The Problem with Jack Sparrow: On Pirates, Princesses & Kids' Play

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I've been reading Peggy Orenstein's book about the tyranny of princess culture among little girls - Cinderella Ate My Daughter, which could, I think, actually be the title of an early draft of the Grimm Brothers' version of the original story - and it is fascinating and thought-provoking and all those things that usually attend thoughtful books by thoughtful women.

But although I'm enjoying the book and its arguments immensely, I can't say that I'm entirely sold on the idea that princess culture is the Great Scourge Of Our Time, or even just the Great Scourge Of Women And Girls In Much Of The Developed World. I mean, yeah, I'm put off by excessive princessy-ness, and I'm horrified by the phenomena of Toddlers And Tiaras and whatnot, but still. I'm not sure that princesses are the worst thing that our culture tosses at girls. I am sure that they're not the only cultural phenomenon aimed at children that we should be interrogating.

Let's take pirates, for example. Pirates are awesome, right? We love it when little boys - and especially little girls - want to dress up as pirates and engage in play swashbuckling. They're like teeny Jack Sparrows! How adorable! But when we celebrate pirate play - over, say, princess play - what is it, exactly, that we're celebrating?

Pirates in real life, for example, are not nice people. Contemporary piracy involves machine guns and drug-running and smuggling and hostage taking and murder. Piracy, I would think, is no more something that we want our children to aspire to than being part of a monarchy. (Or, to be more mundane about it, waiting for one's prince to come.) In fact, this might be a crazy thing to say, but I'd kind of rather that my kids aspire to 'happily ever after' than to 'aiming machine guns at the Coast Guard.'

A similar argument might be made about the marketing of superheroes - Iron Man has taken down some bad guys, but he's also a vigilante - aren't all superheros vigilantes? - and also, in the guise of Tony Stark, kind of a dick. Is Sleeping Beauty's insipidness really that much more terrible than vigilante recklessness? Do we want any of this for our kids?

Therein resides the problem, or part of it, I think: we worry too much about our children adopting the qualities of these characters wholesale. We worry that if little Penelope puts on a pink princess costume, she'll buy into the whole magical happily-ever-after find-joy-through-finding-your-prince scam. We don't give her enough credit to pick out the parts of the stories and the characters that are most enriching and fulfilling. (And, yes, there are enriching and fulfilling parts; that's a whole other post.)

But don't we give Jimmy and Johnny (or Emilia; my daughter is more of a pirate/superhero kind of girl than she is a princess) exactly that kind of credit when they dress up like Jack Sparrow and we don't expect that they'll be seduced by the sinister side of piracy and drawn to a life of crime on the high seas. Why is that? Why are we so unforgiving about princesses, and so afraid that our daughters won't be able to resist the allure of their more problematic attractions, but so not afraid of the darker implications of encouraging our kids to pretend to be criminals and vigilantes?

I have my suspicions, although I'm still trying to work them out. What do you think?

Catherine Connors blogs at Her Bad Mother and Their Bad Mother and The Bad Moms Club, and everywhere in between.

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