The issue - Little princesses need to crown new heroines

7th February 2014 at 00:00
Some girls love all things pink, but don't allow gender stereotyping in your classroom. Show them there's more than one way to sparkle

They turn up for muddy field trips wearing silver sandals; their stories are filled with princes and tiaras. They are the "princess" girls, an ever-growing breed of three- to nine-year-olds.

Girls today are endlessly exposed to princess merchandise, with its message that tiaras, glitter and jewellery are the path to happiness and success. From nappies and toothbrushes to toilet seats and bicycles, there is no commodity that doesn't come in pink. When I bought my daughter a toy garage for her first birthday, I could have chosen a pink version with sparkly cars, which was obviously deemed more suitable for her little female brain.

Wander through the pink and blue aisles of any toyshop and you'd be forgiven for thinking that women's emancipation is yet to happen. Nowhere else is gender so binary. Female figurines have inconceivably tiny waists and improbably large eyes, and hang around in ball gowns waiting for six- inch plastic lotharios to drive them off into the sunset. Conversely, the boys' aisle is full of muscular figures who spend their days in charge of trucks, helicopters and lightsabres, single-handedly defeating the evil empire before heading home for dinner, no doubt cooked by their princess wives in their pink plastic ovens.

The world of children's toys and marketing has become such a parody of gender stereotyping that some companies are making an effort to redress the balance, albeit in a somewhat misguided way. Lego now sells a girls' range in pastel colours, and a US company called GoldieBlox is aiming to channel more girls into engineering with its construction toys targeted at the female market.

And the reign of the princess is not just limited to merchandise: the children's entertainment market is bursting with companies offering princess parties and makeovers for girls as young as 4.

But in this enlightened 21st century, when women can theoretically do anything, be anything and take control of anything, how, as a teacher, do you explain to princess-fixated girls that all that glitters is not necessarily gold?

Use unconventional books

Narrative is your most powerful tool to raise awareness of gender stereotypes and get children looking at things from a fresh perspective. Use stories that turn traditional fairy tales on their head. Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole is perfect for younger children and Robert Munsch's The Paper Bag Princess - about a princess who rescues her prince from a dragon, only to find that he no longer wants to marry her because she's wearing a paper bag - effectively readjusts the gender power balance.

Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes is another great book for subverting the princess myth, and a good writing task for older children can be to unpick traditional fairy tales and rewrite them with alternative endings.

Take a reality check

You might like to point out that, far from living happily ever after, modern-day princesses are destined to spend their lives hounded by paparazzi and, more often than not, dealing with a messy public divorce. History also throws up its fair share of princesses for whom a happy ending was sorely lacking - think Princess Diana or Catherine of Aragon.

Don't stereotype your students

Do you hand the boys computers while the girls get to water the plants? In drama and role play, do you pick only boys to play male characters and vice versa? Do the girls get a look in with playground football? Be careful not to reinforce gender stereotypes in your classroom. If children tend to choose their own groups, ring the changes and mix the genders up, making sure your "princess" girls are well distributed.

Seek out positive examples

When teaching subjects such as history and science, how many women are you covering? Children could go through primary school thinking that the sole role of women in history is to get divorced or beheaded or both. Look again at your topics and check you're not missing an important female figure. Black History Month is a great opportunity to introduce inspirational women such as Rosa Parks and Mary Seacole.

Leave them to it

The princess lifestyle doesn't reflect reality, but children shouldn't necessarily live in the real world. Pushing specific toys on to girls or boys is never going to work - some girls just like princesses, and most grow out of the phase by the time they leave primary school. Just as boys using sticks as machine guns are unlikely to take up a career in organised crime, spending your formative years wearing a plastic tiara is unlikely to deplete your intellectual capabilities and independence. Provided you, as a teacher, take the positive steps listed above, there's no real harm in leaving students to their princess fantasies.

And let's not forget, given the fact that Prince George is only a few years behind this year's school intake, there's just the faintest chance that the princess training may one day pay off.

Jo Brighouse is a primary school teacher in the Midlands, England.

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