Sexism in the cult of Disney? Fictitious heroines one limited template? I don’t think so!

When I started writing this blog, I intended it to document our life as a new home educating family and to share some tips and activities about things which have worked for us.  My last post though was a tad – shall we say forthright?  I was passionate about the subject but after having said my bit, I was planning to go back to sharing some of the fun things Jasper and I have been up to.

But then I read an article which appeared in the Daily Telegraph yesterday, entitled ‘I’d happily blow the brains out of a Disney Princess’ written by Beverley Turner.  There are a lot of really valid points in the article; you can read it here but if you haven’t, the gist of the bit that drove me mad is essentially this:

The author fumes that ‘the cult of Disney’ brainwashes children into believing that women should do no more than wait around, doe-eyed and pathetic, for a charming Prince to come along and rescue them from whatever perilous circumstances they happen to find themselves in.  She argues that we should have more true-to-life characters because most women “prefer to do more than wait to marry a Prince, in a size 8 dress with hair down to their waist” and that the Disney princess image is damaging to young girls as it teaches them that they need to be aesthetically perfect and can’t do anything without a man.

Oh come on.

Firstly, I’m not at all convinced that Disney Princesses are the distressed damsels Beverley Turner seems to think.  Yes, they do seem to be motivated (at least in part) by the desire to marry a handsome Prince, but very few seem to sit around waiting for this to happen or indeed to be rescued.  I said very few, not none before you shoot me down.  They know what they want and they go after it, navigating treacherous paths and any number of obstacles on their way.

Let’s take Princess Jasmine.  As the daughter of a Sultan she is expected, under obligation in fact, to marry a Prince.  Yet all the ones she meets are arrogant fools who treat her as nothing more than a “prize to be won.” Refusing to buy into that idea, Jasmine defies the system and decides she’s going to marry for love.  Fragile maiden I think not.

Then there’s Ariel.  Again, yes I know she’s after a bloke, but he’s not exactly attainable.  Does this put her off?  Of course it doesn’t.  She’s prepared to leave her home, literally travel across the ocean and change her whole world to get what she wants.  Now the usual argument here is that yet again, a woman is made to change who she is for a man, but I really don’t see it like that.  I think you’ve got to have a hell of a lot about you to be prepared to give up all you’ve ever known and venture into unknown territories without even a guarantee that the one you want will love you back.

Belle refuses to marry Gaston despite all the girls in the town thinking he’s a catch because she wants something more and she’s prepared to give up her liberty to protect her father.

Now, I don’t have daughters.  But if I did, I’d be quite happy for them to look up to these girls as heroines.

Secondly, let’s look at the skinny thing.  I think there’s confusion about the effect generally size 0 women, and the way they are portrayed in the media, have on young girls.  To me, the problem is this.  It isn’t that there are skinny women in magazines and as celebrities.  If that’s a problem, that says more about our parenting – if our girls can’t see someone with an apparently near perfect body without suffering a huge knock to their confidence, we need to helping them develop their self esteem more.  If we get into the realm of banning and dictating to publications because we don’t like what they put on their covers, we’re in dangerous territory.  The problem arise when these women pretend that they don’t have to work hard to maintain their figures; when we show zoomed in pictures of their invisible rolls of fat when they bend over on the beach or claim that they have “ballooned to a size 10” and wonder whether this will affect the quality of their work.  The most worrying though is when we airbrush women so that they are flawless without making it clear to young readers that this has happened.  Magazines need to sell copies.  Fact.  So yes, they want something on the cover that looks good.  The damage comes when we make women look almost 2d and then let them claim that they “eat what they want” and can still be slim.  That’s damaging.  A confident, articulate Disney Princess who happens to be slim, isn’t.

I happened to see Kimberley Walsh on Lorraine this morning and she summed it up perfectly for me.  Talking about her style and body confidence, she said this:  “I do think women have to work hard to keep a good body shape.  I do work out a bit but I like food and like to eat what I want.”  She admitted that despite her enviable figure, she has days when she doesn’t feel confident.  Just like the rest of us.  It’s all about, she states, being confident in yourself and knowing what suits you and your body shape.

Beverley Turner mentions the fit, athletic women who inspired young girls as part of the Olympic games.  She talks about achievement.  Isn’t defying the system to marry for love an achievement?  Or being prepared to risk death to save your family?

Of course there are subtle messages in Disney films.  Disney is a huge corporation and we need to be careful about the messages such a powerful company is able to send out to our children.  Sometimes though, I think we should just let things be what they are.  And the films in which our Disney Princesses appear are just this: Fun-filled fairy tale adventures enjoyed by children for generations.

And Beverley?  Blowing the brains out of characters you don’t happen to like?  Great message to our daughters.

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Deschooling for parents

I read somewhere recently that lots of home educators ‘de-school’ their children for one week per year they have attended school.  I have always thought this was a great idea; after all the environment of school just isn’t right for so many children and it’s no surprise that they leave at best feeling ambivalent about learning and at worse, completely switched-off to it.  Then there are the routines and habits to get rid of – thinking that learning takes place only at set times, in a set way.  And the rest! 

 So many teachers have said to me in surprise (and I’m paraphrasing here), “Isn’t it funny that children learn best when they don’t realise they’re learning?” Why this hasn’t led to more exploration and a chance to develop interests of the children in school I don’t know, but that’s by the by. For this post at least.

Anyway, Jasper has never been to school so we haven’t done any de-schooling.  We have just carried on playing and exploring in exactly the same way as we always have done.  As I have said in earlier posts, Jasper is very keen to start some formal learning of letters and numbers so we have been doing that.  But there have been no routines to get out of, no habits to break, no confidence to build back up after it having been destroyed by teachers or simply the institution of school itself.

Or so I thought.

Jasper may never been to school, but I have.  And not just as a child either.  I have taught in schools for the last 6 years (sometimes full time, sometimes part time) and school-type learning seems to be much more ingrained in me than I’d realised.

When we decided to home ed, I was so excited about the opportunity to avoid recording for the sake of recording, sitting down at a table with books in front of us just to prove we were “learning”.  Now, I haven’t quite fallen into that trap exactly, but I definitely am still stuck in my old school ways.

Although I’m determined to make sure all Jasper’s experiences are meaningful and relevant and that he gets a chance to explore the outdoors – for example by our weekly sessions at The Wood School in Didsbury, Manchester, I still have this almost uncontrollable urge to sit at the table and learn.

I’m not making Jasper record everything we do because let’s face it, all he’s doing there is providing proof for someone else that he has learnt or experienced something.  He isn’t learning anything new. But I’m recording it.  Everyday, I type up records of our visits; what we have learnt in terms of reading and letters; things Jasper said or expressed an interest in.  I have files on my desktop, paper folders with neatly organised sections; photographs and videos; if we have played a game, what educational experiences I thought Jasper had got out of it; I make plans of what I think we’ll have learnt by this month, by that day; topics we might want to focus on.  I even write down how many times we go to the park, do a jigsaw or see friends to convince myself he’s getting enough of everything.  It’s getting ridiculous.

About an hour ago I had a revelation.  I have a lot of these.  They hit me like a brick on the skull and I am known to utter a loud sigh and shake my head at my own stupidity.  I was sitting down at the table, waiting for the mackerel to be cooked (a nice change from toast to cheer us up in this wet weather!) when Jasper came and sat next to me.

“Mummy?” he asked.  “Can I do some adding with my letters?”

“Well of course,” I replied, ready to jump into maths teacher mode bombarding him with ‘mathematical language’, “Shall I help you?”

“No thanks.” he said

I had a quick scurry around for my pen and camera in case he did something “of note.” (There’s the EYFS vocabulary again.) I passed him the tub of letters and he spent about 20 minutes sorting and adding different numbers of letters together.  He arranged them like a rocket on his whiteboard and looked for the letters he thought might be in the word rocket.  He then decided to make them into a circle and wondered why circle started with the letter c when it sounds like an s.

Then it really hit me.  Me sitting planning about which letters we are going to introduce on which day, which word blends we could find and where we would be up to with phonics compared to children Jasper’s age who attend school nursery is completely pointless.  Yes, he probably needed that initial input from me to spark an interest in letters but that was so much more likely to have come from all the sharing of stories and poems, both from books and made up, than from me sitting at the table saying “Let’s learn these letters!”  So what that I hadn’t written on a piece of paper what I’d introduce and what I’d suggest, what I thought his learning outcomes would be.  And guess what?  He was still learning, arguably more so!

So I have made a vow.  I’m going to de-school myself.  Yes, we are going to still have some structure.  It works for us.  But when we sit down together to look at letters, numbers or whatever it is, I am going to make sure I give Jasper the time to explore by himself with my help only if he wants it.  I am going to ban the words “compared to children in school” and I am going to follow the same rules as I follow for Jasper.  Recording only when valuable.  Yes, I’ll write down things of note and take pictures but I am only going to use them to constantly adapt what we are doing to make sure it is the best for Jasper.  In 20 minutes he has shown me what I knew all along really.  Children are always learning and more than that, they learn what they want, when they want. And I need to relax and allow that to happen!