And Jill came tumbling after. Why? Purging sexist kids’ stories.

September 22, 3017

I am Bunny

My mother has always been on the verge of serious hoarding. “Don’t throw that away! It might be worth something someday!” I heard that a thousand times. When Cozy was born, I was grateful. Stuff my mom had held onto for 50 years started to come our way, including my 1960s Batman sweatshirt. And a ton of kids books. Each one zapped my brain backwards. I just have to open I Am Bunny, and I’m sitting on my mommy’s lap, fascinated by the artwork and stories. And my mom read to me a lot.

I was excited to introduce Cozy to my love of books (Thanks, Mom!), so I wasted no time reading to my daughter. I took about two seconds to realize that the message that this father was sending to his girl was dramatically different than the one that my mother had sent to her boy. On the one hand it was exciting to see these books sold for only 39 cents when I was little, but on the other side the messages about gender were heartbreaking. From the time when Donald “Dotard” Trump thought America was “great.”

Scary Mom

Many of the stories are a continuation of the fairytale traditions from Hans Christian Anderson where some damsel in distress or dainty princess has to be rescued by a dashing prince. So much of the classic Disney filmography is rooted in this sexist trope that has, thankfully, been exploded by Frozen and Moana. These two movies mean so much to Cozy and now I understand why. (Mulan had too much fighting. “I don’t like this, Daddy. Turn it off.”) More of these books followed the domestic dynamic of the mid-century model. There’s mom in the kitchen. A legion of my friends reminded me how messed up the Berenstain Bears books are when you read them through a gendered lens. The same is true for most of the books by Richard Scary and Dr. Seuss. (But I still have a soft spot for Cindy Lou Who.)

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Even more books are just male-driven stories. How can my daughter find herself in Where the Wild Things Are? The imbalance really hit me when I was reading Cozy a book called Jumping. It’s about how much boys love to jump. Seriously. I grew up reading the adventures of the Hardy Boys. Will Cozy be left with the Bobbsey Twins? Was Nancy Drew a feminist? Can we get a 21st Century reboot? I do not like green eggs and misogyny.

It became a real struggle to find a book in the boxes that were arriving that had a female character that was somehow equal to the males, let alone in the lead role. Cozy was getting that in her contemporary cartoons, like Disney’s Elena of Avalor and PBS’s Peg + Cat. It was time to update my girl’s library. So we took a walk up to Green Bean Books.

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Cozy loves any store that has a “kids’ section.” She appreciates any space that is carved out for “kids not people” (adults are “people” – we have to work on that one). Green Bean is all kids’ section and she loves the feeling that it’s all there for her. (Wait, I’m smelling the seeds of a generation gap.) When I asked for a storybook for a three year-old, the clerk had the perfect recommendation, The Princess in Black. Cozy set down her book about dinosaurs and grabbed the book, plopped down on the little sofa and pretended to start reading.

Princess

The Princess in Black is a five-part series by Dean Hale and Shannon Hale. It follows the adventures of prim and proper Princess Magnolia who sneaks into her broom closet to become… The Princess in Black; a superhero who fights monsters. Cozy loves both princesses and superheroes. (Ask her to do her Spiderman imitation.) Seeing her respond to this book was fascinating. It’s 15 short chapters, cleverly crafted, that we’ve read pretty much every night since we got the book. She’s got the whole story memorized and has even picked up on hints that our superhero may get a sidekick in future volumes – the Goat Avenger (aka, the mild mannered Goat Boy).

It was almost like a shock to the system after all these books about male characters, including Richard Scary’s male bunnies, to have a female-driven story. It must have been like women 200 years ago reading a Jane Austen novel for the first time. (I’m not equating The Princess in Black and the Mysterious Playdate to Pride and Prejudice, but I kind of am.) As a male, I could read all these male-driven kids’ stories to Cozy and not notice the impact of it all on her, as girls and women were pushed to the background (and draped in aprons). But three pages in to the PIB and I saw the shift. She has a place in the world of stories.

PIB Bounce

Of course, there is a debate worth having that this place is in occupying the traditionally male-dominated world of superheroes, which often relies on violence to solve problems.  The Princes in Black does open a can of whoop ass on a big blue monster. Sparkle kick! This is at the heart of the debate between liberal and radical feminists. Does gender equality mean that females should want half of the world that patriarchy created. When 50% of serial killers are females can we raise a toast and say, “Equality!” Or are their other ways of organizing ourselves that don’t don’t involve trying to beat men at their own game? As a parent of an evolving girl, I wrestle with this question. A female version of Trump saying she is going to “totally destroy” a nation of millions of people would not be progress.

Mother

For now, story time will be about a consistent messaging that Cozy will not be marginalized because she is a girl. Andrea has been reading her Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. My mother sent a new book about Frida Kahlo, Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales, that Cozy fell madly in love with. And I know that there are now tons of others out there. (Please feel free to make any recommendations.) Seeing how my daughter responded to this one book pierced a gaping hole in my male privilege bubble. It might be time to put The Cat in the Hat on the bottom of the stack. What would you do if your mother asked you?

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Cozy turns 3 in Fantasyland

August 22, 2017

“I like road trips.”

I can’t tell you how happy I was to hear my daughter say those words before our 990 mile drive to Anaheim, California to seek an audience with Minnie Mouse. My fondest memories of my family are all about loading my brother and I into the station wagon and hitting the road, often to Disneyworld in Florida. Later my dad bought a van camper (with a CB radio) and we would head off to visit my cousins in Colorado. Much of my childhood was spent watching America go by a car window, with stops at Howard Johnsons for ice cream. Andrea and I both love to hit the road, so if Cozy didn’t have the wanderlust gene we were screwed.

The baby was turning three and she was very clear about her desire to go to Disneyland and find Mickey, and Minne, and Elsa, and maybe Doc McStuffins.  It’s a never ending source of amazement watching her evolve into a fully formed person with her own opinions on everything. She spits out gold like Rumpelstiltskin with a haystack. “I gave a good idea. Why don’t you get me some ice cream and I’ll watch Frozen.” (This routine is worth it as the sugar rush is sure to inspire her death metal version of “Let it Go.”) She’s ready for adventure and whatever surprises the open road brings. As long as I pack her potty that is.

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So we hit the road. With a car full of snacks, an iPad loaded with The Secret Life of Pets, and stories of what awaited in Disneyland (“I’m going to see all my friends,” she said.), we took off on our last day of owning a 2-year-old. The first day was a 12-hour ride that took us as far as Stockton, California. The reward for putting up with mom and dad’s music (and Fabcast podcasts) was a giant pancake at IHOP.  When we woke up the next morning in our bleach soaked room in the La Quinta Inn, the rising sun was in the right position to blast through the peephole in the door, creating a cool effect on the wall. “It’s a rainbow hole!” she exclaimed. Our girl was three.

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We got into LA in time to hit the hot tub in our Hollywood AirBNB and meet some friends for an impromptu birthday party at the Hollywood Hard Rock Cafe. One our friends, former radio maven and current Disney queen Delia Rae Saldivar, brought a giant “3” balloon as a present, and Cozy roamed the Hard Rock with it. There was a cover band playing and Cozy went right to the stage (with her balloon) to watch them set up. I caught myself thinking, “She better be planning her own band and not a life as a groupie.” During a break in their 80s glam metal set, the guitarist took a moment to wish Cozy a happy birthday. “I wish I was three again,” he said. Then he dedicated “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” to my daughter, commenting that the song was about putting sugar on your cereal. Thanks, dude.

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Disneyland, the birthplace of princesses, is such a strange place. I was last there, at the original park, in 1969, when I was five. It really hasn’t changed much. But I certainly have. Part of the experience was like being five all over again. (The Peter Pan ride is exactly the same as I remember it.) But now I see it through a much different lens. Do all these people dressed in cartoon costumes get a decent wage with health benefits? Where were those Mickey Mouse ears made and by whom?  Child labor? What’s it like to be 62 and work in an amusement park? Does the It’s a Small World ride promote a colonialist view of the world? We were floating through the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, past the “wench auction,” and one of the guys behind us said, “We’ll take two and take them home,” to another guy. Their wives sat next to them. We took a picture of Cozy beaming in front of the statue of Walt Disney and posted it on Facebook. One friend posted, “Famed anti-Semite Walt Disney” and another commented, “Tear down that statue!” You can’t win.

But I wasn’t there for me or my political agenda. In 1989, I smuggled a quart of oil into the Disney Epcot Center in Orlando and dumped it into the fountain in front of Exxon’s Universe of Energy ride to protest their “propaganda” after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. So I was good. This was about Cozy. Although, I’ll admit, after a stroll through Fantasyland and the faces of kids from across the world, I was closer to five in my head than fifty. And even by the parking deck, Cozy was shining with excitement. We parked in Mickey, 5-G. “There’s Mickey!!”

MeetingM

What is this wonder? All things are new and magic is real. Her face was and endless expression of joy at every corner. This radiance. It’s intoxicating. And now she has the language skills to convey it. “I want to ride the tea cups and get dizzy!” We made our way to Mickey’s Toontown in search of her favorite mouse. The lines were pleasantly short so when she saw Minnie’s house, she knew we were close to pot of gold at the end of this thousand mile-long rainbow. When she finally entered Minnie’s living room and saw her in 3-D (instead of just on Mickey’s Road Racers), she about burst, immediately hugging the giant mouse like they were life-long friends. When we told “Minnie” that it was Cozy’s birthday, she got a big hug and kiss and Cozy was just pure bliss. There was even a birthday cake in Minnie’s oven that was surely for Cozy.

Mainstreet

Mickey’s house was right next door (begging the question about Mickey being a backdoor mouse). He was also quite wonderful to Cozy, who, after two-living legends embracing her, was ready to explode. All the nooks and crannies of the Magic Kingdom provided moments of happiness for her, especially the Enchanted Tiki Room. The day ended with the Main Street Electrical Parade. I saw the first parade at Disneyworld in 1972 and this was the parade’s final weekend. It hadn’t changed a lick. Same 70’s Moog soundtrack, Pete’s Dragon, and (my lost love – long story) Alice in Wonderland on a giant mushroom. Cozy’s face was aglow and when it was over, she cried. “All my friends are gone!” We’ll come back Cozy. I promise.

The following day, after some podcasting and lunch with a friend who animates at Dreamworks, we hit the road north, trying to beat the eclipse back to Portland. Cozy would wake up from naps, singing the Tiki Room song and saying, “I want to go back and see my friends!” The happiest place on earth.

Now we are home with our three-year-old who has lots to say about the world, but it’s a world where there is still magic and wonder. There are flying elephants and Cheshire Cats and submarines that will take you “down, down, down” to see Nemo. While she was too starstruck to talk to Moana, she hugged Pluto like he was her favorite pet And of course it’s a world where she is good friends with Minnie Mouse. I hope this world lasts for a while.

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August 22, 2016: I found a 2-year-old!

August 17, 2015: ¡Cozy turns uno! Happy first birthday to our daughter!

Note: A sincere thanks to the Saldivars, Chases, and Sullivans for helping to make Cozy’s birthday so wonderful. We’re lucky to have such good friends.

 

 

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The Princess Problem

Sept. 15, 2016

As a dad and a feminist, I don’t really know what to make of this princess thing. It’s a huge industry. (It would be ironic if it was just a “cottage” industry.) I didn’t notice it until I became a parent, but there a princesses freaking everywhere!  Want to take you daughter on a “Disney Princess Cruise?” Your son probably will skip that one for a roll in the mud. But there is a pushback against the “princess narrative,” so I’m trying to figure out how to fit my daughter into it and still keep a smile on her face.

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I know that I never played “prince” as a little boy and all the storybook princesses I knew just waited around to be rescued by Prince Charming. “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your damn hair!” One might guess the Brothers Grimm didn’t know many bad-ass chicas who could escape the castle on their own. Or maybe stories of heroines just didn’t sell in the early 1800s. The Nazis really loved those Grimm fairy tales, so that should tell you something.

The Brothers Grimm published Cinderella in 1812 so you’d think 204 years later this princess thing would be played out, right? Au contraire mon frère, it’s bigger than ever. Just take a trip to the “pink” isle at any toy store or the Help Wanted ads at Disneyland. “Help wanted: An anorexic girl to dress as Sleeping Beauty and smile for 8 hours a day in the Anaheim sun. Previous princess threw herself under a pumpkin.”

minnie

This gets a mention because suddenly one of my daughter’s precious vocabulary words is “princess.” I was hoping “theoretician” would come first, or even “OBG/GYN.” But there it is. “Princess!” with a squeal of delight. She has a CD from the Disney TV show Sofia the First and the good thing is that she learned how to work the CD player in her room so she could play it. (It’s playing as I write this and Cozy is dancing in her Minnie Mouse dress.) The bad news is these are the lyrics:

There are many things princesses do

Like hosting balls and dancing too

Or Wearing gowns of pink and blue

That’s what we like to do

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There are many things that princes like

Jousting polo and taking hikes

Suits of armour with lots of spikes

That’s what we really like

We do princess things

And we do princely things

And no-one crosses in between

We stick with our routine

Not very gender queer. To be fair, Sofia believes that anything can be a “princess thing,” but it’s an uphill battle, not a given that she’s already liberated from her princess routine.

The princess tales seem to fall into two categories, one is the girl born into royalty but the more common version is the peasant girl who is “lucky” enough to be launched into royalty. What’s better than being rich? And they are all hyper-heteronormative. How many little girls grew up singing, “Someday My Prince Will Come,” from Snow White, thinking the story ends when he (or a reasonable facsimile of Prince Charming) shows up. The fairy tale leaves out the part that after the “happily ever after” part when he’s banging the milkmaid and won’t even think about letting his “queen” take night classes at the kingdom’s community college.

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Little girls seem to think the life of a princess is all peach pudding and party dresses. Bud Light pitch girl Amy Schumer has a brilliant skit about the reality of the medieval princess forced into arranged marriages with cousins so she can get busy birthing male heirs to the throne. Every girl should see it before asking for a princess party for her next birthday.

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Earlier this week, Andrea and I were at the Disney Studios in Burbank visiting a good friend and pretending that Hollywood was ready for us. We stopped by the employee store to pick up some Minnie Mouse swag for Cozy. (It’s just too cute when she says, “Minnie Moush.”) When I saw all the princess dresses from all the Disney films I could just imagine our daughter exploding in screams. I resisted the urge to buy her a Belle dress and bought her an Incredible Hulk t-shirt instead. (Disney owns Marvel now.) But I know what she would really want.

Let me say Disney princesses have come a long way since Snow White. There are princesses of every shade these days, including Elena, the Latina princess. And Merida, from Brave, isn’t exactly a damsel in distress and didn’t even have a romance with a brutish boy. But if you survey the list of Disney princesses, they pretty much are all teenage girls who are awarded with a dominant male at the end of the tale. They are less passive than Sleeping Beauty but their goal is still to end up like a Mrs. Trump.  I’m going to encourage Cozy to avoid all that. The princesses tale is exactly what not to wish for.

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We’re not raising a demure princess in this house, looking for her Beast. She’s not a kitten who needs to be rescued from a tree. (As Ani DiFranco once sang, “Don’t you think every kitten figures out how to get down, whether or not you ever show up?”) If she wants to live in a palace, she can invent an app or something. But she can pretend to be whoever she wants to be. Who are we going to be today, Cozy? Ariel or Harriet Tubman? Oh, Princess Leia? We’re good.