DADS AND DAUGHTERS: Role Model Marketing
I have a daughter who just turned seven. Before she was born, I thought I had some idea of the issues involved in trying to raise her to be a strong, smart, capable, independent woman who could think for herself and make her own choices. I knew that body image could eventually be an issue, and that the sexualization of our culture would need to be dealt with at some point. I would need to help her learn that she need not be limited by others’ ideas of what is “proper” for her to do or be. I was not prepared for the thoroughness of gender-based marketing.
I should have been, I suppose. Looking back, even in my childhood, Saturday mornings featured commercials for “action” toys that starred only boys and other toys for “domestic play” that starred only girls. I owned one of the original 12″ G.I. Joe “action figures”–a phrase coined because boys supposedly don’t play with “dolls.” But I didn’t think much about all that at age eight. When I played with girls, I often played house. When I played with boys, I often played cowboys or war. It didn’t matter; we just played something that everyone agreed on.
I started to recognize the pervasiveness of gender-based marketing to kids when we were trying to buy baby clothes before my daughter was born. We deliberately chose not to know our baby’s gender before birth, and we tried to find clothes in gender-neutral colors. It was almost impossible. Every item of clothing for newborns is either pink or blue or, occasionally, white; I think we found one green and one yellow outfit in all our searching. Little did I know this was just the tip of the iceberg.
As our daughter grew older, she inevitably discovered Disney movies, both the classics such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and their modern peers: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and others. I have to admit that I was an accessory-before-the-fact: I enjoyed the music and animation in the newer Disney movies. As a single man I had never thought much about the messages their heroines might be sending to young girls. By the time I started to think about that, it was much too late–my daughter was into everything princess.
Sometime around the turn of the millennium, Disney realized the power of packaging their various princesses together in videos, books, toys, and almost anything else you can think of that children use. In her essay “Princess Dreams,”* Katherine Turpin explains her own history with Disney Princesses and her daughter, and discusses not only the pervasiveness of the brand in children’s lives, but how the messages of both consumerism and gender stereotyping can affect a child’s developing spirituality. One of the many interesting points Turpin makes is about the falsity of the relationship a child develops with a fictional character:
Children put enormous amounts of energy and investment in the lives and happenings of nonexistent persons. However, when children are in need of assistance or support, these relationships provide neither support (of a material or emotional variety) nor, in most cases, an example of agency to inspire young girls.
The constant stimulation provided by the ubiquitous nature of products such as the Disney Princesses leads to another problem: if something is not entertaining, it’s boring. I have seen this with my own daughter. Some days it is a struggle to get her to read, even if she is not interested in her toys. As Turpin says, “This emphasis on excitement … limits the perceived value of non-entertainment activities with children, many of which are critical for children’s spiritual development.” Things that help one grow, especially spiritually, quite often are not “fun,” but they are necessary, and it is our job as parents to provide such experiences for our children.
How do we combat the messages consumer products are giving to our children, and replace them with solid spiritual values? In particular, how do I, as a dad, show my daughter that she does not have to conform to the gender stereotypes conveyed by the stories behind her favorite toys, even though I have often in my life been guilty of perpetuating those very stereotypes? Turpin examines several possible strategies:
■ Fight Fire With Fire – “Here, watch some VeggieTales.” Products such as VeggieTales may have better messages and teach the Gospel, but they do nothing to fight the “it has to be entertaining” issue.
■ Abstinence – “Such-and-such product will never be found in this house.” The problem here is that such control ends at one’s front door, and the messages of consumer culture are everywhere. If children are attracted to it, they will find it, whether it can be found in their own house or not.
■ Contestation – “How could Character X make better choices for her life?” Talk to your children about what they are seeing. As Turpin notes: “This parental work is not in vain. Children’s interactions with the stories and iconic characters proffered by the media are deeply impacted by the values and responses of those who surround them.”
■ Forge Authentic, Noncommercial Connections – Make sure your child has the opportunity to create relationships with adults or adolescents who can be good role models themselves. These relationships can be found many places, but if they are found among the congregation they have the added benefit of having a spiritual component already present. Speaking of her daughter, Turpin says, “she knows the value of these relationships; they are connections with real people who call her by name and love her as she is.”
■ Change Social Policy Through Collective Action – Fight back. Work to create changes in the relentless marketing to children. Join groups that put pressure on companies to be accountable for the messages they send.
In my case, it’s too late to put the genie back into the bottle. Now I have to work to counteract my daughter’s devotion to all things Princess. There is hope: she recently announced that she wasn’t interested in the Disney movies so much anymore, that now she likes movies with “real people in them.” But the pull of the princess storyline remains strong. We constantly remind her that she doesn’t need anyone else to be what she wants to be as a person. I can only hope that if I tell her that often enough, with enough love behind it each time, she’ll remember it when the cultural pressure of marketing lures her with its siren song.
*Katherine Turpin, “Princess Dreams,” in Children, Youth, and Spirituality in a Troubling World, edited by Mary Elizabeth Moore and Almeda M. Wright, pp. 45-61, St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2008.