NEW YORK — When her daughter Mari turned to tutus, Devorah Blachor panicked.
Blachor was a 40-something ardent feminist who most related to “The Ugly Duckling.” She wore oversized frumpy clothing, and, in her words, wished “the entire beauty industry would sink into the earth in a puff of silicone vapor.”
Her child was a pink-clad Disney princess fanatic. How could this happen? What effects would this have on Mari’s development? What should, and could, she do to stop the rose-tinted madness?
These are the urgently felt questions that motivate “The Feminist’s Guide to Raising a Little Princess: How to Raise a Girl Who’s Authentic, Joyful, and Fearless – Even If She Refuses to Wear Anything but a Pink Tutu.”
The book is an amusing and thoughtful blend of set humor pieces, comic illustrations, memoir, research from the fields of business and psychology, and even interviews conducted with teenagers who were princess-obsessed back in their toddler days.
Through these pieces, Blachor attempts to decode the desire for tulle dresses, understand the emotional ramifications of deep association with “passive” female figures, and figure out how to possibly parent a girl these days. Along her journey, the author finds out a few things about her own fears and feminism, and discovers how to raise children without controlling them.
(Spoiler alert: your kids will probably turn out okay, even if they categorically only ingest food served to them in a sequined singing Sofia sippy cup.)
Your book uniquely combines laugh out loud humor with scholarly research — I found your footnotes and image captions to be particularly hilarious. What inspired you to write this book as a collage of disparate forms?
I first conceived this as a humor book because some of my humor pieces — like “Turn Your Princess-Obsessed Toddler Into a Feminist in Eight Easy Steps” — had gone viral and it seemed like the genre was striking the right chord with readers.
But as I was honing in on my concept to do a funny book about girls who were obsessed with princesses, I was also researching this subject for myself because I did, in fact, have a princess-obsessed little girl and I was wondering what it all meant. I discovered surprising things along the way. For example, contrary to what I had expected, there was zero evidence to suggest that princess play is linked with girls having negative body image later on. In general, girls do struggle with body image, but there was no basis for my fear that falling down the Disney Princess rabbit hole was making my daughter more vulnerable than other girls. As I got going on the proposal, it made sense to include this and other research, and to expand my experience into personal essays which I also include in the book.
There was no basis for my fear that falling down the Disney Princess rabbit hole was making my daughter more vulnerable than other girls
Signing a book deal with my publisher freed me — I let my imagination go. When you’re freelancing, you’re always bound by the idea that you must write something that will sell. You censor yourself and reign yourself in, because if you get too creative, your pieces are more likely to be rejected. But writing something that had already sold — that was book length, no less — was liberating and a fantastic experience. As a writer, I loved it.
You say in the book that you don’t blame Disney. (I should probably disclose that I love “Frozen” and have many childless friends who use my daughters as an excuse to come over and watch it again and again.) If all this Princess mania isn’t Disney’s fault, why does it exist, and is it okay?
Oh dear. I am not exonerating Disney, so very sorry if you got that impression. Disney is the marketer, the enabler, the omnipresent engine of princess merchandising and the driver of the princess obsession. Without Disney, we would not be here, in this place, with little girls dressed entirely in pink and tulle and tiaras and with Arial water bottles and Cinderella backpacks and a pop-up princess tent in the living room filled with singing Elsa dolls. You know in the beginning I never bought a princess item, but between my in-laws and birthday gifts, they infiltrated anyway. I blame Disney entirely.
What changed for me was the notion that the princess obsession was intrinsically bad. As I researched this subject, I couldn’t find any convincing evidence to suggest that this toddler stage — in which little girls are genuinely obsessed with princesses — would have a negative effect. I must qualify that statement because all the research is relatively new.
As Peggy Orenstein originally reported in her book “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,” Disney only started marketing the Princess brand in 2000, after a Disney executive went to a Disney on Ice show and noticed the girls wearing homemade princess dresses. So this is all a new phenomenon. I can’t say anything definitively. I can only draw my own conclusions from the research that exists, from observing my daughter and also from speaking to young women who identified as princess obsessed in their early childhood — I reached out to them and their interviews are included in my book.
There are themes related to princesses — the beauty ideal, the concept of needing a man to save you, the glorification of passivity — that are certainly bad for girls. But as long as we’re talking about those issues with our girls as they grow older, I don’t believe the princess culture will doom them.
I admired how, in a book about humor and research, you managed to successfully interweave the honest story of your own depression (even including a witty “Primer for Depression” guide for how to be a depressive). What did you learn from your daughter and the princesses? What does depression have to do with Disney?
There’s no single cause of depression. For me, one aspect was emotionally shutting myself down. It was a way of protecting myself so that I wouldn’t feel vulnerable. It didn’t really work, so don’t try it at home, kids. And since you brought up “Frozen”…
I also loved this movie. “Frozen” tells the story of a young girl who is taught to hide and fear her own powers. She withdraws from the world. When she reveals those powers in a moment of vulnerability, she is feared, despised and driven out of town. And when she reclaims her powers, in the isolated mountains, she is truly glorious and she builds that spectacular ice palace. But she intends to stay isolated — because she senses she can’t stay glorious while being among other people. Her sister Anna — the true heroine of this tale — enables her to return to society, and the tools she uses are forgiveness, acceptance and love.
What did I learn from my daughter’s princess obsession? To accept her, and not try to control her
What did I learn from my daughter’s princess obsession? To accept her, and not try to control her. Having children gave me that gift of teaching me to accept people as they are rather than as I wish them to be.
Just as there’s no one cause of depression, neither is there one cure. But for me, a fundamental step was learning how to let it go.
Did your Orthodox Jewish upbringing impact the way you viewed the princesses, or the way you reacted to your daughter’s obsession?
In general, I think I absorbed a message of “waiting” from my Orthodox teachers. We were taught to wait for our “bashert” — that’s the Jewish concept of meant-to-be — and we were told that someday he’d come along and we’d be happy. This was useful as it kept some of us celibate, but it also reinforced the idea that everything would fall into place once we found the right man, just as it did for the princesses I grew up with.
I call Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty the “Sleepy Trio” because they are so passive and two of them literally sleep through parts of their story. When my daughter started loving princesses, these were the stories I feared, in part because I had been so passive for too much of my life — that was a component of my depression too.
In Orthodox culture, which took shape over centuries of oppression and suffering, there are a lot of themes of waiting — like waiting for Messiah. But here we are in the 21st century. Fortunate people like me have agency over our lives, even if we don’t know it. The waiting no longer serves us. That is another thing we can let go.