Proud That Your Daughter Bailed on Pink Princess Dresses? Maybe Don’t Be
A six-year-old girl declaring her hatred of pink has basically internalized sexism
“I don’t like princesses,” my daughter’s seven-year-old friend proclaimed proudly. “Or pink.”
“Me either,” chimed in another little girl, one of six we were having over for my younger daughter’s seventh birthday, along with one boy. We were in search of a movie to watch, which, they announced, shouldn’t be about a princess. “I hate Frozen,” one said, and the others quickly concurred.
Not long before this, my daughter and her friends were whole-hog into what psychologists call “PFD,” or pink frilly dresses. “We have noticed that a large proportion of girls pass through a stage when they virtually refuse to go out of the house unless they are wearing a dress, often pink and frilly,” psychologist Diane Ruble and her colleagues wrote in a 2011 paper. Some mothers said their daughters began expressing PFD desires as soon as they could speak, and insisted on wearing pink to all occasions, from hiking to horseback riding. As many as 74% of three- to four-year-old American girls demand PFD, according to a follow-up paper by psychology professor May Ling Halim.
But why? The psychologists knew the phenomenon couldn’t just be attributed to cultural norms, since many American parents fight against cultural norms, attempting to shield their daughters from dressing as Frozen royalty Anna and Elsa, trying not to pinkify their toys. Besides, those norms were so recently created. Little boys stopped wearing dresses only a hundred years ago, and pink has been considered a girls’ color for less time than that. Meanwhile, pink is an ungendered color in some other cultures and countries, so the PFD phenomenon couldn’t be biological.
PFD feels so innate in part because kids police gender so strongly themselves. Perhaps the most powerful way kids learn about gender is not from the media or from their parents, but from one another. At two years old, most kids understand the two assigned sex groups, and by age three, the stereotypes associated with them. From there they construct what psychologists have called a “gender reality.” Arizona State University child development professor Carol Martin called children “gender detectives,” who aggressively try to divide the world into “what boys do” and “what girls do.”
What they don’t yet understand is what’s called “gender constancy.” They believe that gender stereotypes and assigned sex are the same thing, so because makeup is for girls, wearing makeup makes them girls. Playing with trucks and short hair makes them boys. Nothing communicates “girl” more than PFD, so when a girl is working hard to perform and perfect stereotypes to claim her place in the girl tribe, exercising the ultimate human instinct to belong, the most obvious way to do that is by embracing PFD.
But researchers also noticed that the embrace fades. Around age six, some American elementary school girls transform from demanding PFD to rejecting it in favor of more masculine endeavors. They begin showing an increased preference for male-typed behaviors and activities, including playing sports, wearing pants, playing with boys and “boy” toys, refusing to wear dresses or skirts, and casting off all associations with pink. Only 30% to 40% of girls Halim and colleagues surveyed had stereotypically feminine interests as they aged.
Children absorb the hierarchies of different gender groups, intuiting that boys and boy stuff have more status than girls and girl stuff.
Thus, the love of PFD is, for most girls, just a phase, erupting around age three and evaporating a few years later. This they called the “PFD-to-tomboy phenomenon.” This is what the girls in my living room were going through.
Whoopee, many parents think. Glad that pink princess thing is over.
Except it turns out that the shift isn’t reliant on girls’ understanding that they can do “boy” things without surrendering their membership in their girl tribe — that their membership is not dependent on them wearing, or liking, pink frills, and feeling more comfortable reaching across the aisle to boy-typed activities or clothes. After all, boys don’t usually turn six and suddenly embrace Barbie Dream Houses and tiara-and-tutu combos. In fact, boys may become more rigid in their preferences and play, more reinforcing of stereotypes. Why do girls feel comfortable entering boys’ territory around age six, but not the opposite?
The answer seems to be that these children have begun to absorb the hierarchies and statuses of different gender groups, intuiting that boys and boy stuff have more status than girls and girl stuff. Girls understand that the world sees them in a certain way based on their girl category, and that their category has a lower status. Young girls may not know that jobs once considered masculine, from bank teller to nurse, get devalued once more women than men do them, and that girls may now outperform boys in school and earn more college degrees but women still earn 80 cents for every man’s dollar. But they intuit that girls have a lower rung on the social status ladder than boys.
Thus, just as girls embrace PFD to gain entry to the girl group, many subsequently reject it, asserting a tomboyish side and disavowing what is feminine to disassociate themselves from the lower female rung.
So many parents are excited when the princess phase ends, but it turns out that a six-year-old girl declaring her hatred of pink and dispensing of PFD has basically internalized sexism.
Of course, my daughter and her pals were being reared in hyper-lefty New York City, where many parents would congratulate a young boy for his interest in makeup and fret over a girl’s (guilty!), or think a tomboy was terrific but fear that an extra sporty boy might be headed for toxic masculinity. Even those of us who think we’re feminists may be devaluing femininity if we reject things because of their association with girliness, or girls. Even we may be shaming our children for conformity, despite the fact that conformity is what our culture demands.
“I’ve heard from parents who say, ‘I have a little girl and I encourage her to play with trucks. We only got her boys’ toys,’” writer and sexual neuroscientist Debra Soh told me. “But then she goes off to school and she loves dolls. She wants dolls and she only plays with dolls and they’re really horrified by that. And that makes me sad because I think, well, what’s wrong with that? That’s what she likes. It doesn’t mean that she’s oppressed. It doesn’t mean that she’s not going to have a happy or fulfilling or successful life. And maybe she will still be a CEO one day.” But Soh thinks that parents believe their girls have to be more like boys if they want to be successful, making both girls and their parents feel bad if they’re not more masculine, promulgating the femininity = bad calculation.
Of course, not all girls who discard PFD do so because they realize that, as Simone de Beauvoir said, “to be feminine is to show oneself as weak, futile, passive, and docile.” Sometimes they develop enough to know that they can be girls without being girly. They feel more free to do what they want to do, including play soccer or wear pants — freedoms boys who want to do ballet and wear skirts generally don’t feel.
At my daughter’s party, I put on Brave, a Disney princess movie with a highly feminine-looking protagonist, but one who refuses to submit to her prescribed path as a future bride. There were a few complaints at first that I broke the no-princess rule. But after a couple of minutes, the children sat there enrapt, watching this story about a young girl carving out her own path in life: a tomboy, rejecting her gender role, in a princess dress.