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May 27, 2011

Princesses are not Perfect (book review, of sorts)

a confusing business fable
Chief Researcher, Caroline Bender 

Parents in our student body may have already explored this topic.  Your Miss Bender is on field research this week, as a spinster businesswoman with little other-life experience.  Living through the eyes of a 4 year-old this week is a fascinating look into how we get here.  Give me the princess until she is 7.... and I will give you the Chairwoman of the Board.

If you live within a mile of a 4 year-old girl, you understand the pull of Princesses.  I gave up trying to explain it years ago.  I accept that for most of this demographic, the world is painted in lavendar and pink, and everyone wears a crown.  A fraction of the group who don't actually believe it go along with it out of cultural deference, and the rest of them go horsey or live as boys.  (Don't start writing your letter yet; I am just getting started)

I am not against princesses, and I am not going to blame Disney for them.  A girl's gotta be what a girl's gotta be, and if it involves unicorns and rainbows, so be it.  When you draw a girl's smiling face in sidewalk chalk, and your 4 year-old charge asks, "Can I draw her crown...?" you are up against a new kind of reality. (4 year olds say "drawl," as you know)

Among the library books we read (in our matching pink reading chairs while one of us was dressed as Belle) this week is Princesses are Not Perfect, whose author has just found this post through her favorite search engine, and will be writing within the hour.  The surface message of the story is meant to be that you don't have to excel at everything you try -- in fact most people, even princesses, can not do everything perfectly.

Nice sentiment.  Mr Rogers taught us that.  Captain Kangaroo taught our parents to "let your young person try to comb their own hair, even if it doesn't look quite right."  And in a childhood of bike helmets and kneepads, we have learned to say encouraging things like, "if you're not making mistakes, you might not be trying very hard."  A (wo)man's reach must exceed [her] grasp, etc.  (I originally typed "gasp," just now...which seems a little closer to the truth.)

Inside Princess are NotPerfect, I found a more confusing  layer of messages, and a generation of Women Who Do Too Much in the making. It happens like this. 

Each of 3 princesses has a specialized skill.  One is a gardener, one a baker, and one a builder, in an interesting push against gender-specific occupations.  While planning the big party, the builder announces that she is tired of always doing the same job, and what if she tried doing the baking this year?  The other princesses are uneasy about working outside their sphere of expertise, but convinced they can excel at whatever they try, they agree to shift duties.

Hilarity ensues, as you might expect -- the builder gardens with a chainsaw, the baker slathers glue like frosting, and the gardener pours flour onto the kitchen flour and rakes in the ingredients.  Each makes a hopless and imperfect mess at her contribution to the party.

Confusing message #1 - you have perfect...or a mess.  Nothing in between.

They each lie to the others about how great the project is going and go to their separate beds.

Confusing message #2 - Never ask for help from people who could.

Stressed beyond sleeping, each princess paces, and tosses, and drinks relaxing liquids, thinking about...
not how they will explain what happened to the chairs, the cupcakes, or the centerpieces they attempted, but sensing what a horrible mess the other princess must have made working on their part.

Confusing message #3 - Delegation = disaster.  Just do everything yourself.

Each gets up in the middle of the night to work will her tools, as"the only thing" that will calm her. 
(Oh, "tsk" yourself; you've done it.)  Their ouput, of course, is a new set of 100 chairs, cupacakes and flower arrangements.

Confusing message #4 - People want you to rescue them.  No, they really do.  And you're the best at it.

No one questions the turn of events.  They are all grateful, and the village children have a wonderful party.  Confusing message #5 - Stay in your box.

The line in the story is "do what you love," which is also a good positive message.  Unfortunately, it is written like this (emphasis mine):
"Princesses," said Princess Allie, "are good at what they love." (in fact, perfect at what they love.  And terrible at anything else.) "You don't have to be good at everything to be a princess."  (but you do have to be a princess).
What a nice story it would be if they had helped each other learn a new skill and produce something original and good, if not perfect.  If the cupcakes were decorated with real roses, and the chairs filligreed like wedding cakes, and the centerpieces architectural wonders of climbing topiary and hanging baskets.  What if we let ourselves try something new and celebrated the experience rather than the outcome.

What if.

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