Friday, December 7, 2007

Girls, Fashion, and Feminism

A lot of parents these days seem, well, maybe a little worried about their daughters obsessions. I've been noticing this among my friends for some time, and then then today a blogger for the Chronicle of Higher Education's new "Brainstorm" feature has a short piece on doll-fascination and its discontents.

She starts with a pretty familiar kind of story. Good feminist that she is, she dresses her daughter in overalls and buys her toy trucks. Unfortunately, the daughter starts demanding Barbies almost as soon as she can talk. Mom frets.

I wasn't really into dolls when I was a kid but I was way way into clothes and fashion. Many of my earliest memories are of clothes, and the feelings they inspired. For most of my childhood one of my main goals in life was "Look like Cher." That is, look like Cher as she was in her awesome variety show: elegant gown at 7, hilarious leopard print cat suit at 7:15, hip hugger pants at 7:30. This still strikes me as a reasonable life goal.

As a kid, I didn't see anything non-feminist about this, and I still don't. Sure, the goals of fashion sometimes conflict with other goals. Of course. You might not be able to wear your favorite lace petticoat to the office; you may want to purchase some sneakers for playing sports; you may even decide that to concentrate on your work you have to wear some sensible shoes.

But lots of life goals conflict, and any life is full of compromises. Is there anything inherent in caring about adornment that makes it a dumb thing to care about? As I argued before, no. The world would be a better place of more people got a more of their life's pleasure from clothing, and less of their life's pleasure from expensive electronics, feeling superior to others, engaging in violent sports, bossing other people around, and basically acting like fucking va-jay-jays.

The "Brainstorm" blogger tries to draw this connection: "While boys are learning to run the world by manipulating the control module on PlayStation 3, girls are learning to be second best by endlessly brushing their dolls’ hair."

This doesn't strike me as all that convincing. Everyone says kids learn lots of stuff with just ordinary playing, and usually girls playing with dolls are talking, imagining, and even maybe reflecting on themselves. It's a quiet contemplative activity.

You might have a point if you were to say, it's a problem if girls spend too much time thinking only about boys. Maybe. But everyone says little girls playing with dolls aren't thinking about boys at all.

In fact, in a paradigmatic hand-wringing piece on this issue last year, Peggy Orenstein wrote in The Times about girls' recent obession with princesses. One interesting thing she noted is that princess play never involves a prince. Or a king. Or a queen, even. Really, being a princess is its own thing.

I don't have kids so I can't say for sure. But, bracketing for the moment the Barbie body-image issues, it seems to me wanting to be cool, pretty, and have a magic wand is not weird in the wanting department and isn't really related to not wanting to live as a feminist.

1 comment:

Captain Colossal said...

I totally agree in principle. And I totally agree about the fashion thing; I love the whole elaborate and exotic looks that kids insist are what should be worn. But when I look back over my own Barbie experiences there were so many weird aspects to it. Like the time I rearranged my Barbie's hair and it never looked the same as it looked out of the box and I felt guilty and bad and sad about it for months afterward. Or the time me and my friend got the same Barbie (the exact same one -- I think it was California Skipper or something) and I was convinced that her's was better. Weird stuff that I don't know what to make of.