Inventing the Child - Of Princesses, Pirates and Top Models

So, it’s time for some children’s books again. Last time I found gender roles, diversity and the lack thereof, animal misrepresentation and much more. Part of my examples today I discovered in a book store in Mannheim and couldn’t help but take some pictures. Let’s take a look!

We start with some more gender discussions because it is always the most prevalent issue in children’s books as I see it. They always make very sure that boys know what boys have to be like and that girls know their place too.

So, there are those books that provide information for kids about certain topics, so I was really happy that there is a pink book that tells us all about princesses! Because what else do girls need?

Everything is glamorous and, as the text points out, everyone is bowing before the king and his family. So, one perk of being a princess, you become better than others.

There are princes too, but somehow they don’t really matter. They can become kings and that’s it. Princesses are married early, so that the king got a tactical advantage. A queen didn’t have anything to say next to the king and families arranged marriages in which the couple often saw it each other for the first time in front of the altar. Any need to voice anything critical about all of this? Obviously not. The only commentary comes from the little ghost that’s floating around, which looks at the marriage gift table and says: “I didn’t get that many presents at my wedding!” Yes, exactly, that’s one of the many great things about being a princess and forced to marry someone you barely know.

The book sort of tries to pretend that the life of a princess is hard because she has so many “duties”, but it ends with describing what a chambermaid does, doing the princess’ hair and cleaning up her room for her. “Oh, how convenient!” the text intones.

Dancing lessons, music lessons, manners lessons, riding lessons. Manners, in fact, are emphasized again and again.

The fashion of the aristocrats from 300 years ago was gorgeous, but uncomfortable.” Corsets are mentioned, but then all the different kinds of dresses are shown off, again, not really dealing with anything problematic and focusing on appearance. Why would you ever ask what all of this does to the minds of little girls?

And to reinforce that, you can dress the princess yourself. It’s fun!

Princess 09.jpg

And finally a collection of “famous princesses”, just to make clear again in the end, that they are important and relevant and admirable, so that it’s a good idea to want to be a princess. Not a single critical thought in here, just playing in a trope that has been around forever and keeps girl imagining being persons that have no power and only care about their dresses, hair and make-up.

Alright, this was bad. It couldn’t be worse, right? There is no other way to teach young girls false role models, right? Right?

“Laura puts on her mommy’s high heels when she’s alone, put on one of her dresses. At night in bed she dreams of being a famous TOPMODEL” Oh dear. From its style and images, this book clearly is designed for children not older than 4 or 5. Why would you want to tell such young girls anything about modeling? To warn them maybe? There surely are more critical voices here.

Laura, our protagonist, hopes for a man to pick her, putting her destiny in his hands. Never too early to teach kids that.

Laura is dressed up nicely and listens to the photographer’s instructions. He’s a man of course who tells her what to do.

Laura is lucky because she makes “a famous fashion designer” satisfied. She really makes all the men happy, doesn’t she? Good girl.

Sure, there are some women in the audience here at the big runway, but it still is all about being liked by this audience, making them happy. “Of course this is just a dream. But when Laura grows up, it might become reality.” Add to that the question “Do you want to be a top model?” and a place where the girls can put their own picture on a model’s head. This really is the absolute worst. Especially because it is a modern book, aimed at very young girls, only selling the idea that you have to make others happy (especially men), only through your looks, to become happy yourself.

So, I wandered through that book store and found very clear distinctions made between products made and marketed for boys and ones for girls. There are no real surprises here, but it still disconcerting.

Boys get football, Star Wars, Harry Potter and cars.

Girls get fairies, unicorns, top models and lots of pink. It’s really the old story. Boys have adventures, can be strong and technical. Girls deal with dream-like fairytales and their outer appearance. Note that the boys’ stuff does not feature any actual boys, while the girls’ stuff is full of idealized girls looking pretty and perfect and, despite aimed at and looking like little girls, sexy. But the boys also are not asked to deal with their insides either. Their looks might not be as important, but they are trained early on to focus on status symbols and strength. There are no real winners here.

One trope that boys are often taught to follow are pirates.

But while reading this book about pirates to my daughter, I couldn’t help wondering how to convince her that those guys are supposed to be cool. The book goes on and on talking about how they robbed other ships and stole money, which weapons and tricks they used. My daughter just kept asking “Why?” and I had a hard time answering that. Why do we glorify people who ignored any laws, killed and thieved, while all the while we always hold up the law as being really important? Especially to kids.

And also showing pirates as guys who used their stolen gold to have lots of women they could screw. Which isn’t mentioned in the text, but two pirates having multiple women in their arms is surely a glorious image to teach your kids.

Well, the last page tries to answer my nagging question. Here’s what it says: Now you know a lot about pirates. They weren’t really nice guys, but we still like their adventurous way of life. Do you want to have a rousing pirate party, with campfire, treasure hunt and pirate’s yarn? Okay, so we like them because they had adventures. What a cop-out. You know, serial killers probably have a pretty adventurous life, too, but would I put my kid in a Ted Bundy costume? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind pirates at all, at least not when it comes to people living outside society, although the focus on guns and gold is troublesome. But why does society feature them so strongly when they contradict everything else we are taught? I think society provides us with a form of escapism. We are allowed to live with the fantasy of pirates for a while, knowing that those kinds of pirates don’t really exist anymore, so there is no danger of following this role model (and modern pirates are clearly condemned by society). But escaping to the fantasy of this adventurous life makes us forget for a while what we’re missing when we follow our society’s rules. And the earlier, the better.

Three quick final examples of what you find in modern children’s books:

Milking is good for the cows, because their udders are firmly filled with milk!” Sure, why should you mention what happens to the little cows that are supposed to drink this milk? We’re doing them a favor of course, because nature was stupid enough to make their udders full of useless milk.

Who sits in a pizza delivery truck? The stereotypical Italian of course who looks unlike 80% of Italians you encounter in Germany. But a good stereotype is a good stereotype.

And finally some diversity. Policewoman and man carrying a baby. Finally, something positive in the end. Some of those books try really hard to be diverse, you have to give them credit for that. Even if it shows three adults showing some kids exactly what to do in a book about rules, rules, rules.

And that’s it for today. I have more examples already for a future installment.