Disney, gender and the parent as gatekeeper

Meaghan O’Keeffe, RN, BSN, is a mother, writer and nurse. She worked at Boston Children’s Hospital for nearly a decade, in both the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit and the Pre-op Clinic.  She is a regular contributor to Thriving.

Meaghan_OKeeffe_1Not a single temper tantrum was thrown during our recent week-long Disney World vacation.

And my children were pretty well-behaved too.

My husband and I aren’t really “Disney people,” but, like most children, our kids are. So being the bigger people, (literally and figuratively) we headed to Orlando armed with good attitudes, determined to enjoy our time there and experience our children’s excitement.

But I also went to Disney with a certain degree of curiosity. As the mother of a little boy and girl, I wanted to see how much of our Disney experience centered on gender.

In this country, we’re surrounded by Disney-character branded movies and merchandise, which intentionally or not may plant a deep-rooted seed of socially acceptable gender roles in kids. Boys are into cars, planes and action figures. Girls want to dress up like Ariel and reenact Cinderella at the ball. Disney’s female main characters tend to be warm, kind and nurturing (not to mention thin and attractive). The males are athletic and heroic. Boys quickly learn that playing princess is socially unacceptable. Girls, at the age of 4, talk about the importance of being beautiful, of getting married.

Disney-WorldDisney branding is hard to escape in our everyday lives. And I’m not saying that we have to, necessarily. After all, some of what Disney has to offer includes great storytelling, fun entertainment and pure magic.

That’s why we, as parents, need to be the gatekeepers to some of the more undesirable messages kids are subjected to in our Disney-fied lives. At the end of the day, isn’t it our job to create a more balanced look at societal gender norms for our children and not leave that up to a bunch of cartoon characters?

I don’t want to deny my son his coveted cars collection, but I happily paint his nails when he asks. My daughter goes positively gaga when Ariel marries Prince Eric in “The Little Mermaid.” But with a little coaxing, she’ll get very into driving those same toy cars around a track just like her brother. As a parent, it’s a bit of a balancing act: I don’t want to forbid my kids’ natural interests, but I don’t want them to feel pressure to conform, either. And I realize that I have a good deal of power on my side. I could lavish my daughter with princess paraphernalia and tell my son that that stuff isn’t for boys, or I can widen their horizons and encourage conversation and play that goes beyond what is considered “normal.”

I learned it’s possible to make it through Disney World with a similar balance.

We managed, without much effort, to explore Disney without being bombarded by boy stuff and girl stuff. Most of our experience was fairly gender neutral. Sure, we could have spent an hour waiting for a 30-second photo op with six major Disney princess characters, but we decided to skip it. We could have paid $200 to let our daughter have a princess makeover, but said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” (That was an easy choice. The girls come out looking like rejected cast members of “Toddlers in Tiaras”; the boys only get a sloppy consolation service—The Knight Package—complete with hair gel and confetti. Not sure how that relates to knighthood, but who am I to question the Mouse?)

TiggerInstead, we chose to ride the carousel, to fly on Dumbo, to drive a car around a track. We rode through a completely brand-less “It’s a Small World.” We saw Mickey and Goofy, Winnie the Pooh and Piglet, cute and furry characters that wanted to dole out hugs to children.

In the end, I was a little bit disappointed. Not because the children weren’t enjoying themselves, but because even as a Disney Grinch, I had to admit that Disney World wasn’t that bad. Still, even we weren’t completely immune to a sneaky dose of Disney princess magic.

On our second day in Magic Kingdom, the children participated in “Enchanted Tales with Belle.” It’s a delightful 20-minute show in which the kids get to put on a play with a real live Belle, who was everything a Disney princess should be: beautiful, soft-spoken and lovely. I succumbed to the fairytale myself, feeling completely spellbound. And I wasn’t alone. As Belle left the room, I heard my steadfastly anti-princess husband, in a barely audible whisper behind me, say, “Bye, Belle.”

Clearly, the allure of the princess is powerful. But it’s not overpowering—it just means moms and dads who are worried about the messages it may send need to work a little harder to ensure their messaging gets heard too.