The Disney Dilemma just won’t go away and we seem to be stuck with the unrealistic expectations of gallant saviors and narrow gender binaries.
As a I step-mom myself, I wonder if can we do something about the depiction of evil step-parents? Throw in Barbie dolls and GI Joe and what’s a parent to do?
While it’s tempting to ban all toys and media that send a distorted gender image to our kids, it would be impossible, unless you were going to raise your kid in a tall tower with no access to the outside world. You know, like Rapunzel.
An outright ban will do nothing but make those the most coveted toys and shows in the world. Not to mention the fact that banning them does nothing to help your child learn how to navigate the complex messages they are being fed about gender and relationships.
Neither does railing against them to your children. In your own mind, fine, rail away—but every single instance of the Disney Dilemma that you find yourself in is a teaching opportunity that can help your child develop into an adult with a more expansive idea of what it means to be fully human, and skill at dismantling the expectations that society places on us.
Yelling about how awful it is only teaches your kids that you don’t want to have a dialoue about hard things that displease you? Bad idea.
Case in point: yesterday, a friend of mine asked for help with an Ariel moment. Her young daughter had put on a mermaid costume and was standing in front of the mirror picking at all the ways that she was “wrong.”
The first thing I told her was to remember that a very young girl does not bring with her all of the baggage and understanding of body image that we have as adults—so don’t give her yours. It is unlikely that she was thinking, “My hips are too big and my boobs too small,” which is the kind of internal dialog that many of us have and worry we will give to our children.
But if you point that out to her, it could be one of those, “Oh, am I supposed to worry about that?” moments—like when they fall and look up to us to see how we react.
If we react with fear, they assume they are hurt and something bad happened. If we brush it off, they do too. If we stay open and present with them, they assume it’s safe and okay.
She was literally comparing herself to a cartoon and realizing that she wasn’t very much like a cartoon after all.
Don’t react with fear and don’t add drama to the situation. Don’t give them baggage they don’t need. But do engage them in their line of questioning. (Trust me, as the situations get more intense than mermaid misalignment, you’ll be glad you practiced this kind of communication.)
My advice to her was fairly simple and might lay the groundwork for a basic understanding of fact from fiction—as well as gender and relationships.
1. Explain that it is fiction.
It’s what happens in the imagination, and that is a place where anything is possible. Mermaids can sing (and even exist!)—but it isn’t real. Explain to your child that how they look isn’t “wrong,” it’s just real life. Explore all the differences and all the similarities between her and Ariel—or Spiderman—or whatever it is your son or daughter is fixating on.
> Have them draw pictures of animals and people and compare them to how real animals and people look.
> Explain to them that in their imagination (fiction), you can make things however you want them to be, which can be a fun way to explore what the world could be like. Ask them to “imaginate” their perfect world and what would be in it. That’s a great way to validate their ideas, and plant the seeds of agency and self-determination. Ask them, “What could you do to make the world more like that?”
> You can take this a step further and ask them what they like about the characters they see, and find the ways they are similar. “I like how curious Ariel is.” Or, “I like how funny Sebastian is.” Also, help them find things they don’t like and talk about how not to be like that. This startes to teach them different ways of looking at people and situations for what they are, rather than what “we” think they should be.
> You can and should do the same with almost everything that your kids see in magazines and on television. You should remind them that men don’t look like Abercrombie and Fitch models, women don’t look like Victoria’s Secret models—and no character in a television show or movie is any more real than Ariel, even though they aren’t actual cartoons. Expose them and teach them this young so that they never internalize the skewed media messages that they are bombarded with.
As your children grow and get more exposure to advertising, mass media, fashion and pop culture, you will have already planted the seeds of how to critically analyze the messages, and figure out what empowers them.
2. Don’t demonize anything.
As hard as this is, when we demonize things like Barbie (which is really easy to do), we plant the seeds of shame.
Having been raised by feminists in the 1970’s, I know that I felt bad about my deep desire to shave and have painted nails. Sounds stupid, I know.
But because I was so steeped in the idea that all of these “girlie” things were “the man’s” way of oppressing me, I felt deep shame about my love of them. Fast forward to my 40’s; I can throw around barbells that weigh more than I do, with a perfect manicure. And I put bling on my lifting shoes.
We need to not teach our children that “real” men and women fit any particular mold. Even as we critique swimsuit models, be careful not to say “real women” don’t look like that.
Use language like, “Only some women look like that,” and find other examples of more diverse body image. And, “Not all men are professional athletes or billionaires.” Some are. But some are scientists and poets and chefs. We are all real. (Though none of us are mermaids with perfect singing voices.) The message here has to be one of agency.
You can choose how you want to dress, walk, talk, act. You can pick and choose things you see in the world around you, whether fact or fiction, to create a you that you want. But you have to know the difference between what is real and what is fantasy, that can never happen.
Additionally, when you demonize the choices that others make about their presentation, you create a space in which your kids will think they have to please you, or else you will shame them too. That’s not what you want—you want your kids to feel safe talking to you about themselves, and their peers. Staying open with them as they sort through these things is the first step towards building an environment in which they feel like they can talk to you without repercussions, and without feeling like they need to protect other people from your judgment.
If you want to get spy-like about it, you want to stay on the inside, so that you always have the scoop. So pick your battles; criticizing someone for how they choose to dress or do their hair or the music they listen to is not worth it. Criticizing someone for actions that are irresponsible or harmful is totally worth it. Barbie being a boobie bimbo is not worth criticizing. Ariel giving up her voice to get a guy to notice her? Totally worth criticizing. Actions, not appearances.
3. Focus on adjectives and actions.
It is easy to get caught up in what things and people look like—this gets really messy when we start thinking about gender: “Boys are strong.” “Girls are emotional.”
We don’t want that, at all; we need to start raising children who look beyond the wrapping and instead focus on what really makes us who we are—the things we do and feel.
Yes, you can use Disney for this. Or any movie. Or their friends. Rather than “Ariel is pretty,” you can help your child figure out that Ariel is adventurous, bored and maybe feels like no one is paying attention to her.
> Ask your child if they can relate to any of that. Ask them if they know other kids who seem that way. You will likely get a list from them that is both boys and girls. Congratulations, you’ve just started the work of helping them learn that boys and girls all have the same range of emotions and personality traits, we are just different at different times. And not because we’re boys and girls, but because of the way our lives are working at the time.
> Ask your child to list activities they like to do and find characters who do them too. Again, you’re likely to get a gender diverse list.
> Ask your child to list things that other people do that make them feel good, or bad. This gets them focusing on personality attributes rather than appearances, and will serve them well as they get older and have to pick and choose their friends.
I’m the first person to admit (and in private, with my adult friends, bitch loudly) that the media our kids are exposed to is garbage. It just is—it’s crap. But it’s also real and omnipresent.
We can’t ignore it—instead, we have to teach them how to navigate the messages. Hiding it from them is probably the worst thing you can do, because you’ll unleash them into the world with no clue how to use and interpret the information that is flying at them from all directions.
Teach them to identify what matters, and to celebrate the way people are all different. When we look at differences, there is room to look at how things are different, how those differences impact our lives, where the differences exist, and why. That shows us how tightly woven the fabric of community is, and how our behavior makes the world around us better or worse, for everyone.
Those differences are what give us a complete, if complex, understanding of the spectrum of human expression. And hopefully, we learn that all people are shy sometimes—as well as scared, happy, sad, excited, brave and the list goes on. That we all have different strengths and weaknesses, which vary at times throughout our lives.
But that our shared humanity, the things we want and need, is pretty similar, regardless of appearance, gender, orientation, race or anything else.
A simple “Barbie’s a bimbo” just doesn’t give us that. And it doesn’t create an environment in which your children will feel safe exploring who they are and their feelings.
One last anecdote. When my 15 year-old was born, someone gave us a copy of The Rainbow Fish. I have never been so tempted to burn a book (except a book of Sudoku puzzles, because those things are torture!) If you haven’t seen it, it is a beautifully illustrated story about a fish with rainbow scales that were different from all the other fish in her new school. Because she was different from all the other fish, the other fish made fun of her. So, she decided to remove the scales that made her special, and give one to each of the other kids in the school, until they were all the same, and then she fit in and had friends.
I almost fucking cried reading it. I loved the illustrations, so I went through and re-wrote the whole book and pasted a new story in.
In my story, the rainbow Fish helped each of the other fish figure out what was special about themselves. Each fish remained totally unique, but knew what made them special, and could appreciate what made the other fish special too.
Don’t let your child give up what makes them special; teach them to find the special in everyone, free of expectations.
The job of childhood is to explore the world around them in order to figure out who they are; your job is to make that exploration as safe and interesting as possible so that they can fully actualize for themselves.
Let your child dress up like Ariel if he or she wants to. Explore the difference between fantasy and reality. But focus on actions, and tell them to let their voice be heard, always.
Or at the very least, make sure they know that you are listening.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise