Gender Stereotyping Can Be Stopped at Home

It's not Disney's fault your daughter wants to be a princess

Photograph by Getty Images

Stride Rite is the latest company to come under fire for pandering to gender stereotypes. In a recent ad campaign, the children’s footwear company shows a boy doing imaginary battle with a light saber (“The Power of Darth Vader”) while an ad for its girls’ shoes shows stars, princesses and a little blonde girl in “Wish Lights” sneakers.

Stereotypical boy/tough, girl/delicate strategy? Yep. And, sooooo, this is a problem? Apparently.

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Somewhere along the way, moms and dads have become increasingly reliant on everyone else raising their kids. And by everyone else, we don’t just mean us, plus other family members, teachers, clergy, friends and neighbors. We also mean TV networks, advertisers and retailers.

When you dreamed of having kids, did you breathe a big sigh with relief that you wouldn’t have do it alone? Because in addition to your partner, the Cartoon Network would be along for the ride? In addition to Gap Kids and Rice Krispies? Or did you kind of know that the job of raising your kids the right way, which is the way that you think is right, would be primarily up to you? If the latter is the case, then why do so many parents continue to be outraged—outraged!—at how products are marketed toward our children?

Why are we relying on TV shows, food companies and retailers to hand us gender equality and perfectly balanced nutrition on a silver platter? If Stride Rite’s shoes rub you the wrong way, don’t buy them. Or walk into the store—without your kids—and get a different pair of shoes that don’t puke some famous character all over them.

My 5-year-old daughter was introduced to Cinderella by me when she was about 2-and-a-half. I read her the book, which was followed up soon thereafter with the movie. Snow White came next, and then Annie, Dora and the rest. She has a big treasure chest full of dress-up clothes, although it mostly sits untouched these days. Nowadays she’s more into jumping on trampolines, doing arts-and-crafts projects and finding ways to torture her 2-year-old sister.

We gave her tiaras and plastic high-heel shoes. We also gave her a T-ball set, musical instruments and a large stack of books. What’s wrong, exactly, with allowing her to use her imagination and play dress-up? What’s wrong with liking some princesses emblazoned on her shoes? She also has plain sneakers and sandals. There’s nothing pink about her snow clothes. She is a girl. We’re not raising her to be that kid whose parents wanted his/her gender to be a surprise. Our home is not a sociology classroom where the merits of waiting for your prince to come is analyzed. Believe me when I tell you that as bright as my daughter is, she’s not reading very deeply into these stories.

When did it stop being OK to be powerful and pretty?

If they go unchecked, kids have the opportunity to idolize sports stars like Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong, who’ve done well in their professions but not in their personal lives—without knowing who the hero scientists, doctors and volunteers are. If they go unchecked, my kids would eat plain chocolate chips for breakfast, and stay up late playing The Crazy Game (which never ends well, BTW) until midnight.

Thankfully (or not), though, I’m always in the room or the next one over, which means that doesn’t happen. Just because this stuff is out there, it doesn’t mean we need to buy it, show it to them or feed it to them. Stride Rite’s job is selling shoes. Your job is to choose to buy those shoes for your kid or not.

Commercials can be bad and polarizing and misleading—but we don’t need to let our kids watch commercial TV (hello, On Demand!). Why are we blaming everyone else for exposing our kids to their evil ways when we're the ones allowing them to digest it all?

There’s a lot of analysis about what these shoes mean (“Girls are meant to be looked at, so their play shoes are a route to prettiness, while boys are meant to be active, so their play shoes are made for play,” says blogger Rebecca Hains), but it only makes me wonder how much time these people spend analyzing this stuff as opposed to the kids actually wearing this stuff.

My daughter doesn’t own princess sneakers, but she does have one pair that lights up. She thinks it’s cool, as she runs around on the playground until she falls down from exhaustion. She doesn’t feel dainty. She feels sparkly. And powerful. Because pixie dust gives you power, duh.

She doesn’t have a mirror in her room. She doesn’t primp and preen, but she does wear dresses. I’m good with that. She plays soccer, does gymnastics and goes to dance class (where she mostly looks at herself in the mirror). When, exactly, did the goal become gender neutrality? Because having a daughter wanting to look like a girl is fine by me. She has two Sofia the First books, and the lessons in both are about being kind and generous. While wearing a dress, yes. When did it stop being OK to be powerful and pretty?

“Sparkle with every step” reads the signs in Stride Rite stores. Thankfully (I guess?), my 5-year-old can’t read. But I can. And guess what? They’re still just sneakers. My 5-year-old doesn’t need to read to know that sneakers are the shoes she wears when she runs around, digs up worms and rides her scooter. She doesn’t do those things in stilettos.

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Why aren’t we going after Stride Rite for telling boys everything they do has to be superhuman? Why can’t they just be regular-human? Isn’t that equally unfair, and maybe even a little dangerous to let boys think they’re supposed to be scaling skyscrapers and holding on by a silk string? If they’re not actually leaping tall buildings in a single-bound, won’t these boys feel inadequate?

Let’s allow these companies do their jobs however they see fit. We can either buy/watch/feed it to our kids if it we think it’s appropriate or not. Let’s keep doing our job as parents and stop projecting that responsibility on people who are just doing their jobs.

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