I grew up playing with Barbies. I owned at least eight dolls and two lunchboxes full of Barbie clothes. A Barbie townhouse with operating "elevator" stood next to my bed for most of my childhood, and I remember learning my first lesson about budgeting when I saved up $20 from allowances and report card rewards to purchase a Barbie kitchen.
So, because you can probably see where this post is going, I need to explain that I am not opposed to dolls and frills and princesses. I am, though, annoyed about how much it's in my face these days as the mother of a toddler girl.
We walked into the Disney Store yesterday to make a princess-item return. At 2 years, 4 months old, Natalie has never watched more than 20 consecutive minutes of TV (in fact she has watched one episode of one TV show ever), so we are far from the feature-length film phenomenon. She doesn't know any specific Disney or Pixar characters aside from Mickey and Minnie Mouse. My goal was to exchange the princess item for a similar Mickey and Minnie item so she could have more characters to play with on top of her retro Fisher-Price garage. I figured this would be an easy proposition, as I used to frequent the Disney Store when I was in elementary school and I remember lots of little figurines and other tchotkes Natalie would probably enjoy.
I was not prepared for the gender-divided experience that is the Disney Store.
At our particular Disney Store at Tyson's Corner, the message is clear when you walk in the door: girls to the left, boys to the right.
I walked in to make our return, got a giftcard for store credit, and assumed within five minutes we'd have our replacement item. Natalie found the small section of the store that contains Muppet characters, and she knows Kermit well, so we talked about him for a while. But I wasn't going to spend a lot of extra money on a nearly life-size Kermit doll, so we moved on.
Although we stayed firmly grounded in gender-neutral territory in the store's main aisle, it didn't take long for us to hit the princess explosion and the friendly Disney Store employees trying to push their wares on a female toddler.
"Ohhh, what special princess are you looking for today?" the employee said as she crouched down to Natalie level. At this moment, my super talkative toddler became silent. I could see the gears turning in her head, and I heard her mutter something about Elizabeth, which would be a reference to the only princess she knows from one of our favorite books, The Paper Bag Princess.
"She doesn't really know about the princesses," I said to try to prevent the princess-pushing from escalating.
"Well, we have lots of princess beach towels on sale and...." the employee continued as she rattled off a bunch of other items as I tuned out and nodded politely.
When she finally asked, "Is there something in particular I can help you find?" I jumped in with, "Actually, yes, when I was a kid you all used to sell little plastic figurines of Mickey and Minnie Mouse and the other classic characters. Do you still have those?" She enthusiastically took me to the girl side of the store.
"We have these great sets! Here's the one for Minnie Mouse." As she handed me the Minnie set, I immediately noticed how Minnie is holding a mirror. The set rested upon a display arranged as a tower containing hundreds of other figure sets, all with some kind of girly bent. I couldn't believe these were the only figures in the store. Not surprisingly, they weren't.
As we made our way to the other side -- the boy side -- of the store, our employee assumed we must be leaving and wished us a good day. When we made it to the boy-side figurine set tower I discovered everything I'd been looking for. There were the Peter Pan sets, the Toy Store sets, the Finding Nemo sets; all the items I assumed would be sold in the Disney Store, even if I wasn't specifically planning to buy those items for my child quite yet. And, of course, within the boy-side figurine tower there was a set with Mickey and his friends.
As I was recounting this story to Matt last night, explaining how I was directed to the girl set with Minnie holding a mirror, he said, "What, did the Mickey set involve construction work or something?"
Yes, mindreader, it literally does.
Overwhelmed by the political implications of any Disney Store purchase I could make, I walked out of the store with my son attached to me in the Ergo and my toddler daughter holding my hand, unfazed to be walking out without a replacement present, chatting away about getting a "special treat [aka food] from the mall."
I'm not sure when childhood became so gender divided. Maybe childhood has always been this gender divided and when I was a kid I just assumed this was normal. But when I look around the toy store or even the book store, something in my gut tells me the marketing surrounding our kids has attempted to steer them further and further toward clearly gender-specific items. I think there's value in kids having a well-rounded upbringing, which includes girls and boys playing with toys designed for their sex and the opposite sex, and kids reading books with prominent male and female protagonists. As Natalie gets older, I'm happy for her to play with princesses. But I want her to be the one to make that decision.