The Princess Problem – Charlotte Ashley
Charlotte Ashley’s story struck several nerves with me, both as an author and as a father. (So much so that I can’t even bring myself to joke about Canadians inserting an extra letter U into every third word.) It’s another story that leaves me just sitting here saying, Yes. That. That’s exactly why this conversation matters.
Tomorrow’s guest post comes from Ada Hoffman, and delves into the portrayal of autistic characters.
I have never spoken to my daughters about race because I thought I didn’t need to. At least not yet.
We live a fairly privileged existence despite being a low-income, mixed-race family. We’ve carved out a small space in the heart of one of the most multicultural cities in the world, and what we lack in money I like to think we make up in education and community involvement. This is a neighbourhood without an obvious dominant cultural group, and my girls – who are 2 and 5 – see people of every colour in every possible context. We manage “screen time” very closely, and so to date my kids haven’t watched much television beyond Miyazaki movies and nature documentaries. We invest in educational and creative toys rather than “brands.”
In short, we have tried, perhaps naively, to create a sort of post-racial utopia for these kids, in the hopes of delaying the baggage that will inevitably come from being poor, female and brown. I have never spoken to my daughters about race because I thought that the surroundings we have chosen would speak for themselves.
That’s my excuse. I tried, but I was wrong.
I realized my bubble of utopia had failed when the kids and I were colouring pictures from a Melissa & Doug princess colouring book, which was a gift. Maggie, my 5-year-old, started hunting for the peach marker because she was colouring the skin, but it was nowhere to be found. There were plenty of other valid skin colours, but she was adamant that princesses can only have peach skin.
“Maggie, give me a break. What colour is your skin?” I asked.
“Brown,” she grumbled.
“Then here. Use this nice light brown.”
She would not be moved. “But it has to be the RIGHT colour!”
5-year-olds are huge on order. They want things to be the way they “should” be. Tigers are orange and have black stripes. Farmers wear overalls. Houses are all single-family detached and nestled in wide, green fields; forget our cramped, urban reality. Kids are big on symbolic representation. The symbol for a princess is a blonde white girl in a pink dress. So it’s a costume, right? One anyone would have to put on to do it right?
“Don’t you want your princess to look realistic?” I tested her. “Real princesses don’t look like that.” She knows this because we’ve looked at pictures of historical “princesses” from all corners of the world, trying to head off this moment.
“Yes they do,” she insisted. “My girl is going to have blonde hair like B.” Her blonde, blue-eyed friend down the street.
So, not only do princesses have blonde hair, they have the same hair as the little white girl. This isn’t simply a symbol, she is mapping the symbol onto her real-life experiences. If B were to be a princess, that would be right. If Maggie were, it would be wrong. Because she’s the wrong colours.
I don’t need to ask how this happens. I know very well she gets this from school, and from our friends’ houses. My friends are concerned about representation too, but as mostly white, middle-class families, they haven’t felt the same urgency to represent diversity in their own houses. They see their daughters playing with their dolls in cool ways (Barbie and Ariel: Demon Hunters) and that convinces them that what the dolls show doesn’t matter because kids make their own messages. But it does matter.
There is an idea out there that brown dolls are for brown kids, so that they can “see themselves” in their playthings. The same attitude exists in media – that we need diverse characters for diverse audiences. But kids notice that their toys are different from their friends’. To them, the one token black princess is an outsider, like the one girl Smurf. Kids don’t relish being the singled-out one. They don’t think being different is quite as cool as we do.
In time my daughters will will learn that there are many ways to be, and some day they will find their places as a freaky but funky iconoclasts and learn how great it is to be different, but we’re not there yet. They are still learning the foundations of their identities, learning their limitations. They’re learning they can’t hit other kids, can’t fly (sadly), and can’t hold their pee forever.
And they’re learning they can’t be princesses.
Representing diversity matters. I’ve been told engineers say “the solution to pollution is dilution,” and they’re right. Next time you pick a toy or a costume or a book, think twice about how you’re contributing to the culture. Got white kids? Get them a black doll. Diversity is for everyone.
Charlotte Ashley is a writer, editor and independent bookseller from Toronto, Canada. Her bookish ramblings can be found at http://charlotteashley.wordpress.com/.
February 13, 2014 @ 11:21 am
I do think there is a truth to the idea that we want toys to reflect who we are (and this extends to portrayals in movies, and books). But it works in multiple ways.
What character in Pacific Rim did I most want to be? Idris Elba’s! I’m not of African descent, but his character was awesome. I wanted to be HIM.
The apocalypse…is canceled!
February 13, 2014 @ 11:45 am
Interesting example, Paul. I wanted to be Mako Mori. Not because she was Asian (I’m white), but because she was the only female character with a large roll, and I find it easier to ID with women. I have friends who didn’t like Mako (for whatever reason), and had no women to identify with. IMO, Mako is the best (and Stacker Pentecost is pretty great too), but that movie fell on its ass when it came to women. Why wasn’t one (or both) of the Aussies women? Why not one (or both) of the scientists? Very default dude movie.
Now that I’ve potentially started monster movie wank in Jim’s comments:
Charlotte, really good article. I remember always colouring (EXTRA U, JIM!) Jesus black or brown back when I taught Sunday school, but was never sure it was getting anyone anywhere. There was so much other representation of him as a blond white dude. Still, historical accuracy is best started young. I imagine my sister will be having similar challenges with her upcoming sprog, especially not living in a multi-racial environment.
Jim C. Hines
February 13, 2014 @ 11:51 am
“I have friends who didn’t like Mako (for whatever reason)…”
The reason is because THEY ARE WRONG!!!
Sorry. I have Opinions about Mako.
February 13, 2014 @ 11:58 am
I am inclined to agree with you, and have been defending Mako’s character since I saw the movie three times in a row because it was AWESOME! (I could go on at length on this topic, and have).
However, the Secret Code of Feminism does not require all women to like every heroine presented to them.
Jim C. Hines
February 13, 2014 @ 12:01 pm
Of course. But the Not-so-Secret Code of Jim requires everyone to like Mako. OR ELSE!!!
February 13, 2014 @ 12:21 pm
LOL. Seems reasonable.
Michi Trota (@GeekMelange)
February 13, 2014 @ 12:25 pm
And now that essay I was scribbling thoughts on about Lynn Minmei from Robotech is fighting for attention because I’ve also been wanting to write about Mako. *shakes fist at Jim*
February 13, 2014 @ 12:27 pm
Thanks for writing this! I have two nieces going through similar phases. Extra hard in rural KS where they are the only brown kids for miles (their adoptive parents are white). Luckily it is a phase kids tend to grow out of, especially with supportive parents.
February 13, 2014 @ 1:14 pm
Oh my God! Robotech!! You have only brought my entire childhood back with that one. That series MADE me into a writer. I was barely 12 and I started writing down each episode from memory so I could hold on the awesomeness better. A year later, I had move d from copying down the latest episode and reading it aloud to my baby sister, to writing my own stories. I have never looked back.
Tina Smith Gower
February 13, 2014 @ 1:27 pm
Wow. As a parent this essay has really struck me. Thank you for this. I feel it has opened me a little more to the princess problem in our culture. When every little girl wants to be a princess (And it does feel like EVERY girl at times), and we hold it up as this precious wonderful thing. Mix this with kids’ developmental stage of identity, learning about differences, and categorizing = major cultural failure.
Michi Trota (@GeekMelange)
February 13, 2014 @ 1:33 pm
Me, too! I wrote a ridiculous amount of fan fic for it, especially after reading the Jack McKinney novelizations (some of which aren’t apparently canon anymore but they still are in my head). First cartoon series I can remember with LOTS of women, with a running storyline and GASP! not all the heroes made it through the series alive. To tie it into the Pacific Rim thing, I will beg GdT forever to make Robotech into a movie series after seeing what he did with Pacific Rim. With Idris Elba as either Breetai or Admiral Gloval and Michael Emerson as Exedore.
February 13, 2014 @ 1:40 pm
The Russian lady was pretty good too. For all of the no time she was in it.
February 13, 2014 @ 1:41 pm
“She would not be moved. “But it has to be the RIGHT colour!””
Well. Um. Yeah. I don’t think there’s anything I can say to this except that if it could, my heart would break at that.
February 13, 2014 @ 1:57 pm
I have to be honest, I almost lost my shit, but not in a good way. Mostly it’s really, really frustrating: like I did everything right. I have told you, shown you, and surrounded you with diverse role models. You KNOW princesses can come in all colours! What is the matter with you? My first instinct as a mother was to lash out and blame her for failing to “get it”. It’s my inner tiger mother. I wanted to force her to colour that princess brown, and to like it. Not my finest hour.
But I bit my tongue and took a few deep breaths, and talked her through it instead. Because it isn’t her fault, of course. I was/am just deeply angry that this nebulous thing we call “society” is stronger than I am, has more pull than I have, and doesn’t have a face I can punch. I want to bend the world to my will, and it’s hard when I can’t.
But this is why we write, right? (hur hur) Because I can control the world I create. I am God there, and it is a place where the princesses are black, and not only that, they blow up the castle and join the underground in order to stage la revolucion. I hope my daughter, and other people’s daughters, will read and become inspired.
February 13, 2014 @ 2:05 pm
I really liked her too! 80% of her characterisation was a combination of hair dye and body language, though. Then she got three lines. Then she died.
There’s no earthly reason why she couldn’t have had a bigger role, or Chuck and Herc couldn’t have been a Mother-daughter team, or there couldn’t have been a girl scientist (or, for that matter, that the scientists couldn’t have been gay).
As I said above, I love that movie, but I keep seeing it held up as this example of How To Do Diversity, when it had in major roles: one black man, one Asian woman, one Asian man, and six white men. In lesser roles that got speaking parts: One Asian man, one white woman, and another two white men. And a bullpup. Now, Stacker and Mako are, imo, the most interesting characters in the movie, and their relationship is my favourite part, so that goes a long way, but they’re still swimming in a sea of white dudes.
Michi Trota (@GeekMelange)
February 13, 2014 @ 2:13 pm
I enjoyed the movie. Stacker and Mako are really good characters. But I side-eye any claims that Pacific Rim is how you do diversity when 1) Smurfette Syndrome (I really wish we’d gotten MORE with the Russian couple and there were a shit ton of roles that didn’t have to be men) and 2) this is a movie paying homage to a largely-Asian genre: Giant Robots vs Giant Monsters, the setting is the coast of Hong Kong, and…. which team is the one that BARELY gets any lines, is touted as amazingly skilled with the latest tech available but is THE FIRST to get off’d? Yeah. That.
Jim C. Hines
February 13, 2014 @ 2:22 pm
I loved the movie, and (obviously) really liked Mako’s character. But while I think it got a number of things right, that certainly doesn’t make it perfect, and it’s totally valid to criticize the things it missed. Even if you liked it.
(Or maybe *especially* if you liked it.)
Michi Trota (@GeekMelange)
February 13, 2014 @ 2:25 pm
There you go again, being all rational instead of insisting that everyone like the things you like and real fans don’t criticize anything! You’re doin’ the Internet wrong, Jim!
February 13, 2014 @ 3:59 pm
Word to this comment and to this article.
I imagine this isn’t new to anyone, but the black doll/white doll experiments show this pattern is consistent over time, and the results have been repeated with multiple samples. This article goes into price differentials that are possibly even more heartbreaking: http://feminspire.com/how-racism-affects-children-the-doll-test/
February 13, 2014 @ 4:00 pm
ETA: I mean word to Charlotte Ashley’s comment directly above mine.
February 13, 2014 @ 4:06 pm
Oh my God, that isn’t news, but it’s still heartbreaking to read. 🙁 I have had a lot of responses to my essay elsewhere saying “kids go through this, when she grows up she will understand, because you have talked to her, helped her, it’ll be okay in the end, etc….”
But what about the kids who don’t have hyper-socially-aware tiger mothers?
February 13, 2014 @ 4:58 pm
That’s a good question, and I’m having a difficult time attempting to relate to it without risking coming off as “what about the pale people” – for my mother was all about not playing sports “because it makes your leg bulky,” always wearing lipstick, getting a tan, etc. (On that last point I rebelled young, because skin cancer, though I still ended up getting it at 25.) And I think I turned out okay, body-perspective wise.
This may be worth a greater discussion about intersectionality, though – since we have the twin problems of racism and women’s bodies being more valued for the way they look than what they can do. *scratches head* Have there been any equivalent experiments with boys and choosing action figures?
February 13, 2014 @ 9:32 pm
Yes!! Great post. Heart-breaking story about your daughter, but I have to believe we can eventually make it better, and change the world. Maybe a generation at a time, maybe slow, but eventually we’ll get there!
Also, thank you for reminding me that my son needs more racial diversity in his toys, as well as gender diversity. I’m often frustrated by the lack of toys representing girls (particularly non-pink toys) in any way because I want to give him gender parity in his toys (otherwise how will he know gender parity is a normal thing? He’s certainly not going to see it portrayed much in the wider world). But finding racial diversity in toys is a pain in the neck too, and if you’re not thinking about it, it’s very easy to just fall into monochrome representation.
February 14, 2014 @ 8:48 am
Oh, oh, I can’t… I’m so sorry. My heart breaks.
I’m sorry for so many reasons. And you’re right. My daughter (8) never really got into dolls so she only had one. I made it for her to look like her, so it’s a blonde, blue eyed, little girl. But it sat on the shelf, so I never made any others. I had all the STUFF to make a brown-skinned doll (I had ambitions) but never got around to it. Now, reading this, I feel like I should have.
One of the hardest things I do is try to find books that have non-white main female characters. Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic. Rick Riordan’s second Olympiad series. And…? Does anyone have any other suggestions. (If this isn’t a total derail. If Mr. Hines thinks it is, I’m happy to have it cut off.)
February 14, 2014 @ 9:08 am
Nalo Hopkinson’s work! Midnight Robber is still one of my all-time favourite books…
February 14, 2014 @ 9:14 am
Oh goodness, yes! I remember my joy at discovering Nalo. Finally! A spec fic writer writing stories from my world and who looked like me! She made me think I could really do it. I could really stand up as a Caribbean author and have something to say in the spec fic world. Midnight Robber will forever be special to me because of that.
February 14, 2014 @ 10:40 am
Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O’Dell, was one of my favorites around that age. It won the Newberry, IIRC.
My google-fu yields some promising results, e.g.: http://charlotteslibrary.blogspot.com/2012/12/looking-for-kids-of-color-in-middle.html
Lots of SF/F on those lists, and not just the heavy hitters like Okorafor and leGuin…
February 14, 2014 @ 10:43 am
That was meant to be a response to DameB’s comment. Please excuse my comment submission fail, ahem.
February 14, 2014 @ 12:46 pm
Eon/Eona by Alison Goodman Asian high fantasy–my then 12 year old (Chinese descent)read them twice in a row.
February 14, 2014 @ 3:32 pm
I like Mako’s character, but it treads uncomfortably close to the all too common white male/Asian female dynamic that dominates a lot of appearances of Asian characters (most often in the area of romances). I thought it would have been cool if Mako was actually lesbian and that her relationship with Stacker was platonic.
February 14, 2014 @ 4:43 pm
Oooh, I like those lists. II bow to your superior Google Fu) And Island of the Blue Dolphins! That was one of my favorite books back when I was her age! How did I forget that? <>
February 14, 2014 @ 4:44 pm
Thank you! (scribbling notes)
February 15, 2014 @ 11:23 pm
Stacker was Mako’s adopted father (so hopefully platonic!). I think you’re thinking of Raleigh. I actually read that relationship as very ambiguous, and tended not to read it as romantic but more as a comrades in arms kind of thing. They didn’t kiss, and the only time she clearly ogled him was when he was showing off his scars. However, I do agree that it would have been awesome had they made her (or anyone) explicitly queer.
February 19, 2014 @ 12:43 am
For older kids, The True Meaning of Smekday (by Adam Rex) is fantastic (and hilarious).
Thinking about Genre: Link Mash Up | Brewing Tea & Books
February 19, 2014 @ 4:13 pm
February 20, 2014 @ 9:12 am
Thanks so much for this Charlotte! As a parent (and especially because I do have white privilege), this is something I think about a lot and hope I will mostly get right. I know I’m going to screw up at times, but I’ll just keep trying to get it right.
My oldest just turned 4 and we are getting ready to move into a new house for a better school district and for more space. (I also have two 10 month olds and this house is getting cramped!) In my investigation of local schools, I saw that they list their diversity by race. I was struck by how much this mattered to me and was glad that it did, that I wanted my children to be in a diverse school. And I’m not looking for applause at this, as a woman I should KNOW diversity matters, but whatever privileges we have get in the way of seeing things sometimes. The schools I went to as a child were supposedly some of the best, but the district was at least 95% white and honestly could have been closer to 99%. And it mattered. I didn’t start realizing it mattered until I was in high school and am still realizing how it mattered today, but diversity is important and not just for the brown kids.
Also, thanks for the diverse book suggestions. Definitely taking notes as well!
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