My friend Jack and I are standing in my front yard talking about The Big W’s – Weather, Work and Wives – when Quinn runs up and slams into my legs, a big smile painted across her face. I assume that she probably wants to tell me about a bug she saw, a rock she found or a bird she heard – these are the ecstatic ramblings of children long before the boring gray fuzz of adulthood has tainted their world view.
Jack bends at the waist and slaps his hands onto the tops of his knees and, in a sing-song voice says, “Why, hello there, princess!” Quinn looks up at him with a furrowed brow then looks over at me and I can hear her thoughts, Why is this guy talking to me like I’m a baby animal?
“How are you doing, Princess?”
“I’m, uh, fine?” and she says it like a question.
“You are beautiful, Princess! You are just beautiful, aren’t you?”
I cringe at the buttery compliments.
Quinn looks up at me. “Dad?”
“Are, uh, princesses… uh, real?”
“Like… on this planet?”
“And they’re alive right now?”
These are the three qualifiers Quinn uses in order to distinguish when and where a thing took place. She understands that things could have existed BEFORE now but exist no longer – like dinosaurs – or that things could exist outside of this country – like things in Africa – or that things could exist outside of this planet – like the sun and the moon. What she’s really asking is, “How accessible are these things to my reach?” How accessible are princesses to me? That’s the real question.
Can I be one?
Jack answers for me. “Of course they’re real! There’s one standing in front of me right now! A pretty princess! That’s you!” I cringe again. The last thing I want is my daughters to associate with characters who get trapped in towers, are afraid of spiders, and constantly require some form of assistance.
That is no one to make into a role model.
These ideas of “princess” are not inherent from birth. These ideas are fed into our daughters. We show them the pictures. We show them the movies. We glamourize the idea and the lifestyle. They are magical and beautiful and they don’t have bad hair and they never wet the bed and they don’t have to have jobs or work and everything is wonderful and their lives are perfect and how does it always end for a princess?
Happily Ever After.
And in all fairness, why would you not want that? I’m half tempted to throw a dress on myself and march around a castle while tethered to the sexual whims of some hunky prince in order to forego a few of the greater responsibilities of my standard adult life. Don’t judge.
We may not intentionally give our children this idea that they should actually dream to be a princess (I would never!). We may not intentionally feed this lie to them (They’re just movies!). We may not intentionally form them to believe this (Do you want to be a princess for your birthday?) but there are lessons in repetition and our culture helps shape that which we are.
It shapes girls through childhood with fun movies. It shapes ladies through their teen years, which we then couple with beauty magazines. It shapes women through adulthood, which we then couple with pornography. And they take all this baggage into the work force, which we then couple with an antiquated and slowly dying cultural idea that men work and women stay home and then we wonder why women make, across the board, slightly less in the workforce.
Perhaps we’ve spent decades telling girls that they deserve slightly less. Perhaps we’ve spent decades convincing ourselves that they deserve slightly less.
And maybe we all, on some level, believe it… even if we say we don’t. Perhaps there is a part of us all that still believes they are the fairer sex.
How do we know if we believe this? Well, if a man tells you that his wife works full time and he is a stay-at-home dad, what is your first, internal, gut, emotional reaction?
Your very first reaction is probably, like mine. “Wow, that is a-typical. I wonder what that’s like?”
I have full acceptance of it – no judgment – but there is this part of me that acknowledges that it is somehow out of the realm of what we typically understand to be true.
And herein lies the problem. Because we, as individuals or as an entire culture, can simultaneously acknowledge that it is okay and “progressive” for a woman to work and a man to stay home while also understanding that part of us finds it to be outside the norm.
And so if you also think it to be outside the norm, it is because you believe (or have been told to believe) that, like me, women have a specific place and men have a specific place. If your first thought is “That is unique,” then you too are trapped in this way of thinking even though you don’t think you’re trapped in a way of thinking.
Culture has also made you and I, as men, believe certain things without our knowing that we believe them.
Perhaps we re-educate our daughters on what it means to be a woman. Perhaps we re-educate our girls on what it means to be a princess.
Perhaps we put Jack’s princess to rest.
Or better yet, perhaps we kill her completely. Perhaps we just let her starve to death in the tower as a lesson for not having the get-up-and-go to rescue herself. Rapunzel, you had hair. You could have crawled down yourself. Cinderella, you could have left. There was NOTHING tying you to that house. Those people hated you. Ariel, you doctored your birth form and gave up your entire world for a guy you just met simply on the hope of Happily Ever After.
These. Are. The. Lessons.
Settle for less.
Wait for help.
Change who you are.
And if you make twenty cents an hour less than men doing the same job, maybe that’s just your place. After all, that’s what we’ve taught you.
Perhaps feminism wouldn’t have to exist if we raised our daughters believing they were bad asses from the very beginning. Perhaps our daughters would never ask, “Am I good enough?” if we stopped telling them stories that highlight all the reasons why women aren’t good enough / pretty enough / strong enough.
Perhaps we start telling them stories about women that are leaders instead of women that wait for leaders.
Quinn looks up at me, a revelation dawning across her face, “Dad, am I a princess? Is this true?” Jack has planted the seed.
And now I must garden.
“Well, let’s see… do you have a crown?” “No.” “Do you have a scepter?” “No.” “Do you have a castle?” “Uh, no.” “Do you own any lands? Is your mother a queen? Do you have servants? Do you settle disputes amongst your countrymen?”
“Uh, no. I don’t do those things.”
“Then you probably aren’t a princess.”
Jack says, “Why would you tell her that?” and I say, “The same reason I tell her that she is not God nor an earthworm.”
“Dad? Is, uh, Cinderella a princess?”
“Yes, she is.”
And in that moment I see the light in her eye. I see the draw of The Princess. I see that my daughter wants it because, at her core, I think most little girls do. And that’s okay too. But how do we separate all the terrible trash from the good stuff? How do we tell them that it’s okay to be a princess and it’s okay to be pretty and it’s okay to dance and fall in love but… there is more. That is not all. The princess you know is an incomplete story. Because she is an incomplete character.
She is flat and brainless and you are not.
In her question I see an entire culture of beauty pressures and weight problems and negative encouragement and impossible goals and cosmetic surgery and feminism and macho bullshit swirling in a tornado, trying to rear its head, trying to sneak into Quinn’s ears and her head and her psyche, trying to poison the vision of who she is. Trying to mold her (and I mean “mold” both in the sense of “forming shape” and also as “an organism that slowly eats away and decays”).
Maybe that voice in our culture is impossible to stop. Maybe it’s a hopeless battle and all of the body image shit that bathes and berates our females is impossible to hide from.
But maybe not.
Maybe we just need to alter the messaging a bit.
I squat down onto one knee, proposing an idea.
“Quinn, you know what? Princesses are real. There are princesses on this planet right now. On this Earth. And you know who the best one is?”
“GREAT GUESS, PRINCESS!” That’s Jack.
“The greatest princess of them all is a woman just like you named Daenerys Stormborn. And she is the Mother of Dragons.”
“DRAGONS!? SHE HAS DRAGONS!?”
“Oh, yes. Three of them.”
Jack, “I don’t think you can tell her that.”
Me, “You think I should stick to Cinderella and her transforming pumpkin-carriage as the barometer for reality?”
Jack shifts his eyes, “Uh, what?”
“THREE DRAGONS!?” that’s Quinn in full excitement.
“Yeah. And you know what else? She flies around on them.”
“And they breathe fire.”
“WHAAAAAT!? FROM THEIR MOUTHS?!”
“Can I see a picture?!”
I pull out my phone and, thanks to Google and the wonderful CG team at HBO, I show her a picture of a very real looking Daenerys riding a very real looking dragon that is breathing very real looking fire.
“OH. MY. GOODNESS.”
“Can I tell you something else? She is a very. Powerful. Warrior. She is strong and she is brave and she stands up for people that are weak and she stands up for people that don’t have a voice. She is a hero. What do you think about that?”
“THAT IS REALLY KEWWWL!”
“Yes, it is. I agree. Now then, what do you think? Would you rather be Cinderella with her glass slippers going to the dance or Daenerys Stormborn with her dragons, breathing fire and battling the wicked?”
“I want to be Dan Harris!”
“I thought so. Remember, being pretty is nice. But being smart, brave and kind – being a leader – this is who you are. This is what’s really inside of you. Capiche?”
Quinn smiles and runs away. I stand up and smile at Jack, “Sugar and spice and everything nice only goes so far. Sometimes you’ve gotta pour a little whiskey in the soda if you want it to bite back.” Jack smiles in a way that makes me think he does not agree.
And that too is okay.
I acknowledge that someday Quinn will grow up and will most likely seek a spouse. And when she does, I want her to choose someone that she wants to be with. Someone that accentuates her happiness and helps to highlight her charm.
Our culture has a loud voice. And that voice tells us that spouses complete us. The voice tells us that our spouse is our other half.
But I say no.
I say we are complete people before we meet one another. A person does not complete another person. A person adds their brew to the mix. They bring their own ingredients and they help create a spicier dish but they do not complete the recipe.
Marriage does not complete you anymore than having children completes you anymore than having the proper job completes you anymore than having the right pair of pants completes you.
You are you.
You are you regardless of who you’re with.
Quinn doesn’t need someone to complete her. She can choose to be with someone because she loves being with them. Because their company is delightful. Because they find happiness in the other’s presence. Not because they will give her Happily Ever After.
Quinn comes running back, wrapping her arms around my leg.
I place my hand on her forehead. “Yes, Breaker of Chains?” Quinn squints at me. “Uh, those dragons… are they real?”
Ah, I knew that one was going to come around.
Sometimes, as a parent, it is our job to build up our children and raise them to be the best version of themselves that we believe they can be. Sometimes it’s our job to protect them from all the flying bullshit in the world – at least for as long as we can. Sometimes it’s our job to remind them to think for themselves and to question the status quo. Sometimes it’s our job to tell them the very hard truths of life.
It is our job to lie.
“Yes. The dragons are real. They are the last three in the world. And Daenerys has them and she flies around on them, fighting evil. And you, Quinn. You can fight evil as well.”
“I’M GOING TO!” and she turns and runs off into the yard, where I hear Rory and Bryce laughing.
Sometimes lying is good.
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