Before I became a mom at the age of 41, I was many things, including a hip-hop artist. Mostly, I did hip-hop theater, a solo show about fighting sexism in music. But I also rocked many a mic in the club. Little did I know that these skills would come in handy in my new battle against sexism: children’s literature.
Last year, when my daughter was not quite two, we loved to go to this Salvadoran restaurant that had plenty of toys and books for families with toddlers.
As I sat on the couch by the kids’ table, my daughter handed me a board book about the size of my palm: Disney’s Snow White. The classic story was cut down to just eight pages, but it was the usual gist: Sweet princess, evil queen, apple, sleeping forever, kiss from the prince. You know the drill. This was before my daughter could even say the word princess. I was in charge. I had the power to define her world. Maybe that’s why, without a shred of defeat, I just offered up an alternative freestyle narrative to the pictures.
As the restaurant activities bustled around us, it was as if my daughter and I were in a little bubble of our own. I looked at the first picture, and tried to imagine a caption where the princess was a badass instead of a sweet young thing. I took a breath, and said the first thing that came to my mind: “Snow White was an animal rights activist…” With no one to contradict me, my daughter accepted my version and we turned the page.
With each new photo, I freestyled an alternative storyline.
So my story doesn’t really make sense, I know. But when you think about it, the original Snow White story doesn’t make sense, either. Why would a powerful queen care if a young girl in the forest were fairer than her? Why would men be able to heal women by kissing them while they slept? The original is not only nonsensical but disturbing. And the experience opened my eyes to the fact that, until my daughter can read, I have the power to control the narrative of everything we read together.
I have lost some media battles–I’ve relaxed my zero screen time policy to let her watch b-girls and women’s gymnastics videos while I cornrow her hair. I’ll even allow the occasional Sesame Street and Teletubbies. But the Disney princesses are poisonous. Girls’ lives in the US are saturated with Disney princesses and, with few exceptions, they all reiterate an identical storyline: female passivity and competition, ending in a male rescue finale.
So it turns out that Disney Princess freestyling is a skill that I can often deploy. This year, we were at a kids’ party and one of the little girls had a Disney box set of books. The mom sort of cringed when her daughter brought them out. My daughter pounced upon the brightly colored books with the big-eyed girls, and demanded that I read them. As I began to freestyle, the mom grinned at me. I was horrified to find that every one of the princess stories ended in marriage, dancing with a prince, and a kiss (Brave wasn’t part of the set). Halfway through the stack, one girl piped up, “That’s not what it says!” I smiled at her, “I’m reading it a different way.”
I freestyled every single one of those books. It got harder to explain the relentless dancing and kissing, but I just insisted that all of these women were very friendly dance instructors. The goal is just to keep alternative possibilities open in my daughter’s mind.
I can’t help but believe that re-writing the Disney stories aloud will help my daughter become a freestyler herself. I just want to encourage her in the business of making up the lyrics to her own life.
Yes, one day my daughter will learn to read and she will watch television shows and movies. But she won’t have me co-signing on each of those insane messages, she won’t have me passively accepting the narrative like a kiss on a sleeping woman’s lips.