This past weekend I attended a girls’ “glamour” birthday party with my 6-year-old daughter. It was supposed to be “Pink Perfection,” but that largely depends on your definition of Pink, and ultimately what you consider Perfection.
There were lots of differently-hued pink things, plus a veritable smorgasbord of sparkle and lace. Hair/spray, make-up and nails were expertly applied from a lavish table resembling an 18th-century vanity.The girls drank pink lemonade out of crystal wine goblets and cheers-ed like they were “fancy.” And lastly, there were marshmallows, pink cupcakes piled dizzingly high with teeth-decaying neon pink icing and decorative high-heeled short bread cookies with lace silver balls ... oh my!
And then a poor imitation Hannah Montana arrived with her microphone and Boom Box. One of the girls, a vocal 5 year old, ran up to her mom, my friend, and loudly exclaimed, “Mommy, Mommy, ‘Hannah Montana’ is here!!!! Only it’s not *really* her, she’s a fake, Mommy!”
The mom and I laughed and proceeded to exchange stories about the character parties we had alternately attended and hosted for our daughters over the years. And so the critique began.
The first children’s character party I had ever attended was a Disney-endorsed Ariel Mermaid Party hosted by one of our good friends. I had never been to a themed children’s party before and therefore I had no expectations, that is, until Ariel arrived. To say that I was struck by the presence of this “real life” Disney character is an understatement.
And then she sang! Not only did she look like a vision in a dream with her fiery red hair and sparkly turquoise mermaid tail, she actually sounded like one too! The parents were as mesmerized as the children were. I recall shaking her hand after the party ended and saying to her, “Wow, Ariel, you’re sooooo pretty!”
It was then that I vowed to do the same for my daughters.
Now, I have strong, highly opinionated views and mixed feelings about Disney, princess-culture, image-culture, body politics and anything that endeavours to infantilize and objectify women and sexualize young girls and women. Forget all of that whilst I proceed to tell you how I succumbed to Awesome Marketing and held not one, not two, but THREE Disney parties for my two girls over the course of three years.
Yes, me, the woman who loves fashion, but loathes many aspects of the fashion industry. Yes me, the mom who grits her teeth as she reads From The Book Of Disney while deconstructing the character of the Evil Step Monster and her so-called Ugly Stepsisters. Yes me, that mom.
The first Disney-themed party my husband and I held was Sleeping Beauty, when our daughter turned 4. Princess Aurora -- a tall, blonde striking woman --- arrived at our home and sang like a dream and acted and played with the children, while taking time to also read “her story” to them. This was followed by make-up and nail application for the girls, while the boys received fake tattoos. I suppose the boys could have received make-up too, but none chose this option.
The following year we booked Hannah Montana, who unfortunately did not show up appearing like the teenage sensation most of us would recognize, but as a 20-something woman who looked nothing like the pop star she was supposed to impersonate. Still, the children had a great time even though one of the boys decided that she wasn’t “real” -- there’s always one child -- and promptly pronounced that she was wearing a wig.
But what solidified my new found apprecation for real-life make-believe was the Snow White party we hosted the following year for my 3 year old.
When Snow White arrived, it was like I had once again been transported to Disney World. I had never been, but I imagine the experience would mirror what this young woman had done in our home. You know how in the movie Snow White talks like an angel? Well, this girl did, too. You know how Snow White has impossibly “white” skin with rosy cheeks and lips? Well, this girl did too. You know how Snow White sings and dances... It was, if you will pardon the expression, “magical.”
And this, dear reader, is the moral of the story.
If we take the wholesale approach and decry the evil cultural plot that is allegedly embedded in pink, we close ourselves off from such magical experiences. By contrast, if we simply jump in willy-nilly without awareness of the problems inherent in girl culture as it is sold to us, we too are setting ourselves up for disappointment.
The key is to be able to engage with the fantasy while being cognizant of the fact that a fantasy is what we're experiencing. (Much like the 5-year-old who can spot a fake, but can still enjoy the performance.) I feel absolutely comfortable with the fact that my girls and I can and should be able to do that.
So I tell my girls that yes, Snow White is very beautiful, and there is something -- a certain je ne sais quoi beyond the image cues that privilege her beauty -- that makes her “universally” beautiful. However, beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, colors and formats, and each of us has to decide that for ourselves while recognizing that inner beauty is equally important, if not more so.
I also tell my daughters that material goods are OK to enjoy, but it’s not so much about the getting than it is the giving, and being grateful for what they do receive materially or otherwise.
Which is why I’m not sure it’s enough to say that all Pink Culture is bad, per se, even when it's problematic. I think the “beauty” of experience lies in the experience itself, and the more we suppress personal experience in the hopes that we will be able to pre-empt or circumvent what “nature intended,” the more we court disaster. And yes, I agree that it is unlikely that “nature intended” for Barbie to be an anatomical aberration; however, I’m willing to let my daughters take the lead on what they fancy and what they desire. That said, you can be rest assured that I’ll be there every step of the way to ruin it for them.