Sunday, November 29, 2009

Disney Princess Power

Although I take some shots at Disney, to my fellow parents, especially those with girls who are as into the princesses as my daughter, you have my respect; I am not judging your parenting or your view of this phenomenon. With that said...here goes...

I checked, and there’s no mention of a bikini in Hans Christian Andersen’s 1836 fairy tale, The Little Mermaid. Actually, the version the librarians were pushing at the Princeton Library had illustrations in which the mermaids bore their naked breasts—but they were gently veiled under their long flowing hair. Never mind that fish don’t suckle their young, and women don’t have fishtails—there was something natural about the whole thing. Disney’s little mermaid does not seem natural to me. The little shells covering her breasts and her perfect and quite bare torso make the Disney creation look like a tadpole mutation of a Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader.


This blog is going to upset some people and as I write it, I am considering changing my name. You see, I don’t want Mickey Mouse banging on my door at two am, telling me to mind own business. Mostly, I am afraid of my daughter’s reaction when she notices a slow but deliberate embargo on all things princess. I have no choice. Our house has been infiltrated by a tribe of eight well dressed and buxom royals. And, someone has to take a stand.

The eight of whom I speak need no introduction, but for those of you with boys or who have recently moved here from mars, allow me to introduce you to the Disney Princess Franchise: Belle, Ariel, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and new this winter, the first black princess (no, not in history, just Disney’s history) Tiana. To make the princesses a perfect 10, Disney will soon be adding Rapunzel and her long, Marsha Brady hair.

I am not going to delve into the curriculum vitae of these women. You probably know that some of them hung out in fairy tales long before getting higher paying jobs with Walt. I’m not interested in the plots of the movies or their message. Actually, I am, but right now, my oldest daughter doesn’t spend much time watching the movies or reading the books. Most of her exposure is in the form of sippy cups, lunchboxes, stickers, toothbrushes, jammies, dental floss, notebooks, slippers, patio chairs, sleeping bags, backpacks, calendars, cans of chicken noodle soup and any one of the other 25,000 items marketed under the Disney Princess Franchise. And, I have one question: why are all these princesses dressed like prostitutes?

Please don’t hate me. I am not talking about our kids—my daughter included, who love to dress up in Cinderella costumes, or who put on tiaras whenever they munch on Cheez-Its. I am talking about the princesses in the movies whose likenesses are slapped across so many objects designed for kids.

Two questions drove to me write this column. When did the princesses get so sexy and who at Disney thought it was a good idea.

When did the princesses get so sexy? The only article I could find that addressed this head-on was written by a film critic for the Deseret News, Chris Hicks, in 1996. That’s fourteen years ago, folks. Most of us were wearing flannel shirts and trying to learn the Macarena. But, do you remember a little Disney movie from 1988 called, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Chris Hicks thinks this ushered the way for the sexy animated princess. If you don’t remember Jessica Rabbit, you might want to take another look, and then realize that shortly after her successful appearance came another redheaded sexpot, Ariel, and the equally alluring and poorly dressed Jasmine and Pocahontas.

So, who at Disney thought these sexy princesses were a good idea? I would love to have been a fly on the wall when some animator showed a sketch of a size-zero figure falling out of a low-cut gown and they all shouted, “Yes! Sell that to the four year olds!”, but for now, the best we can do is look to the man touted as the creator of Disney Princess Franchise. If the proverbial buck stops somewhere, it might stop at Andy Mooney.

Was this man an artist, an animator, a children’s book author, a children’s psychologist, a parent of a small child? No. He’s the head of Disney’s Consumer Products Division and he’s a rainmaker. Legend has it, this former Nike executive was going to a Disney On Ice show when he noticed all the little girls in line wearing generic princess dresses. That was way back in 2000 when the disorganized princesses pulled in just $300 million. Now, thanks to Mooney and his commoditization of the princesses, it’s closer to $4 billion. Over the years and divided among the seven dwarfs and a few rouge pirates of the Caribbean, and it’s clear the per capita GDP in the Magic Kingdom rivals that of Luxembourg.

How did this kind of growth happen? Is it a coincidence that the packaging of the princesses and their sexy transformations came at the same time?

You might have forgotten that the princesses didn’t always look the way they do. Some are so new to Disney they have no history. But those like Cinderella, who have been with the company for more than fifty years, have clearly had work done. I know because I found Cinderella’s yearbook photos from 1986. It’s not her yearbook, exactly, but it’s a book I found in an old box given to me by a neighbor—a treasure of things her kids had outgrown. And, sure enough, there was a version of Cinderella—a flat-chested, brown haired maiden toiling in her evil stepmother’s house. No particular attention is given to her bosom, even when she marries the prince. And, yet, she and her hubby reportedly lived happily ever after.

There’s another thing I noticed about the illustrations in this old book: Cinderella never looks directly at the viewer. She’s in her own world—a fairy tale world—in which she and the story exist as something separate. Today's Cinderella is a platinum blonde and she looks directly at you, inviting you to cross from reality into fantasy—or perhaps—take fantasy into reality. I support creativity and imagination—I make my livelihood on it—but this manipulation of the princess gaze –in my mind---is part of the not so harmless reach Disney is making into the minds of our children.

You might stop me and say—wait, it’s the parents who actually buy these princess items—not the children. Or, if Disney weren’t doing something right, kids wouldn’t love these princesses. To which I say, perhaps Disney is tapping into our grown-up desire to be associated with beauty and desire. My four year old might not care one way or the other about Belle’s décolleté, but someone must: the decision makers in retail, the mothers who find the attractive princesses escapist, modern or fun, and the dads who don’t even notice anything is unusual because our world is inundated with such images from catalogues to pop stars.

And, if we do balk at the imagery, we are coaxed away from our second-thoughts by the messages Disney links with the brand. Find you inner Princess. Follow your dreams. We are reminded of the virtues the princesses supposedly represent: integrity, honor, discovery, friendship, and love. I know a lot of people find the traits and characterizations of the princesses refreshing. Some of the princesses are witty, funny, iconoclastic. But, at the end of the day, these woman are still dressed and drawn in a way that, to me, powerfully upstages their personalities.

If inner beauty and strength were the essences of these princesses, wouldn’t at least one of the 10 look more like Susan Boyle? It is this alignment of conflicting agendas that strikes me as most harmful: to say one thing, but reinforce another. Taken in small doses, and without the artificial messaging, the princesses could be a harmless aspect of playtime, a bit like birthday cake with grocery-store frosting. Every once in a blue moon, it’s indulgent and celebratory. But, nobody pretends the cake is good for you.

We are being told this cake is good for us, and good for our daughters. Not just for the 4-9 year old phase of their development, but for life. Disney has introduced a line of wedding gowns designed by Kirstie Kelly, for which grown women are pitched the idea that with these dresses, they can connect to “every girl's inner princess.” And with the right jewels and enchanting accents, you can “let your fairy tale begin...” Lest you think this fantasy for adults is only for young brides, Disney will be hosting a half marathon this March. Real life inspirations like the runner Deena Kastor are not needed when you have the kind of poetry found on their webpage,

“Mirror, mirror, reveal the One.
Show me the Princess who has the strength to run.”

And, guess what?  If you finish the race, you get your very own princess medal! 

Fantasy, at least the kind they are selling, seems to thrive on making little girls yearn for womanhood and women yearn for childhood. Finding one's inner princess has nothing to do with finding inner peace, it seems.

Let's move, if we can, to a comparison. What would be the boy equivalent to the princess franchise? Cars and pirates just don't seem to have the same power, but suppose Disney tapped into the societal pressure for men to be wealthy?

This seems a perfect counterpoint to the princesses theme of beauty and sexuality. Instead of Cinderella and the gang, boys will have a line called Rich Dudes, Financial Superstars. I envision a lunchbox with Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Jacob Astor, Larry Ellison and one or two wealthy princes from the Middle East. The Rich Dudes line of accessories would fill every boy’s life-style needs, and make simple sippy cups, jammies and coloring books come to life with images of safety deposit boxes, mansions and public institutions with “your name here”. Positive messaging will make sure boys remember to, “find their inner mogul,” and believe in their dreams of “financial domination.”

I know, this sounds crazy. But, unlike all of the princesses, with the exception of honorary princess Pocahontas, Rich Dudes, Financial Superstars is based on real people—who actually did find their inner moguls. It's less preposterous than the princess line. Still, we would never explicitly accept these images and slogans and champion them as good for our boys. Why do we do something similar to our daughters?

If you asked me if the Disney Princesses will harm my own daughters, I would say—yes—but maybe not directly.  37% of you agreed that the princesses might be harmful compared with 59% of you who said they were "over the top, but harmless."

I do believe that as a parent I have the power to offset Disney princess power. And, that is why I don't worry that my kids will be brainwashed by the occassional Disney princess stickerbook or sippy cup. But, the invasion of the sexy princesses into so many aspects of our life does worry me. I think it will harm my kids in ways I can't identify right now. I believe these images contribute to the culture that values women based on their appearance and willingness to flaunt their sexuality; a culture that often mocks and undervalues both female and male intellect, and one that makes older women despise their ageing bodies. 

I  admit that depending on the item, the princesses show more or less skin. (Compare the ad in the NYT for The Princess and the Frog in which Tiana's bosom is falling out of her gown to the more modest image on the Disney website). But, this inconsistency only adds to my skepticism.

I find no joy in standing outside this princess party and being the party-pooper. It makes me sad to feel this way. And, I understand why it is easier to say I am over-reacting or being a prude. I guess you could say I feel like Cinderella after the clock strikes midnight and her carriage turns into a pumpkin. It’s a long walk home.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Elephant in the Room

The elephant in the room this year is a pig, and its name is influenza. Yes, you guessed it; I’m talking about swine flu. Now before we go any further, you should know that I am not a doctor, and the sight of my own blood makes me squirm. But, there’s a long history of creative hypochondria on my father’s side, and I just discovered that my maternal great-grandmother didn’t believe in the use of vaccines. So, I’m in touch with the public’s mixed feelings about today’s topic.

Take the headline in the November 10th issue of the New York Times, Fearing a Flu Vaccine, and Wanting More of It. The article, written by Doctor Perri Klass, discusses the divided public opinion regarding the H1N1 vaccine: half the public desperately wants it and can’t get it—the other half thinks it’s unsafe. There are a few like me, who fear it could be unsafe and still desperately want it, but I guess I’m in the silent minority. You see, I have the unique ability to worry no matter what happens.

As I write this, my kids have each had one dose of the vaccine. When I found out my pediatrician had the H1N1 vaccine, but might run out of it, the social desire to “not miss out” over-rode everything else. But, I don’t know if they’ll be able to get a second dose. And, I don’t want to be cavalier about what it means to get sick.

My friend’s youngest daughter did get sick, experiencing a quick-moving case of swine flu that developed into pneumonia. Because of her history of respiratory issues, the child ended up in the hospital with tubes and an IV, while her older sibling endured and fought off the virus without complication.

The story illustrates one of the things that has complicated my, and many other people’s, reactions to the swine flu. It seems the illness can be relatively mild—no more virulent than the seasonal flu—or it can be serious. And, sometimes, according to Dr. Klass’s article, it’s hard to know which sick child will get better and which will get worse.

My friend did know, however, because of something rooted in biology: maternal instinct. According to Webster.com, maternal instinct is something that is not in the dictionary. It would be nice to think they were waxing philosophical, but they meant it literally: it isn’t in the dictionary. So, I went to Wikipedia and discovered maternal instinct is the bond that forms between a mother and her child. Ah, now I know.

My friend’s maternal instinct led her to research the swine flu long before it hit her daughters’ school. She knew asthma put her child at high risk, so she’d asked questions and developed a plan weeks before her daughter wheezed and collapsed in her arms. And, I have a feeling, she’d thought about the drive to the hospital well before she drove it.

We all know what it’s like to wonder—do we page the doctor—do we go to the hospital—do we wait it out or do we make our move. My friend’s advice: Follow your instinct. She said she’d rather have had to tell people she’d overreacted than tell them they’d waited too long and missed an opportunity.

In the poll last week, 40% of you said with the talk of the seasonal and swine flu you have, “kept on trucking”, while 45% of you have, "thought about avoiding certain activities but so far, kept your schedule." Only 3 % of us (and I say “us” because we must all be related to have answered this way) say you’ve, "avoided some actives, when convenient."

I asked this question about behavior because I was interested in how we moms deal with an atmosphere of uncertainty and mixed messages in our actual day to day life. What do we do when we’re told we have a national emergency but, oh, don't panic? From your answers, it looks like you’re navigating these waters pretty well.

For a while, it felt like we were being hit with a barrage of fear mongering-- the headlines, the television news teasers. It really only came down to two things: if a vaccine is available, are you going to get it, and if your kid gets sick, how will you monitor their progress, or lack of it, fighting off the illness. Those two issues were things to prepare for and we moms have the innate tools to do it.

The maternal instinct is strong and loud---as long as the white noise of the crowd uses an indoor voice now and then.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Bonus Post: A word from the doctor.......

Please note: The following post is best read after reading the one that precedes it chronologically: Psycho-Sitter.

The post on Psycho-Sitter prompted many comments and I am so grateful to you who shared your experiences. You’ve given us all more to think about and perhaps prevented us from getting into similar situations. My friend, an assistant professor of psychology, saw the post in terms of her own field of study. I used the term Psycho-Sitter mostly because I liked the alliteration, but it was, of course, not technically accurate. Here’s an armchair analysis of the sitter from the doctor, who emphasizes that this is only speculation. It’s interesting, though, especially as we all search for the best way to select the right people to care for our kids. And, of course, this kind of study of human behavior is always fun.  

Although several theories about personality exist, one of the most popular approaches is the “Big 5” (e.g., Costa & McCrae, 1992) which characterizes an individual’s personality on 5 primary factors. Of course to get a reliable assessment, an individual would need to complete a personality inventory, which could have tens to hundreds of items on which they rate their behaviors. So this “assessment” of Psycho-sitter should not be considered reliable or valid, but it is fun to speculate.


1. Openness: in short, this factor characterizes people as being open to new experiences and creative…or not. A typical item might be “I have a vivid imagination”. Psycho-sitter assessment: Low. A vivid imagination would have resulted in finding some (any) way to entertain Ava.


2. Conscientiousness: people who are high on this factor are always prepared, pay attention to details, and are self-disciplined. Psycho-sitter assessment: Low. Lawrenceville, NJ is not a big place…but if she was conscientious, she would have been sure to bring the directions just in case.


3. Extraversion: people high in extraversion are sociable, enthusiastic, and full of energy. Heidi must be high on this scale. I bet she is fun to be around. Psycho-sitter assessment: Low (but quick to judge those who are high).


4. Agreeableness: people who are high on this factor are polite, compassionate, and empathetic; people who are low tend to insult others (or their children, in Sarah and Heidi’s case), so Psycho-sitter seems to fall more on the disagreeable end of this factor.


5. Neuroticism: people who are high on this factor tend to be emotional and easily stressed. They may become frustrated easily. My friend was hesitant to rate this one—not having met the subject, but I would say the sitter frustrated easily and was easily stressed, which ranks her High in this category.







Sunday, November 15, 2009

Psycho-Sitter

Psycho-sitter arrived fifteen minutes late and said, “I…didn’t…bring the directions.” She repeated the phrase three times and then stared. After a confusing silence, I realized what she was waiting for: me to apologize to her.

Was I supposed to say, “I am sorry I didn’t remind you to bring the directions,”? I had emailed them a week before and she’d used them for our initial interview. Her being late didn’t upset me, but I was tired and eager to hand off Ava so I could nap. This was before our week with sleep consultant Meg Zweiback, and I really, really needed to sleep.

“Well, thanks for being here,” I finally said, leading her to the den. “Ava didn’t get much sleep last night, so she’s a little cranky. But, you guys can play down here for a while.” I left them with some Goldfish crackers and a sippy cup and said I needed to take the dog for a walk before I headed upstairs. Ava cried out when I said good-bye, but I did what I always do when I leave her with a sitter---got out as soon as possible and hoped she wasn’t crying when I returned.

She was crying when I got back from the dog walk, but I sneaked up the steps and hit the bed. They’ll be fine, I told myself, closing my eyes. I waited. Then I heard a scream.

I went downstairs and found them as I’d left them. Not a single toy had been displaced. They both stood by the baby gate as if in prison. Yes, even the sitter.

A crying toddler is hard on a mom, but surely harder on a new sitter. “Don’t take it personally,” I said, deciding to make the most of the day. “Let’s do some errands.” I did need to mail something at the post office. It was rather important, actually: a letter from our pediatrician getting me out of jury duty. He’d made Ava sound like a hyperactive chimp with a staple gun, but still, it was my best hope. We’d already played the lactation card with my first daughter. “There’s a park not far from the post office. You guys can play.”

Before we could leave, I had to find my keys. I held Ava on my knee while I dug through my diaper bag, which today turned out to be a bottomless pit of plastic straw wrappers. The baby sitter stood by. She didn’t offer to hold Ava, or distract her, she just stared. How do I describe her glare? Would you call me paranoid if I said her look conveyed disgust, as if I were a druggie scraping a trashcan for some leftover Chef Boyardee?

But, then came her question, which bothered me more than her glare. “Has she ever had a baby sitter?”

It would have been logical to blame the tears on separation anxiety if the sitter had been doing her best to cheer Ava up. But from what I’d observed, that was not the case. I took a breath and said the truth, “Actually, she’s had a sitter once a week for her entire life.”

In the car, I asked the sitter about her life at college and her plans to study abroad. At one point the conversation came back to my older daughter, whom the sitter had met briefly at our first visit, but who was now in school. “I’ve never met such a headstrong four year old,” she said. I thought about their first meeting. Heidi had insisted on wearing a princess dress when they went for a bike ride. Not recommended if you’re doing the Tour de France, but acceptable if you still have training wheels. Interesting, I thought to myself.

I parked next to the Post Office, a few yards from a little park with a gazebo. I reminded the sitter that Ava didn’t have much judgment around cars or pebbles —the one she’d chase, the other she’d eat—so to keep a good eye on her.

When I came back, Ava was circling the gazebo.

“She would not stay still, so I had to hold her hand the entire time,” the sitter said, sounding taxed.

I loaded Ava into the car and started to think about how I was going to handle the remaining hour of babysitting time. When we got home, I had a plan.

“Thank you so much for your help today,” I said, “let’s call it a day.”

That night, I felt like a very unhappy person had been in my home---judged my kids—and my parenting—explicitly and implicitly—and got paid for doing so. And, I’d lined up this sourpuss for the entire semester. How was I going to get rid of her?

My cousin suggested I tell her we were in witness protection and being relocated, or better yet, that the kids were a hoax, just rentals. But, I decided to take the straightforward approach and send her an honest but polite email.

I told her I assumed she was too professional to quite a job once she’d started and I hoped I hadn’t prevented her from pursuing another offer, but it was probably pretty obvious that we weren’t a good fit.
She emailed back to say my email was ambiguous. Henceforth, she has been known in my mind as psycho-sitter.

Did she need me to tell her she was a terrible baby sitter? That she’d offended me, terrified my youngest kid and misread the eldest? Did she need me to remind her that she was late for the job—because of her own actions—and had not even bothered to say a perfunctory, “Hey, sorry about being late,”?

I wanted to amend my previous ambiguity by laying it all out in black and white, but I was too afraid of psycho-sitter’s style of combat. I took the high road once more, and said despite the ambiguity, she’d probably interpreted my email correctly; thanks again, but no need to come anymore. She can think I’m a disorganized zombie with incorrigible children for the rest of her life. At least I don’t have to see her again.

When I was in my twenties and pounding the pavement in NYC, I worked for a woman who ran a temp agency. I was her temp, in fact, and she’d taken me on as her personal assistant. She was a wealthy woman with a lot of power and the ability to live eccentrically. I spend most of the time sitting next to her in town cars, jotting down notes, typing and retyping letters, never proficient but always willing. When her terrier needed a baby sitter, I got him one. When the same dog needed to fly to the Caribbean on a chartered jet instead of in a crate in cargo, I understood.

I won’t say we moms are CEO’s, because the analogy is misplaced, but we run our households and we call the shots. I now realize what earned me a spot as L’s personal assistant: I never judged her.

What bothered me about psycho-sitter was that judging seemed to be all she was prepared to do. Instead of soothing, she looked for a reason for Ava’s tears. Instead of cheering a princess on a bike, she judged the mindset. And, instead of apologizing for being late, she looked to blame.

I have wonderful baby sitters. Rachel, who comes with a flower in her hair, who once looked at me as I headed out the door and said confidently, “I think I should tell you your blouse is unbuttoned. You have a job interview, right?” And, Samantha, who enters the chaos of our house and leaves it more peaceful, never missing a beat when I ask her to drive the kids, or help in a “poopy-emergency”. These sitters are a meaningful part of our lives.

Psycho-sitter apparently expected the household to be in perfect order when she arrived. If that were the case, I’d never need a sitter.

Although I know most of us are grateful for our wonderful baby sitters, I'm sure a few of you have similar stories to share. Please post a comment and let us know what happened and how you handled it.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Why Do They Call It Free Time When I Have to Hire a Baby Sitter in Order to Get It?: Workout tips the parenting magazines might not tell you

With the holidays approaching, I thought it might be nice to share some fitness and wellness tips the parenting magazines won’t be featuring this season.

For me, Yoga is the best physical and mental break from the rigors of being a mom and it's something I can do at home. Interestingly, whenever I do downward dog, my golden retriever immediately starts humping my leg. So I’ve tweaked my home practice and now stretch while I fix my children’s dinner. The twenty-five seconds I have while microwaving their hot dogs is truly the most peaceful part of my day.

For a lower body workout, there’s the laundry stairmaster. This requires a great amount of patience and is not recommend for those of you who like clean socks. It’s essential that you DO NOT do laundry for an entire week, longer if you have the stamina, and then plunge into an intensive fifteen load marathon. The frequent trips up and down the steps will have your glutes burning. Bonus points for those with a washer in the basement. And, kudos if the jeans need extra time.

If you’re not afraid of a high-impact aerobic workout, here’s a routine I do just before leaving the house. This works best if you’re already running ten or fifteen minutes late and is guaranteed to make you break a sweat. Simply get the kids dressed and ready to go and then realize you can’t find your keys. Everyone then breaks into a frenzied search, making at least three trips through the entire house until you remember you left them in the front door. You’ll want to get a heart rate of at least 111 beats per minute to achieve maximum benefit.

Although I don’t recommend fad diets, if you’re in a pinch, I suggest the, “I’d rather eat cardboard” plan. This was created by doctors and was initially used by nursing moms whose babies had allergies. The nursing mom is asked to eliminate particular triggers from her diet, especially items often referred to as food. What's wonderful about this diet is that you can buy whatever you want as long as you limit your intake to the cardboard packaging. Believe it or not, the box from Kashi’s Oatmeal Raisin Flax Cookies has more oat flavor than the cookies inside and significantly fewer calories.

If you’re thinking of wearing a sleeveless dress at New Year’s, there is still time to get toned arms like the first lady’s, especially if you enjoy frequent trips to ShopRite. All you need to do is carry a twenty-five pound toddler in one arm and a Butterball turkey in the other. Let’s face it, neither wants to ride in your grocery cart. Although it’s cold, the frozen turkey will be a very cooperative counterpart to your fidgety child.

And, of course, Tai Chi is a wonderful stress-reducer, especially when you find yourself stuck waiting in line. Many Americans are unfamiliar with this ancient Chinese practice, so don’t be discouraged if folks ask you questions or give you a little extra personal space. I found that once I explained what I was doing, the security guard at Sam’s Club was actually very helpful.

Needless to say, your husband will try to be supportive of your goals and will probably mention that sex, too, burns calories. Three hundred. Per hour. If I had that kind of free time, I’d be at the gym.