for the “princess-ification” of young girls. If you have not, as yet, read it, I highly recommend the book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie Girl Culture, by Peggy Ornstein. This book made the rounds of morning talk shows, many months back, and I found it enlightening, especially as it analyzes the marketing tricks that the Disney Company uses to make girls crave possessions with pictures of Aurora, Belle, and the Little Mermaid. One fact that author Ornstein points out that never occurred to me before is that if you look at the cover of Disney products with multiple princesses depicted, they never look at each other. Each gazes into a separate future. There is no female bonding among princesses because, face it, there are only so many Prince Charmings to go around.

While technically there is no harm in girls reading whatever they want (the purpose is to get them to read, after all), the subtle messages that “pink” books and media teach is about competitiveness among women; women tying their destiny to marriage or, at least, allying with a man; and women not developing their full potential for fear that they be seen as unfeminine.

I know that you may think this is an ancient war, one best left on the battlefields of the 1960s and 1970s. However, recent political fights show that our girls still need to be schooled in self-determination. With this is mind, I’d like to recommend to you some “anti-princess” books:

Not All Princesses Dress in Pink. by Jane Yolen
Poet and prolific author Yolen teaches girls that sometimes a tiara is best accented with a pair of baseball spikes. To each girl her own taste and imagination.

The Paper Bag Princess, by Robert Munsch
An older title, but one that makes a point that sometimes princes need saving, too, and a resourceful princess may fight a dragon on her own.

Not One Damsel in Distress: World Folktales for Strong Girls, by Jane Yolen
This is definitely a book for your child to grow on, since it features longer folk tales. However, within this collection you will find the Clever Rachels, the Atalantas, the Molly Whuppies, and the Brave Janets, folk heroines who do not wait for others to save them but use their wits to vanquish evil.

My Princess Boy, by Cheryl Kilodavis
This is a very different and contemporary tale written by a mother whose young son likes to dress in tutus. How would you handle non-traditional behavior like this? She wrote a book justifying her son’s right to make his own choices.

Girls Hold Up This World, by Jada Pinkett Smith
This is that rare bird, a celebrity book that is actually worth reading. Jada Pinkett Smith praises the inner resources of young girls of every color and creed, and reinforces positive roles for young girls of today.

This is a small sampling of the books that are around that defy the old Cinderella stereotypes. As a side note, I am overjoyed that, later this summer, we will have a new movie heroine for strong girls with the release of Pixar’s Brave in which a Scottish princess with wild red hair faces down evil with her archery skills (think Katniss Everdeen for the junior set). Could it be that the powers-that-be are recognizing the need for some stronger role models for young girls? Could it be that the warrior woman is the next wave for our daughters? If it’s so, let’s challenge the old models with new and improved strong girls. Beauty, as we all know, should be internal along with grace, intelligence, and wisdom and that doesn’t require a pink dress, a tutu, or any other frilly costume to demonstrate its presence.

Lois Rubin Gross has an MS in Library Sciences from Drexel University. She is currently Senior Children’s Librarian at the Hoboken (NJ) Public Library. She has also worked as a librarian for children with special needs. She is a book reviewer for Children’s Literature and a blogger for After Fifty Living and Wise Women Now. Join her Facebook book community Lois Storylady.

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