As a little girl, I loved Strawberry Shortcake and My Little Ponies. My daughter has, somehow, developed a similar love thanks to the ubiquitous marketing that puts such characters—or Disney Princesses—on everything. But, when she made me a lovely picture this week at a friends house with a My Little Pony sticker border, I was shocked. When did ponies become so…sexy?
That’s right, sexy ponies. As in horses. Thinking that they didn’t used to look like equine call-girls, posed to please, I googled 1980s My Little Ponies. True to my memory, the old ponies looked cute, modest – like those my little sister used to play with, were her favorite toys. Side by side, the difference is striking: the new ponies have huge eyes and hair that would make most Disney Princesses jealous. The horse snout has turned into an upturned pug-nose that barely suggests a snout, shortened and thinned as it is. Even worse, the legs are longer (in a less realistic way) and their bodies are much, much smaller and thinner. And, rather than standing like nice show-ponies, these colts cock their heads and jut out their chests. Remember, we aren’t talking about toys representing people that have been turned into sex-pots…we’re talking about horses.
It is no surprise that children learn from images as much as from stories (and from the shapes of stories as much as from the content of stories), but few people seem as disturbed as I am by the makeover these ponies have received. In fact, there is the Brony community of adults out there who defend MLP:FiM (My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic) franchise relaunch from 2010 as ironic and empowering story-telling that simply makes use of a different animation style. In the comment sections on posts chronicling this (and other toy transformations), some people argue that the new toys are prettier and that it is silly to think of horses as sexy. And, to be fair, this is not the only brand re-launch that has sexed-up toys from my childhood. After some tasteful updating in the mid-2000s, Strawberry Shortcake has re-emerged with a svelte body, luscious hair, and a wardrobe to match. And don’t get me started on Disney Princesses! But, the very fact that the styling on so many toys is being changes makes me wonder what does it look like, from a Christian perspective, to tell my daughter the real story about the culture she lives in and the images that surround her.
I’ve experimented with a number of metaphorical stories that convey the truth to her in narratives she understands. So, I tell her about how Disney Princesses are really evil fairies in disguise who wake up each night and eat little girl’s hearts, slowly killing them. I tell her that Barbies scare me because they steal girls souls, replacing them with hard plastic shell-girls who have no insides, no mouths to taste, stomachs to eat, or muscles to let them play. I tell her the old versions of fairytales, the ones that teach children greed and envy lead to suffering and folly leads to death. I tell her about how Strawberry Shortcake and My Little Ponies used to be nice and sweet, but then an evil sorcerer came and started cutting off their body parts to make them look “funny” and be his slaves. Now, like the emperor who has no clothes, everyone says Strawberry and the Ponies are beautiful, while they are waiting for brave voices to say that they look mean and spoilt. Only when little children start saying this will the sorcerer’s spell be broken.
As you might imagine, my stories to her take a bit of explaining with other parents when she, with a somber fear, repeats them to her friends! However, these alternate “true stories” are not the most effective way to challenge the images and implied narratives that bombard little girls every day.
Creating new stories for my daughter—stories that haven’t been co-opted by such problematic images—also keeps these images at bay. We tell the story of “Princess Abigail: To the Rescue,” the one where the beautiful and clever Abigail rescues David and her husband from their foolish, rash words, stopping a slaughter and eventually becoming a princess herself. We tell the story of Shiphrah, Puah, Joheved, and Miriam, about these brave women who defied the king’s edicts and saved the life of a little baby. We read the story of “The Princess and the Goblin,” celebrating Irene’s courage and faith.
The Christian tradition has the alternate narratives, the alternate images of women, that our daughters need. The biblical narrative and the stories it has inspired are replete with images of strong, daring women. But all too often these stories have been silenced, not by the culture at large, but by the church. Too many Christian adults look blankly at my daughter when she talks about Abigail or Joheved; and if they know the names, they’ve never heard the stories told in a way that celebrates the heroines and their bravery.
It is true that Christian tradition has a powerful antidote to passive Sleeping Beauties and “helpfulness” constituted by the “hair and fashion advice” that characterize Rarity. But, they are ineffective if they remain silenced, marginalized, or shrouded in insipid (but pious) renderings that minimize the risk, adventure, and beauty at the heart of such stories. To cut through the clamor and clutter of other stories and other images, the alternate stories of God and the women who trust him must be recovered, re-envisioned, and retold….before the princesses feast too deeply on our daughters’ hearts.
That was wonderful! I had noticed the same thing about the ponies. I love that you are creatively and intelligently addressing the oversexualization of our children! Keep fighting the good fight!
Thanks so much for your comment and encouragement, Kirsten!
This is an interesting post. I have two daughters who watch MLP and a friend who reads this blog (Im new to it) who recommended I check this out. I think the idea of creating new stories that positively capture the child’s imagination is a really helpful one. I struggle with the best way to combat the kind of cultural influences you mark here and I think your right on.
But I have to say I also find a deep and problematic irony in the post. (1) Your negative stories (which really aren’t so much stories as horrific aphorisms) are quite violent. Are you not unwittingly combating one feature of our culture (hyper sexualization) with another (its excessive violence)? (2) It also seems that you ironically are asking your child to make judgments based on physical appearances.You portray these evil, “beautiful characters” doing wicked things, but your worry is about their physical depiction. That’s what really drives your revisions of these stories. And so it seems that it is by virtue of their physical appearance that your stories depict these characters as evil. I have a hard time seeing how this does not still overly fixate the child’s mind on the body–even if in a negative way. (3) But above all, it would seem that by putting these horrific images in your child’s head you are fixating your child’s imagination on these images rather than letting the beautiful images take hold. I would wager your child has nightmares about princesses eating her heart out, and I would wager she has more of these than sweet dreams about joheved.
Even though what you really want to push is the creation of new stories, what really strikes me in this post, in short, is the weight you give to evil. The images are so frightening, I can’t see how they would not overwhelm the power of the other stories to take hold. So, I’d say quit with the princesses and give your daughter more Joheved.
Thanks so much for your comment Janna. I appreciate your concerns and want to say a bit more in response. As you can imagine, writing to a 500-800 word limit requires me to leave quite a bit unsaid. So, I purposely write as provocatively as possible to try and get conversation going. So, thank you so much for the chance to say more!
In essence, what you conclude is actually the reality, as practiced in our household. We spend very little time talking about princesses or MLP and a lot of time talking about other things and telling other stories. The crazy re-writes of stories that I tell my daughter have always been grounded entirely in her own questions and my desire to give her an actual answer that is true (and that she will grow to understand more fully), rather than simply saying “because we don’t do that” or “we don’t have those in our house.” As such, they are in no way prescriptive for everyone…but they actually work really well for my little girl (and might for some others).
But, since I imagine that your concerns about violence and appearance may be the concerns of other readers, I’ll indulge in a lengthy explanation!
As to your first concern about violence, which is really your third concern as well…I don’t think that I’m replacing hyper-sexuality with excessive violence, or promoting violence. One of the key characteristics of fairytales historically is that they are sometimes violent in order to teach a moral lesson or general truth in such a way as to direct behavior. So, Arial dies in the Anderson version of Little Mermaid for her disobedience and selfishness, which she only renounces when she consents to becoming sea foam for the sake of the prince. The sisters in Cinderella disfigure themselves and are have their eyes plucked out by ravens to illustrate both their own foolish vanity and the consequences of such vanity. The little tin soldier flies into the furnace and melts as an act of love, but the reason for his flight was initiated by a wanton little boy who threw his sister’s ballerina music box into the fire. My point is that such horrific events are highly instructive. Moreover, the presence of violence—and particularly violence or evil that is to be resisted—is not the same thing as promoting violence. So, yes, I do allow my daughter to hear about violence in the context of fairytales (my own and, far more often, those of Hans Christian Anderson, The Grimm Brothers, and, her favorite, George MacDonald) but the violence is largely one of the conditions for plot or the result of immoral or foolish actions. The point of the stories I tell her and such fairytales is that 1) there is evil in the world; and 2) to be a brave, strong woman she must learn to act virtuously and resist evil. This is why I don’t think that I’m ironically replacing sexuality with violence.
One more note on violence–it is important that the stories she encounters involving violence are heard, not seen. As adults, we hear about princesses eating a heart or a raven plucking out eyes and our minds are filled with all the horror movies, adventure movies, and thrillers we’ve ever seen, which supply grotesque images to go with the words. My daughter has never seen such things…she is, however, obsessed with eyeballs at the moment (Thank you, preschool boys!). She and her friends like the word, the way it sounds, the way it brings two disjunct things together in their mind (the human eye and balls). They don’t think about the actual eyeball as a thing detached from the head because all they’ve ever seen of an eye is what is visible on the human face. Given how fun and funny the word is, she and her friends like talking about playing with eyeballs, eating eyeballs, throwing eyeballs and the like. So, when I then tell her a story about princesses eating little girls’ hearts, the horror of the image is located, for her, in the same region of bodily humor and the grotesque that makes all sorts of body parts and functions funny as a child. It is an image that teaches her but that doesn’t produce horror or nightmares. (It is important to note, too, that this would not be the case for all children. I know my daughter’s personality and what she has seen and experienced, so I know what sort of mental imagery she has available to her).
Secondly, for reasons of space and style, I didn’t go into the full versions of the stories that I tell my daughter. The point of this post was the hyper-sexualization of the visual imagery that is marketed to our daughters. As such, I quickly summed up some of the crazy things I tell my daughter around the theme of the post. But these are not the full versions of the stories I tell her. Like most oral storytelling, there are no set versions of what I say and, often, they are stories that have developed in response to her questions. At first, we just didn’t have any disney princesses, etc in our house. Then, she started to ask about why we didn’t. I told her because many of those princesses weren’t very good girls because they didn’t listen to their mommies and daddies. She would respond, “but Ariel is pretty” and I would tell her, “Yes, she is but she disobeyed her daddy and put herself and the people she loved in great danger.” We would compare that to MacDonald’s Princess Irene who (in the illustrated version we have is very beautiful) rescues a little boy from Goblin miners and always listens to her grandmother (who is a God-figure in the book). At three-and-a-half she would say that she wanted to be a rescue princess like Irene and not a naughty princess. Since both Ariel and Irene are beautiful, it is clear to her that the issue isn’t appearance at all but behavior.
Of course, the older she gets the more she asks, particularly about the intersection of looks and actions–on some level, she can’t believe that beautiful people might sometimes be evil. So, we talk about what each Disney princess does that is good or bad, we analyze the plot, and we talk about how they are, literally, everywhere in our culture and what that means. She gets it…and I know she does because, upon hearing about Frozen, she came home and told me, very happily that Ana and Elsa are good princesses because Ana rescues Elsa, so she wouldn’t be a princess who would eat a little girl’s heart. (She still hasn’t seen Frozen but that is how she understands the movie from her friends’ reports). This sort of critical thinking and moral reasoning from actions is exactly what I want to encourage. That said, imagery is powerful and she needs to understand why and how to resist overly sexualized images, even though she doesn’t know what “sexualized” even mean yet. So, the story about the evil sorcerer replacing MLP’s bodies with strange parts and everyone saying they look good is, largely, to help her find a way of comparing two images and to not buy into the dominant (hyper-sexualized image) as superior. We’ve looked together at the old MLPs and the new ones and she likes the old better because they look like babies and not like one of the girls at preschool who is mean to everyone (it is terrifying to me that the whole Mean Girl thing can begin so early!). She actually thought some of the ponies looked scary and would rather play with baby dolls but, because she thought that the girls at school wouldn’t want to play with her if she said that, she didn’t know what to do. That’s when I gave her the story of the sorcerer as a way of understanding a cultural shift that is way above her head, as a way of affirming her own judgements, and as a way of subverting the sexual image. So, while I completely appreciate how the very brief paragraph on the stories I tell seems to suggest that I encourage her to judge beautiful people as evil, in practice, that isn’t the case.
Thirdly, as to filling my child’s head with horrific images and nightmares….the reality is that we do a lot of reading and a lot of storytelling in our household. We talk about Disney princesses, MLP and such about once every second month, at the most. Usually, when we see such things in the stores, my daughter just shakes her head and says, “Its so bad, mama, they’re taking over the world.” She doesn’t say this in horror but in a sort of shock at the foolishness of the world around her. Most of the time, all she talks about is Jocheved, Abigail, Mary, Irene, and Daylight (another George Macdonald character; “Little Daylight” is an amazing retelling of Sleeping Beauty that is about pity and mercy, and in which the princess doesn’t simply sleep until a prince comes to kiss her!). When she plays dress-up, she has taught all her friends to act out the story of the women rescuing Moses, or of Abigail saving her household and David, or of Irene rescuing Curdie. She dances like Daylight under the moon, and makes everyone sit down as if they are at the ballet to watch her. She plays with her dolls, rides her bike, pretends to camp in our basement, and gives very little thought to Strawberry Shortcake, MLP, Barbie, or Disney Princesses. At night, she seldom has nightmares and, when she does, they are mundane, like that her brother accidentally ripped a page in her new book or that she knocked over her hot chocolate, didn’t get any more and started crying. Last night, she told me, “Mama, I don’t want to be a princess, I just want to be myself.” So, while the one paragraph in my post about the stories I tell her represents the presence of evil in our culture, I don’t think that the stories we tell as a family actually fill her mind with evil thoughts or fixate her imagination on horror.
All of that said, figuring out how we combat the sexualization of our daughters (not to mention combat all the intellectual shallowness that is even more ubiquitous in girl culture) is really something that each family has to figure out for itself. For our family, telling other stories is the really effective and I think it would be effective for many families. Which alternate stories one tells, the content of those stories, the plot of those stories, and the behaviors they encode are all issues that would vary greatly from family to family depending on the personality and temperament of the child. All that is to say, I am in no way saying that our stories should be everyone’s stories…but surely we have to do something to rescue our little girls. (Buying the new Scientist Legos seems to be another great start…)
Wow, well put Janna J.
As an adult I found those horrific images really entertaining and great, but I agree pretty steep for a child. I am lucky enough to still have MLP from the 1980’s, which are indeed more modest and friendly looking. The newer ones are gross, yes. Fascinating reading!
I am 26 years old and I have to agree with you100 that the new MLP look is horrible ! the old ones looked so nice and cute while the new ones look ugly/weird.
Thanks for your lengthy reply Jessica. Still a question though: Why is the violence of traditional fairy tales highly instructive? What is it about the violence itself that is valuable here, rather than some other kind of consequence?
Thank you, Janna, for your continued engagement with this post!
I think that “violence,” in the instance of fairytales, is instructive because it vividly and memorably represents the real damage and destruction that folly and selfishness bring into the world. Of course, it is important to qualify what sort of violence exists in traditional fairytales. Frequently, as in the case of Cinderella’s stepsisters having their eyes plucked out by a raven, it is a retribution meted out by either the natural world or the legitimate power of a kingdom that fits the folly or selfishness. So, the envious sisters lose their eyes, which are the traditional pathway for envy to enter the soul. If Cinderella had gorged her stepsisters’ eyes out, it would be a terrible act but the “violence” is located in the realm of “natural” consequences as a concrete illustration of the way that envy eats at and plucks out the soul of those who permit it. Another way that violence works itself out is in inversions of the plot that reveal the wickedness of a character’s actions. For example, when Gretel pushes the witch into the oven and she howls terribly as she burns to death, part of the point is that she is now suffering the horrible death she inflicted—and planned to inflict again—on others. Unprovoked and without the context of the witch’s prior actions, Gretel’s act of pushing the witch into the fiery oven would have been a terrible act of violence. But, within the narrative structure, it illustrates the other side of the golden rule: don’t do things to others that you wouldn’t want done to yourself!
While there are certainly other ways to make moral or pedagogical points, I think the reason that traditional tales go with this sort of fitting violence is because (especially in the realm of oral tales), such images make their point clearly and definitely while re-establishing justice within the narrative. In other words, such violence actually secures the child-listener’s safety at the end of the story. Let me explain…if Gretel and Hansel had simply run away after locking the witch in Hansel’s cage, then there is no guarantee for the listening child that the witch is gone. She could still be roaming the woods looking for other children to eat. Likewise, had she simply been pushed into the oven and not screamed while dying, she might have survived and now be seeking revenge on all little children. Her death-screams the guarantee that she cannot come after other little children and that evil has been defeated. In Cinderella, leaving the sisters maimed illustrates that they their selfishness is neutralized. If they were merely sent away, exiled into an eternal “time-out,” there is the threat that they would nurture their envy, turning it into hate, finally return to inflict suffering on Cinderella and the Prince. As it stands, they are blind and no longer possess the power to do any damage. It is telling that, even in the Bible, Jesus’ final victory is imagined in terms of a battle, a violent vanquishing of evil and death that ends, not just the power of evil and death but their presence. In this way, the “happily ever after” of the fairytale is really a narrative iteration of the eschaton—both the Bible and fairytales use strong images to assure their listeners that justice has (and will) prevail, that good has (and will) conquer, that the world is (and will be) safe and good again without the threat of resurgent violence lurking just beyond the frame of the happy ending.
Well that’s probably the best take on fairy tales I’ve seen. Surely though, there’s a difference between the violence or punishment we see meted out to the witch and the wicked sisters? The kids are going to see the witch on the level of a monster, more a demon, a supernatural enemy, etc. But the sisters, that could be me, they might think. Do you have a way of differentiating this? That would be helpful.
My worry is that, yes, with the witch, thank goodness, she’s dead, we’re safe. But with the sisters–that punishment would, I’d think, get internalized (if I act badly…then…well I’m in some deep trouble). Obviously that becomes a good teaching moment about justice and grace and the cross. Your comment about the eschaton is just terrific.
But now you’re trusting your small child to do some serious discernment right? Discernment about the witch and the sisters, about where they put themselves in that picture, about grace…That said, getting back to Disney princesses eating hearts out: that’s just terrifying. I mean, literally, it’s just terror. Where’s the justice? I assume, your “crazy rewrites” are more fleshed out, so that the heart-eating-sneak-into-bedroom-at-night-princesses get their comeupins. The safety achieved in the fairy tales, anticipating the eschaton (again, terrific), is, in your account of the fairy tales, central, and central to their pedagogical value, so I’d like to know how you achieve that with the rewrites you do. Again, im very sympathetic to this, but I’m pushing to figure out how to handle these kinds of things as a mom with my own kids.
One last thing: given the kind of discernment we’re assuming here on our kids, why can’t we trust our kids to discern the good and the bad in, say, Frozen? I find as much there, perhaps, as you do in the traditional fairy tales. There’s christ like love and sacrifice; there’s justice for real evil; there’s a kind of critique of past disney princess passivity. Yes, there’s also some stuff that’s not great. But I hardly think it warrants a blanket dismissal, especially if we think our kids can handle Hans Christian Anderson, right? I mean, I take it that you want to use the fair tales alongside the gospel; they’re helpful alongside the gospel. The sisters punishment in Cinderella taken by itself would go straight towards sheer graceless perfectionism. Obviously these stories don’t stand alone as presentations of the gospel. Again, you’re asking your child to make that connection, and even as you help there, it’s a serious connection. But with the hermeneutic of Christ, you can use those tales to your ends. And that seems great to me. We can redeem those tales for our uses as Christian parents, and, with your prompt, tell some of our own.
But I do think we’ve got to admit this is expecting a lot of small children. But if we can expect this–if we can expect more than, say, the best children’s story bible presentation of the gospel (usually less lurid)–and can in fact deploy things like Hans Christian Anderson, and our own similar stories, then why can’t we also use the best of the Disney stories? (Barbie is lost….no hope for Barbie here). I have found the heroines of recent disney stories to be of good character. Can’t our daughters be captivated by that? Why can’t we use that too? Their bodies are a problem, yes. But I do find it very problematic to take a good character and to recast her narrative–if you’re doing that, and you have to be doing that–so that she gets her just desserts because, at the start, you worry about the impression her body image gives. That is, Anna’s good, Christ-like, even, but because she looks a certain way she must become for your child a death-eater. I think the character and story are more immediately compelling to our little girls then her body is harmful. A lot, a lot, a lot of other cultural pressures come in with the body image issue. So, in short, why not redeem, not damn, the best disney princesses?
Quick follow up: I appreciate you appreciate my continuing engagement. I find this all very interesting and I appreciate that this blog is a site for public dialogue about these things…
I think you are right, Janna, about the different nature of the punishment that the witch and the step-sisters experience. What’s more, I think you’re right about children internalizing the lesson that, if I’m envious and mean to others, something bad will happen to me. While this is a great teaching moment for theology, I also think it is a great practical teaching moment, too. I want my daughter and son to know that, if they are envious, bad things will happen to them, to know that they will be in some deep trouble, not only in an eternal sense but in a human, relational sense. (I’d go so far as to say that I wish I’d better internalized lessons against envy and vanity as a child… it is not a stretch to see how permitting such attitudes within the self, even in small ways, certainly does place us in deep trouble and cause terrible suffering for ourselves and others.) It is interesting, too, to reflect on how the sister’s punishment is a naturalized implementation of Jesus’ teachings: “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out…”
But the most important function of stories (all good stories, that is) is epitomized in our exchange over these last months: They keep us engaged, they keep troubling our assumptions, opening new understandings and perspectives on God and life, and they keep us in conversation with each other. For that reason, stories don’t actually demand high levels of discernment from children because they meet us where we are at. One problem I find myself guilty of, over and over, is feeling like I need to over explain stories to make sure my daughter is getting all the different nuances, implications, lessons, amazing parallels (that is the problem of having a literary scholar for a mum!). I don’t always trust the narratives themselves to teach her as they shape her imagination.
On the very practical parenting issue of my stories to my daughter… which she’s already seen-through and outgrown, saying things like “mama, that’s just a story you made up. It isn’t a real story!” She intuits, too well, the lack of literary excellence in my spontaneous attempts to explain why she doesn’t have Barbies or Disney Princess paraphernalia. The point I make very clear is that she and her friends have the power to “free” or “rescue” princesses, ponies, and the like by choosing to play with toys that don’t look like “mean girls.” The underlying purpose isn’t to demonstrate how the Barbies or Princesses will come and gobble her up in the night and they must have an equal punishment later. The point of my stories is that she has the power to stop them simply by saying “no” to them. As to Frozen, she’ll probably see it in the next year or so, largely because I do appreciate that it has a different narrative than waiting around for a prince’s kiss (even if Elsa and Ana still look like high-priced call girls!). (It is important to say here, we’ve never talked about Anna as a soul-destroying princess, only the group as they are assembled on placemats, bikes, dresses, posters, etc.) Parentheticals aside, in keeping with the power to say “no” as consumers, I think that parents and children need to say “no,” collectively, to images that sexualize our daughters, particularly subconsciously. Part of doing that is not only refusing to buy those things for our daughters but being able to explain to them why they don’t have the same toys as their friends. At 3 years old, my stories worked for my daughter. Now, at 4 years old, she is so interested in other things (other stories, other toys, etc) that it isn’t an issue for us. She is even fine with never having seen Frozen! Like I said previously, this is what has worked for me, for my daughter. It is not the answer for every child or every family. And in light of our exchange, I’m not sure I’d tell her the same stories again. But, I do think that this dialogue we’ve been having as a result of my disturbing stories is an important part of finding ways to rethink how we help our daughters resist the constant bombardment of sexualized imagery that comes their way. And, I think that there is an interesting tension between the visual and the narrative that really needs a lot more serious cultural thought–what we see and what we hear impacts us very differently. To my mind, companies like Disney need to learn that both the narrative and the visual need to be addressed for parents to really be happy about the images they are feeding our daughters!
Something that our discussion hasn’t yet touched on is the gender dynamics involved in all this–I am less concerned with my daughter being exposed to violence than sexuality, since it seems that the overwhelming message to young girls is about the importance of beauty and sexual desirability. For my son, I’m much more worried about Super Heroes and the culture that equates masculinity with violence.
On a final note, the story that has given my daughter the most imaginative problems and troubled her the most is…the story of the Passover! As I said before, she loves the story of Joheved and Miriam saving Moses and loves the story of the Exodus. She can even cope with Pharaoh executing all the baby boys. What she can’t cope with is God killing the Egyptian children and animals. She understands that it is what Pharaoh did to the Israelites and she understands that God was trying to get Pharaoh’s attention but what she doesn’t understand is why God would kill the little children if Jesus loves little children. Unlike my stories or fairytales, I can’t simply say, “well, it’s just a story”…
Well I don’t think our exchange epitomizes the power of stories to keep us engaged. The power of stories has been assumed from the get go. The exchange has consisted of a disagreement, more or less, about which stories to tell, and when and how to use them. You appeal to stories I’m not so sure about, at least for a 3 year old.
Perhaps if we tell the right stories we don’t need to ask too much of our children’s ability to discern…they just get it. My worry was that your made up stories—the heart of your original post–were inappropriate, too violent, fear producing in unhealthy ways. So what, though? The first thing I had to say was to dial that down and turn up the winsome stuff. You said that is indeed the case, though that still doesn’t mean the lesser attention to something possibly inappropriate wouldn’t take a disproportionate hold. We don’t want to sugar coat evil, or divine judgment, but we’ve also got to know where and how to draw the line. We can talk about those things in such a way that fear of failure, judgment, feelings of guilt become the principal drives. Im pretty persuaded by the developmental psychologists who argue that an intrinsic love for the good is much more likely to emerge from affirmation, positive reinforcement, etc. Fear is not as good a motivator.
But, of course, what good parent doesn’t want their child to know there are consequences to bad behavior? But my worry was that your stories and the traditional fairy tales pushed too hard. Also, you’re earlier point about the justice they show referred to final justice, eschatological justice. Do you want the final word about us to be , if you’re envious you’re toast? Again, I’m afraid an inappropriately gauged story could have this effect regardless of the intentions.
Maybe we don’t need to sort out for our kids what to get out of good stories with troubling elements. But WE surely need to be discerning. I can think of all kinds of stories that are terrific morality tales that are totally inappropriate for kids.
One thing that has kept me engaged is your bent to provoke. You say you do this on purpose to get conversation going. But what kind of conversation do you want?
I wish you wouldn’t make such gross generalizations. Your initial post, with its sweeping dismissal of things like Disney princesses, as a sweeping generalization was a judgment on any parent who might take their kid to the Disney store. I thought we had come to some accord about the wisdom of our children and their parents to be discerning about this. Disney isn’t an either or. You’ve gestured that way again with super heroes.( You’re starting to fall back more on “every family has to figure this out for themselves.” That’s true, but you’ve also held a pretty normative tone. You worried that “few people seem as disturbed as me…” There are things to be disturbed by; some traditional fairy tales might be among. But lets be wise about it. When you’re talking about Disney princesses in 2015, we’re talking about Anna and Elsa, for instance. You know that; you know your audience knows that; and its hard not to hear, certainly in your initial post, a normative claim about that).
Last thing (!). I think the feminists would have a field day with you gender essentializing with respect to sex and violence. Isn’t the hyper sexualizing of women extremely damaging to men too? (This was one of king’s worries about racism, incidentally. It’s also terribly perverting for the racist). Isn’t violence, super heroes and what it says also really problematic for women? It’s another provocative gross generalization that I don’t think is all that helpful.
I am sorry that you disagree with me (and I with you) about what stories parents should tell their children. While I don’t know that I’d tell my daughter the some of the same, re-worked stories again, I also don’t regret the stories I’ve told her. Moreover, I would tell her Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel and The Little Mermaid in their earlier versions again. And, I do think that more parents need to act in resistant ways to the dominant culture. For me, resistance to a mass culture that sexualizes women or that says men must beat up other men is normative for Christians, what resistance looks like will differ from family to family, which is perhaps why you are sensing a sort of back and forth between normative claims and “each family to their own.”
You are totally right that feminists would have a field day with my gender-directed fears. I’m not saying that violence in some abstract sense is ok for girls or that the hyper-sexualization of women is ok for boys, simply that my concerns end up very gender specific in ways I wouldn’t have imagined prior to having kids. Nor was my comment an attempt to be provocative. The statement was both an observation and a confession of a mother fascinated by her own tendency to think in gender-specific ways, wondering if part of why I’m not troubled by physical maiming or death in stories that my daughter hears has an underlying, gender-based practicality in it: my daughter shows no interest in violence or acting out violent narratives and my son shows no interest in having big hair, wearing make-up, or sleeping till awoken by a kiss. My point is simply that I wonder how much my own gendered experience and the interests of my particular children shape my mothering practices and the stories I both tell and keep from my children.
I am very guilty of not realizing the huge cultural impact Frozen was making on the pre-school set when I wrote the original post in 2014. At that time, my image of Disney Princesses was shaped entirely by the rows of “Disney Princess” merchandise at various stores and Ana and Elsa had not yet made it into that pink-edged grouping of famous damsels. It still bugs me that, when Disney responded to parents’ calls for better role models for little girls, they didn’t rethink the visual along with the narrative. Frozen is a step in the right direction and many of our friends’ kids love it, but the film continues to present a problematic aesthetic.
All that said, I have found our exchange over these 10 months interesting and it has, for me, illustrated the the way that stories keep showing us new things: I had not thought through some of these fairytales so specifically or on an adult level in a long time, and I was surprised by what they offered me anew.
All the best as you negotiate these issues within your own family context and social circle.
Thanks Jessica, I’ve enjoyed our back and forth. You’re clearly a caring and thoughtful parent. Best to you
One last thing I meant to say but neglected to: I appreciate your concern for the significance of what is heard and not seen. This seems to me one of the great emphases of the Reformation and you’ve articulated it quite well. We don’t need images but can hear the truth and respond accordingly. Actually, what you’ve said is a great testament to that. I think Zwingli and Calvin would be happy with that, as am I.
My niece likes my little ponies however I was just thinking the same thing about their new image it’s terrible how so many things are portraying sex and sexiness to our young girls and boys it’s an attack on children and innocence. A devilish way to make children’s self image seem like it’s never good enough , you are to fat, your hair is not long enough, your not pretty. WTH I thought children are supposed to be what they are children, there should never be any association with sexiness and a child it’s the lowest form of our society. And it’s being pumped subliminally through what seems to be just innocent cartoons.
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