With the birth of my daughter – who is now six – came infinite joys and pleasures, but also a set of unprecedented and deep-seated anxieties.
My daughter arrived in a world that considers itself to be at the brink of a momentous change – a world in which, allegedly, gender imbalance is being addressed and redressed; where feminists and feminisms thrive aplenty; and where equality between the sexes is no longer a myth.
Regrettably, this scenario couldn’t be further from the truth.
Whilst women are admittedly gaining a louder voice, more agency and a larger audience, the reality remains that as far as professional success is concerned, the chances being afforded to women are abysmally fewer than those gained by men.
Equality in the workforce and in personal lives continues to be a myth, albeit cannily disguised and sold as a reality.
And indeed, this is by no means, a concern exclusive to Pakistan or any one particular country. It is a global phenomenon about which women such as Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, have written and spoken about robustly. Sandberg’s mission, both on grounds of feminism and also in terms of its human rights thesis strikes me as compelling.
The main reason she cites for the stark contrast in the numbers of male and female leaders in the workforce is the propensity of women to quietly ‘lean out’ of success.
Strangely enough – and yet I empathise with this myself – women often view the prospect of professional success with a sense of unease and dread. This process is sometimes consciously, but at other times subconsciously underway in the minds of women who think of their future in terms of the roles they may have to undertake – wife, mother or member of the workforce – and the seeming impossibility of juggling them efficiently.
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As Sandberg has also suggested, while men often attribute their success to their own efforts and natural talents, women tend to attribute their success to either circumstance or to the support of others in the workforce or at home.
Again, this tendency fits in squarely with our propensity to lean out and plan, somewhat perversely, our ‘non-intention’ to succeed in the workforce. Socially, culturally and historically, we have been trained to think of ourselves within the frame of a highly predictable or 'known' future, defined by the possibilities of marriage, pregnancy and children. All of these are crucially important, but at the same time, the prospect of them tends to pre-define and therefor restrict our futures.
Personally speaking, a small promotion appears much more welcome and palatable than a full-blown role of responsibility and leadership.
I hasten to clarify that I fully appreciate the enormity of motherhood and the demands of this position. I am not advocating a half-baked approach to parenting.
What I am suggesting instead, is that the prospect of motherhood, marriage and domesticity has prevented many a woman from ‘thinking big’ professionally, even when they want to. And what worries me more is the fact that we don’t seem to be preparing our daughters – I use daughters in a generational sense – to lean in instead of leaning out.
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The preparation for this process must start early; there is no better time than childhood, when our opinions are first shaped and our personalities formed. And, it is as part of this preparation that I feel compelled to address the question:
Why I don’t want my daughter to be a ‘princess’
The number of times my daughter has been referred to as a princess – dating well before she made an appearance in the world – has recently begun to strike me as somewhat strange and disconcerting. I find myself increasingly wary of receiving this title, on her behalf, as a compliment.
To me, it feels like my six-year old has been progressively but securely positioned as a ‘princess’ – a role within which there is some, albeit insignificant, capacity for variation. She can be Elsa, Anna, Cinderella, Snow White or Moulin on any given day, depending on what she has asked for or how she has behaved or the manner of her speech.
The sum total of this superimposed role as the protagonist of a fairy-tale has meant that my daughter is now convinced that being a princess is not just as aspiration but also the norm – within which all things ‘pink’, ‘fluffy’, ‘shiny’ and ‘cute’ reign supreme.
The ‘Work Song’ from the Disney animation of Cinderella, performed by an all female chorus of mice, offers a particularly poignant example of the demeaning domesticity of Disney’s patriarchal framework:
Cinderelly, Cinderelly Night and day it's Cinderelly Make the fire, fix the breakfast Wash the dishes, do the moppin' And the sweepin' and the dustin' They always keep her hoppin'
Whereas the mice here bemoan the fate of an overworked and oppressed Cinderella, what my child will take away from the eventual “happily ever after” resolution is that it takes marriage and a prince to bring about the heroine’s ultimate emancipation and bliss.
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Bobbing about busily, the mice also manage to throw in some age-old wisdom into a 21st century setting – ‘leave the sewing to the women’. Wise words, indeed.
And, of course, Cinderella is but one example of the classic Disney tale in which women are represented as vulnerable, domestic, frail, dependent and all too easily pleased.
‘Frozen’, Disney’s most recent production, which left my daughter wanting to change her name to Elsa, had me squirming in my seat in the cinema for the best part of the film. In all fairness, this wasn’t entirely down to the film itself – I could just about bring myself to appreciate the singing and dancing extravaganza involving an exceptionally witty snowman – but more because of the claim that the film had somehow subverted the gender stereotypes engendered by Disney in the past.
I frankly do not see how.
Anna remains obsessed with engagements and marriage, and Elsa, being rather more reclusive and self-willed, is portrayed as an anomaly that is unapproachable and standoffish — descriptors, interestingly, that are not infrequently used to describe powerful and ambitious women in the workforce!
Add to this mix the unachievable and frankly disturbing physiques of the protagonists, and is it any surprise that the obsession with thinness and physical beauty pervade the minds and conversations of women so completely?
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The resilience, indomitable will, strength of mind and likeability that I want my daughter to be equipped with stands to be seriously jeopardised by the roles that society, family and she herself are likely to impose on her.
My message to her is hence clear:
Reach for the sky — ‘princesshood’ is unforgivably overrated.