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1 Mar

The Pirate Problem: On Pirates, Princesses, and the Hypocrisies of Kids’ Play

supergirlI’ve been reading Peggy Orenstein’s book about the tyranny of princess culture among little girls – Cinderella Ate My Daughter, which could, I think, actually be the title of an early draft of the Grimm Brothers’ version of the original story – and it is interesting and thought-provoking and all those things that usually attend books written by smart women.

But although I find the book very interesting, I can’t say that I’m sold on the idea that princess culture is the Great Scourge Of Our Time, or even just the Great Scourge Of Women And Girls In Much Of The Developed World. I mean, yes, I’m put off by things like Toddlers And Tiaras and Bratz Dolls and things that seem to push our daughters to grow up too fast, but I don’t think that princesses fall neatly into that category. And even if one is to insist (qua Orenstein) that we should be questioning princesses, I really don’t think that they’re the only cultural phenomenon aimed at children that we should be interrogating.

Let’s take pirates, for example. Pirates are awesome, right? We love it when little boys – and especially little girls – want to dress up as pirates and engage in play swashbuckling. They’re like tiny Jack Sparrows! How adorable! But when we celebrate pirate play – over, say, princess play – what is it, exactly, that we’re celebrating?

Pirates in real life, for example, are not nice people. Contemporary piracy involves machine guns and drug-running and smuggling and hostage taking and murder. Piracy, I would think, is no more something that we want our children to aspire to than being part of a monarchy. In fact – and this might be a crazy thing to say – but I’d kind of rather that my kids aspire to ruling kingdoms than to ‘aiming machine guns at the Coast Guard.’

A similar argument might be made about the marketing of superheroes – Iron Man has taken down some bad guys, but he’s also a vigilante – aren’t all superheros vigilantes? – and also, in the guise of Tony Stark, kind of a dick. Is Snow White’s quietness really that much more terrible than vigilante recklessness? Why do we want the former for our kids, but disdain the latter? And why are the things that we think of as good for our kids male-coded things, and all the things we think of as bad, girl-coded?

Therein resides the problem, or part of it, I think: we worry too much about our children adopting the qualities of these characters wholesale. We worry that if little Penelope puts on a pink princess costume, she’ll buy into the whole magical happily-ever-after find-joy-through-finding-your-prince scam. We don’t give her enough credit to pick out the parts of the stories and the characters that are most enriching and fulfilling. (And, yes, there are enriching and fulfilling parts; that’s a whole other post.)

But don’t we give Jimmy and Johnny (or Jane) exactly that kind of credit when they dress up like Jack Sparrow, and we don’t expect that they’ll be seduced by the sinister side of piracy and drawn to a life of crime on the high seas? Why is that? Why are we so unforgiving about princesses, and so afraid that our daughters won’t be able to resist the allure of what we think of (rightly or wrongly) as their more problematic attractions, but so not afraid of the darker implications of encouraging our kids to pretend to be criminals and vigilantes?

To ask it differently: why are we so critical of things that girls like (and the ways that girls play), and not critical (even celebrate) the things that boys like? If we’re worried about undermining girls, why aren’t we talking about that?

(A version of this post was previously published on