Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Play: On princesses, pink and where I've gone wrong

A couple of Saturdays ago I brought Big E to a book signing.  The whole idea made me feel very literary and cultured and like an overall good mother. Until it didn't.

The PTA at Big E's school sponsored the reading by Victoria Kann, author of Pinkalicious (and the ensuing crop of -licious books: Purplicious, Goldilicious, and Silverlicious).  Big E, a devoted lover of all things pink, had liked the original enough to choose it as her birthday book donation to her kindergarten classroom the previous year. I thought that the story was kind of cute and the illustrations sort of charming, but mostly I liked it because Big E's insistence on pink everything had conditioned me to respond in Pavlovian fashion to the color (witness our pink dvd player and pink vacuum cleaner).

I honestly hadn't thought much about the pinkification of my daughter's and seemingly the nation's girlhood, until the morning of the book signing as I dried my hair with the hot pink blow dryer the girls had picked out for me.  That was when I got to chapter 3 in Peggy Orenstein's Cinderella Ate My Daughter.  I had been enjoying the book from a pleasant distance up to that point, as the earlier chapters focused primarily on the whole princess phenomenon that we have have blessedly been able to escape with little more than passing interest from Big E. On our recent trip, when a well-meaning Disney employee greeted  Little E with "Hello there, Princess," she glanced over her shoulder to see what all the fuss was about. I felt good about that.

I arrived at Kann's reading ruminating on Orenstein's assertion that "[pink] is such a tiny slice of the rainbow, and, though it may celebrate girlhood in one way, it also repeatedly and firmly fuses girls' identity to appearance."  So you can understand why I felt a little less literary, cultured and good motherish as I looked around at the roomful of little girls in pink tutus and fairy wings.  Big E, in t-shirt, denim skirt with subtle pink embellishment and pink Chuck Taylors, looked decidedly sedate; still, there were also Orenstein's points about the cunning use of pink as a marketing tool which made me cringe as I handed Big E a twenty so she could by a hardcover book to have signed after the reading.

I didn't find out either of my children's genders during my pregnancies. This meant that due to my obsessive preparations for my first born, Big E was dressed in and surrounded by a lot of yellow and green.  This might explain why I was so eager to embrace pink before she was even old enough to register a preference. I employed the wisdom I'd gained with Big E when Little E was born and bought very little before her arrival and brought both pink and blue going home outfits to the hospital, hoping to avoid the gender-neutral thing altogether. Ironically, her favorite color is red, though she does on occasion claim that she is getting older and will shortly start liking pink.

Back when Big E was a squalling, never sleeping, ambiguously dressed little bundle and I was a milky, sleep-deprived blob of hormonal mess, there was really no time to think about the long term repercussions of the color of her booties. It was all about survival. I had spent the months before her birth reading endless natural birth stories, eating copious amounts of chocolate pudding and shopping for things I thought babies needed (and which I would later learn they actually do not), like cotton balls, talcum powder and special babyproof q-tips.  There never was a convenient time, it seems, to develop a mission statement for motherhood.

I've had to develop my philosophy on the fly, and when I consider the thought that people like Orenstein have put into the whole thing I realize I've been derelict in my duties. Basically, I've assumed that if I can emphasize the importance of being kind and open-minded, helping those in need, trying your hardest, reading lots of books and getting plenty of exercise, the kids should turn out okay.  When I think about all of the messages they get besides mine, though, I realize that I really need to be a little more selective while I still can be.

Even though she's moved onto chapter books, Big E loved the reading.  She followed along in the copy of Silverlicious that I'd bought and I felt slightly victorious in knowing that I was one of the few mothers who had only purchased one of the four books in the series. Later that day, when she had a friend over after soccer I caught her showing off the new book, caressing the elaborately signed title page and calling it her "prized possession."

Her prized possession, at least for that day, was a book.  I may not have ended up feeling like a particularly great or enlightened mother, but I did manage literary.  That was something, at least.

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