How my daughter and I turned around the princess play, at least a little

Teaching kids to use their imagination in princess play could be as simple as introducing some different toys.
Teaching kids to use their imagination in princess play could be as simple as introducing some different toys. Photo: Getty Images

Playing with my five-year-old daughter and her dolls has become an essential ritual. It also, with some degree of frequency, drives me crazy.

It's not my daughter's habits - dictating the dialogue on a regular basis, or insisting we partake in this activity just before bedtime or as we're getting ready to leave for school in the morning -- that cause me consternation. My problem can be summed up in two words: Disney princesses.

To be clear, I'm not inherently opposed to traditional girly toys, since they were a fixture in my own childhood. I had several Barbies as well as a slew of other feminine dolls that suited me just fine. I spent the bulk of my childhood allowance on dolls from the Madame Alexander line, a sort of precursor to the American Girl franchise, with dolls based on popular books, such as Little Women. My maternal grandmother, who helped raise me, saw playing with dolls as one of the highest forms of expression for small children.

But when it's time to sit down with two-inch plastic versions of Elsa, Snow White, Rapunzel, Cinderella, Ariel, Aurora and Tiana, the die is cast. On a good day, they are the equivalent of little kids, playing on the playground or having sleepovers, or even sitting at circle time for show-and-tell. On most days, though, they hold balls in palaces, try on different outfits (the dresses clip on and off) and engage in other royal activities. Their backstories are predetermined: Ariel was once a mermaid, Elsa can turn things into ice, and so on.

So when the White House announced in early April that it was hosting a conference titled Helping our Children Explore, Learn and Dream without Limits: Breaking Down Gender Stereotypes in Media and Toys, I was curious. On one level, it sounds like the sort of spoof that could appear on a right-wing website: The Obamas are not just trying to take your guns, but they're after your kid's Barbies, too.

In reality, the symposium was pretty much what you'd expect it to be: an effort led by some senior women in the White House (the first lady's chief of staff Tina Tchen and Obama's senior adviser Valerie Jarrett) to nudge the toy and cartoon industrial complex to think a bit more broadly about what sort of products to make for both boys and girls. So I wrote about it and moved on to the next story.

But then I got an email from Julie Kerwin, who was representing one of the participants, IAmElemental. The New York-based toy maker has created a line of female action figures, the Elementals, all of whom embody virtues ("honesty" and "persistence," among others) and are loosely tied to a sort of character-based periodic table. A few weeks later, I got in touch with Kerwin. I needed to see her toys for myself.

While Kerwin is careful to explain "we are not anti-doll or anti-princess," the Elementals are in some ways an antidote to Disney mini-figures. They are sleek and silver rather than frilly; they have movable (and removable) limbs, heads and accoutrements, as opposed to the rigid plastic gowns on the figures that my daughter plays with; and although they have names that accord with certain values, they have no backstory.

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As my daughter carefully took them out of the lunchbox in which they came, I was wondering how she would react. Would she hate them or be put off by them?

She eyed them carefully and took them up to her room, placing them on the rug. At first, she had the princesses getting into scrapes (falling from the roof of their dollhouse, for example), only to be saved at the last minute by one of the superheroes. After a while, however, she decided to sketch out a different scenario: The Elementals would teach the princesses how to become superheroes. There were no balls or reprisals of a popular animated feature that's readily available on the iPad. As the tagline of Kerwin's company goes, "If you give a girl a different toy, she will tell a different story."

A little time has passed since the Elementals entered our household, and I'd be lying if I said everything has changed. My daughter still dictates the terms of our playing ("It doesn't leave much room for creativity," her older brother remarked recently, in an aside). The princesses still play prominent roles in her imaginary world. But the Elementals have eked out their turf as well and have recurring appearances in all sorts of different stories we now tell. Recently, after a play date with her closest friend, I had to hunt for heads and limbs all over the place, because the children were thrilled at the prospect of tearing the figures apart and sometimes neglected to put them back together again.

And last month, when it was her turn to share a toy with her classmates, my daughter decided to take her action figures to school in their lunchbox (the princesses stayed home). The next day, I quizzed her teacher, trying to figure out what she had said about them. "I don't remember much," the teacher replied. "She talked about how she was excited to have gotten them." Disappointed, I was preparing to leave when her teacher mentioned one more detail: "She made a point of saying they were GIRL superheroes."

So far, so good.

Washington Post