Free the princess: A Purim costume plea to parents

If my current Facebook feed full of Hametaschen recipe sharing is any indication, Purim is most definitely on its way. For many parents of young Jewish children, this means that now time to start asking our precious little ones who or what they would like to dress up as for their Purim costume. My girls, ages 7, 4, and 4, wait all year for this. In my house however, the question is more “which” rather than “who” as since my girls could talk, they have always dressed up for Purim as a Disney Princesses.

We actually just recently returned from a family trip to Disney World. My husband and I had been to Disney World several times before having children, but this trip was planned all for the kids. That meant, in plain terms, as much princess exposure as possible. The girls insisted on packing their entire princess costume collection and agonized every morning of the trip as to which costume that they would wear to the parks that day. We stood in lengthy lines to meet princesses, watched princess shows, ate at a special princess character dinner, and I even saved up all of my Disney credit card points for the princess make-overs at the “Bibbiddi Bobbidi Boutique” in Cinderella’s castle. With much glee I shared many photos of our princess filled trip on Facebook. My friends were horrified.

All in all, this should not be a big deal, just a normal trip for a family of 5 to Disney World. But wait, I’m a card carrying feminist. Heck, I even hold a Masters degree in Jewish Women’s Studies and teach Women’s Studies at a local university. I rejected my Orthodox upbringing at 13 years old, inspired by the works of the great Jewish feminists pioneers Judith Plaskow, Susannah Heschel Rachel Adler, and Evelyn Beck. I begged my parents to remove me from an all-girls Ultra-Orthodox school and instead to enroll me in an open minded community Jewish day school that held egalitarian minyanim, employed both male and female rabbis and unapologetically included the works of Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison as required classroom reading.

Unsurprisingly, the truth is that almost of my academic friends and colleagues are almost all vehemently “anti-princess” and will do anything to keep their daughters away from the dangerous world of tiaras, ball gowns, and, the most evil of all, Prince Charming. I even have one friend who vented on Facebook how frustrated she was at the caretakers at her newborn’s childcare center referring to her 6 week old daughter as a princess. “Why should I do???” she wrote in desperation, “should we continue to send her to such an institution?”

As a scholar of Women’s Studies, I do indeed find it quite interesting, that for this new generation of American little girls, the Disney Princess machine has only grown stronger and stronger. In fact, Disney World in the process of completing a brand new Magic Kingdom expansion project that includes a much more directly princess focused Fantasyland. The young girls becoming enraptured in this world are not the daughters of 1950s and 1960s housewives, but rather educated and often times high ranking professional women. Modern little American girls simply can’t get enough of princesses. These are girls who are growing up in a world of female doctors, lawyers, clergy, legislators, etc. Yet, they still fantasize about wearing a ball gown and being swept off their feet. What would Gloria Steinem say?

So why then, would someone like me, actually encourage and embrace the princess overload?

To me it’s very simple. Being a feminist should not mean an overall rejection of everything it means to be a girl.

The opening lines to the Madonna song “What it Feels Like For a Girl” includes a powerful statement:

Girls can wear jeans

And cut their hair short

Wear shirts and boots

‘cause its ok to be a boy

But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading

‘Cause you think that being a girl is degrading

When we completely and totally reject princess culture, we are limiting our daughters from a full exploration of their gender and femininity in general. I personally find this quite ironic being that many of my “mommies of girls” friends worry that by exposing their daughters to princesses they will limit their future ambitions to only dressing up and searching for a man to “save them.”

If being a feminist truly means that I am expected to act, dress, and think like a man, then I have no interest in such a movement. In many ways, that archaeic “Working Girl- big shoulder pad 1980s” feminism seems to state that all things (culturally deemed) feminine, are somewhat “less than” or bad. Is that what feminism is really for, to create a female driven form of misogyny? Are we teaching our daughters that being worthwhile person means that you need to reject your gender? If someone is a true feminist, or these days, a true “post-feminist” then they will allow their daughters to fully and completely explore the world around them. And yes, as scary as it may seem, that world might include high heels and lipstick. My daughters know that Mommy wears dresses, pantyhose, and make-up to work every day, but they also know that Mommy has a job that she believes is making a difference in the world.

The true gift of women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s was not the ability for women to turn into men, but rather for women to have choices and the ability to create their own destinies away from a prescribed formula. One of the biggest compliments that I’ve ever received came from one of my dear “stay at home Mommy” friends. I was thanking her (yet again) for helping me out of a sticky work vs. childcare situation, when she turned to me and said, “No! Thank YOU for showing my daughters that they have a choice.”

Today our Jewish daughters have options, but if we really want to impart a sense of limitless possibility then we cannot limit them from their earliest moments. So yes, this Purim, as your daughters choose their Purim costume, I encourage parents to let their daughters explore, create, and experience all that the world has to offer… even if that includes a little fairy dust along the way.

About the Author
Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin is a highly energetic and engaging speaker, writer, career Jewish Educator and Jewish Professional. She is the Executive Director of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, served on the faculty of the Department of Religious Studies and Women's Studies at Randolph-Macon College and currently serves on the faculties of Humanities, Religious Studies, and Gender Studies at the University of Texas-El Paso. Originally from Silver Spring, Maryland, Shoshanna is a graduate of the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. She earned her Bachelors degree in Anthropology and Jewish Studies from the University of Maryland and a Masters Degree in Jewish Studies with a focus on Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies from the Jewish Theological Seminary where she will begin pursuing an Ed.D in Jewish Education this Fall.
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