I have a son. No news there. See, here he is…
My sweet boy. An amazing, beautiful, bright and loving kid.
My first born, my little Pumpkin King…
Batman Lover, Light Saber wielder, Santa Clause impersonator… sometimes all at the same time and no one can tell him not to wear his dragon rain boots just because it’s 90 degrees without a cloud in the sky or because they don’t match his Woody hat.
Three years old going on 16, he’s emotional, empathetic and strong willed. He waits impatiently for new input and he soaks it all in, seeing SO MUCH more than I realize at times! He’s a rock star, a pirate-spirit at heart.
He’s only been here a short while, but I already see the seeds of who he might become in the things that spark his interest. Fighting battles, saving the day, Star Wars, Nightmare Before Christmas, Cinderella and Pirates of the Caribbean. I do what I can to back up the lessons in those stories. Pirates are great – they have free spirits, they are strong, skilled, able to protect themselves, adventurous and brave. We just leave out the “pillage, plunder, rifle and loot” part. Knights are awesome – they protect others, they run to the call of danger, they think of others before themselves. We leave out the part where they often do terrible things on behalf of their rulers and don’t really have much of a mind of their own and they often have to kill things to win.
The foundation of the Walt Disney Company and Disneyland is built on all those values I admire, but I’ve noticed it’s a bit more difficult to do than I had thought it would be. Submerging him in that influence of hero-ship, I always felt, could do nothing but back up my parenting practices by presenting their life lessons in a context that is fun and easy to understand. Those foundational lessons include: Imagination, hard work, perseverance and passion, being a hero, being someone’s happy thought, thinking of others before yourself and never stop moving forward no matter how hard things get.
It started with the clothing. I went to the park with my new baby boy for his first visit on a chilly Monday in December. The only thing I’d wanted that day was some kind of “baby’s first trip to Disneyland” item or something like that. There was nothing that fit the bill, just some generic infant clothes with Mickey Mouse, but nothing that seemed particularly special to commemorate the occasion. No worries, I thought… it’s not a big deal, we can get a “first visit” button and that’s good enough. As time went on, I would go with a few extra dollars in my pocket with birthdays, Christmas or some other gift-giving holiday in mind, but could rarely find anything.
When he was about 3 months old, I went to World of Disney specifically to find something for him and found something… odd. In the infant/toddler section of the store, there were 4 racks with girls clothes ranging in sizes from newborn to 3T. Darling outfits with matching accessories, tiny Minnie Mouse and princess pj’s and tutus, hats and sunglasses, all kinds of adorable things! But I didn’t have a girl, so I kept searching. At first I thought it was totally a mistake, that something happened to their inventory because it was a transition period between Christmas and the new year. I found only 1 rack of boy clothes and they were super generic looking, pale blue with a tinsy Mickey emblem or an orange onsie with a giant Tigger face. There was one Buzz Lightyear onsie, but the imprint of the design was so caked on that when you bent the fabric, it cracked. It would have been hard and crunchy, not comfortable to wear at all. It felt like an afterthought, like… the leftovers after holiday on the discounted 70% off rack of what no one wanted. It was disappointing, but I held out my unwavering faith in the company and resolved myself to just forget about it and save my money. Eventually however, I stopped trying to convince myself that I was just seeing things. Compared to the Jupiter-sized quantity of pink princess merchandise, it feels like the attention to boys all over the park are pretty pale by comparison. … but it’s only in clothing, right? I mean, no one NEEDS character tees, right?
Next it was the toys…
As my young Padawan began flourishing in his love of Star Wars, pirates, characters like Sven & Kristoff, Aladdin, Simba and Hercules, I began trying to seek out toys, books and activities with those characters and, just like with the clothing, I was pretty shocked to find how deeply the divide goes and how little there was.
Looking at the classics, Disney storytellers have consistently captured the true essence of what a hero should be. Characters like Dusty Crophopper, Prince Eric, Robin Hood, Aladdin, Flinn Rider, Kristoff, Simba, Mogli, Ralph & Felix, Luke, Obiwan, Han Solo or young Anakin are just a few examples of excellent role models for pre-school age boys AND girls. So, why aren’t those heroes readily accessible at the park? Why are there DIY pages for Prince Philip costumes and Fix-It Felix online instead of pre-made costumes or toys ready at the park for families to buy? Why is there no “hero meet and greet” experience with Prince Adam and Belle’s father, or Tarzan, or Taran, or Robin Hood or Kristoff and Sven?
Once the bias was on my radar, I started to see it everywhere…
Even in the attractions; Not so much the rides necessarily, but the experiences like parades and water shows, the stage productions and character meet-and-greet experiences. Most are geared directly toward a girl audience with a little splash of boy characters thrown in as “honorable mention” or, simply because the princesses need someone to dance with.
Maybe I’m over thinking this, I thought. Maybe boys don’t care? I considered this, so I asked several mothers of boys if their children like to dress up and play games and who their favorite characters in Disney films are. All but one expressed that their sons, between 3 and 9, enjoy dressing up to play games every day and love the princess movies. One mother even noted her son had a whole section of closet devoted to his costumes and he continually made props to add to them. Additionally, each of the mothers stated they noticed the lack of boy items in the park, often choosing to bring costumes, props and toys from home that were purchased elsewhere or hand-made, so their boys can share the experiences their sisters get to have.
It’s no wonder more boys grow up to dislike Disneyland… it’s a girl’s park! Even with train rides, the pirate island and many attractions with a unisex feel, it’s clearly a girl’s park. The princes are downplayed, the heroes are impossible to find and the adventure is limited to a single island that is nearly always closed with rumors they may soon shut it down altogether.
Disney is a business and they go where the money is. I get that, I’m not new here. But Disney also creates memories. They reinforce ideals, they build dreams and spark imaginations. A company like Disney directly impacts our world and the kind of children we grow within it. Disney is in the business of marketing ambitions and dreams. Their direct influence can create heroes of our children through the wonder of the magic only Disney can provide.
When a little boy goes to Disneyland, he can find a knight’s helmet, sword and shield, so he can fight and kill things and protect princesses. Or, he can find pirate hats, swords, treasure, eye patches and gear, even jewels and compasses that don’t point North. If your boy is old enough, he can dress up like a Jedi, but not until he’s wearing a size small (5-6). You can find him a Peter Pan hat, but no other costume pieces, just a whole bunch of Tinker Bell. He cannot be Prince Charming or Prince Eric or even Tarzan or Mogli. You can find limited Indiana Jones items, but since those are not children’s films, it’s not likely your preschool boys will have any desire to wear them. The lessons learned through the availability and marketing here, to me, are: Fight, kill, have fun, get treasure.
By comparison; Disney teaches that a princess is to be poised, kind, generous, responsible, loving, charitable & respectful to animals and humans in need, gracious and humble. A girl who wants to emulate the heart of a princess by wearing the dresses, tiaras, gloves, and by setting up a tea set, a girl can be taught these values and it’s done with a feeling of responsibility, courage to stand up for what is right and feel a sense of purpose. When at Disneyland, she can don the costume and become the princess, then meet that same princess.
When you compare the boy and girl sections in World of Disney in Downtown Disney, it’s clear who they are targeting and who is the afterthought. There is a large department of the store devoted to princess costumes and girl clothes, toys and accessories. The boy’s sections are crammed into back corners with about 30 items total, all ranging in sizes that don’t even START until 3T and they are pretty generic. Most are Mickey Mouse, limited amounts of Jake and the Neverland Pirates, but nothing in sizes under 3T. The Nightmare Before Christmas items don’t start until size extra, extra small which is about a size 5t. The only toddler-appropriate accessories you’ll find in the boy’s section are plastic swords, baseball hats, beanies and gloves and one style of a shield with the Maleficent dragon on it.
In the Disneyland Park, they have this amazing princess experience where a little girl can get turned into a princess through a process of makeup, hair and clothing at the Bibbity Bobbity Boutique. It ranges in price from the fairly reasonable to INSANE and the little girls come out looking like they’re about to walk onto the set of Toddlers in Tiaras. So I thought… well hey, they must do a boy version, right? Of COURSE! We can spend $15 dollars for him to get a foam sword, a plastic shield and some hair gel so he can become a knight. Not a prince, just a knight. So while all the little girls can dress up like their favorite princesses and then meet them, boys can have their hair combed and have gel put in it and be generic knight #15 no one has ever heard of and no heroes to meet after.
With all this to ponder, I have to ask the company – All these last 60 years of making movies and expanding on a franchise that supports this ideal of true love and a girl being swept off her feet by a dashing, courageous man who values her love over all other things… how is my little boy supposed to learn that from you when all you give him to dress up is either a pirate or a knight??
It’s not Disney’s job…
Okay, so I’m not really looking at the Disney Company to teach my child these lessons, that’s what I’m for. Yep- I’m a legit parent who actually believes in teaching him these values myself. But c’mon, man… it would be nice to have some back up, right? Especially in a place like that where it’s all about “making dreams come true”. I will raise a decent boy with good values and a strong sense of honor, faith and compassion with or without Disney’s help because that is what our family believes in. We don’t NEED a corporation to teach our kids for us. All I’m saying is, it would be awesome if they at least pretended to want to partner with parents on this journey for both our daughters AND our sons.
I still have hope…
Don’t prove me wrong, Disney. Not when it really counts. As a starry-eyed, magic-loving child who grew up and is now raising my own children, I implore you- Please do something about this imbalance before he’s old enough to realize the reason he doesn’t get equal treatment in the parks is because he’s not as marketable as his sister. He doesn’t see it yet. Right now, he wakes up every day asking if we can go see “the Castle” and get on the pirate boat and visit the ghosts. When we go, I do everything I can to make sure he doesn’t feel left out- but someday I’m afraid he will see it and it will change everything. My wish is that both my children can grow with the positive ideals set down by their role models with equal access and opportunity to explore their imagination and creativity in a place that understands that no matter who or what you are, you matter.