Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Princess Wore Sweatpants

I was a huge tomboy for much of my young life and pretty geeky thereafter.  While other girls were experimenting with make-up, I was still wearing sweatpants and T-shirts with cartoon animals on them (I could really rock a panda jumpsuit).  I blame much of my lameness on my mother who is herself a bit of a tomboy preferring Sears to Neiman Marcus for all her fashion needs.  I was also really active in such uncool activities as Girls Scouts, softball, and church choir.  And while these activities probably thwarted any hope I had of being a cool kid they also empowered me and gave me the confidence needed to tackle an awkward adolescence.  

4th Grade Field Day 1990 (that's me on the far right)
While I have few conscious memories of Disney's impact upon my sense of style or self worth,  I do distinctly remember its impact upon my little tween heart.  1992, Lowes Theater, Brookfield, CT, double-feature: Newsies and Aladdin.  For those of you who haven't heard of Newsies, recently revived on Broadway, it is the story of the 1899 newsboy strike against the papers owned by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst set to music (of course).  More importantly it stars Christian Bale (complete with ridiculous NY accent) and a slew of other cute adolescent boys.  The character that stole my heart was the leader of the Brooklyn Boys, Spot, played by Gabriel Damon.  I used to fantasize that I was a Bowery girl and Spot would strut into my life and sweep me off my feet.

I mention this rather embarrassing tidbit because I recently learned there is something of a Spot subculture.  Women my age romanticizing about the characters that they use to harbor crushes on when they were tweens.  Harmless, right?  Well only if you don't take into consideration that Spot is one of the most violent characters in the whole film.  In the clip below the Newsies are fighting the thugs hired by the newspapers to put an end to the strike. Jack, Christian Bale's character and the most experienced fighter, is in over his head until Spot and his crew show up to save the day.  Notice that Spot and his band of Brooklyn newsies are the only newsboys brandishing weapons.


What does it say that grown women are still fantasizing about a violent man-child?  Gabriel Damon was and probably still is attractive but so is Christian Bale.  Yet much of the fan fiction and YouTube comments about this film revolve around Spot.  Why?  He's not even a major character.  But he is the "coolest" character--he is a domineering presence (all 5'7" of him), violent, and assertive.  It speaks to the power of Dorfman's "secret education" ( 189) that this character has yet to fade into the ether.  Spot's aggressive characteristics seems to resonate with Lila Johnson's observations about her brothers who "tossed aside their piles of books and tubs of clay: Heroes didn't read or create--they fought!" (202).  These aggressive, volatile, men are suppose to be our princes.  Not creators but destroyers.  It's frightening to think about.  

As a parent, I am very concerned about the messages being carefully aimed at my children.  I am especially worried about the effects on the "Princess Culture" upon my daughter something
Peggy Orenstein writes about in her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter (her original NY Times article "What's Wrong with Cinderella?" is worth a read).  Just walking into Toy R Us gives me the hee bee gee bees.  They have organized their toys around franchises--Cars, Thomas the Tank Engine, Dora the Explorer, etc.--and  whole isles are dedicated to princess merchandise.  I remembering trying to buy invitations to my son's 1st birthday party and not being able to find a single one without some T.V. or movie character on it.  How do you fight this indoctrination?   


  1. Hi Kelly!

    I picked you out right away, despite the goofy pose. So cute! :)

    I have never seen Newsies (I think Christian Bale in general does an amazing American accent, although I hadn't heard the Brooklyn one before), but violence does seem to be a culturally strong manifestation of male agency. People scratch their heads over *50 Shades of Grey* (or is it Gray, I don't know) and *Twilight*, but if you look at it through this lens, it isn't so absurd. I have a (happily and well-married) male friend who has mentioned on a couple of occasions that he doesn't understand why women like the "bad boy." I could never enlighten him. (I didn't believe him.) I had never thought of it this way before -- but it is reinforced for us that the "bad boy" is the powerful one. How very, very depressing. Why is it that most of these stereotypes seem to endanger women?


  2. HiKelly,

    I lost the Disney battle, good luck with Zoe. I would love to enjoy something for the sake of enjoyment, but now as a mother of a girl, I am much more aware of the messages being sent, and its scarey and infuriating.

    1. I'm terrified and this class is only increasing that terror. There is just so much inundation sometimes I'm not sure it can be fought.

      But I found a website the other day that gave me a little hope. If you aren't familiar with it already, check out A Mighty Girl ( It is a website with a bunch of books and movies aimed at empowering girls of all ages.

      You and Ireland might enjoy their "Ultimate Guide to Independent Princesses"

  3. I too stand amazed at the inescapable wall of paper goods featuring screen characters. It's like the industry assumes that all small children share exactly the same experiences, that is to say sitting and watching.

  4. I think we loose sight of the fact these films were created for children's enjoyment. We as parents now can frame the pics in a new light for our children. Are the children really affected that much from these films, or are we digging far deeper into them than necessary? I agree we need to clarify the roles etc. but that is our job as parents. We understand the ramifications of all the profiling and we can counteract this but children should be able to enjoy them as entertainment!

  5. Awww, cute pic. Yeah, I also wonder if it's a case of "Seek and You Shall Find" but...

  6. I was also really active in such uncool activities as Girls Scouts, softball, and church choir. princess party