A Feminist Hears a Who

| Wed Apr. 9, 2008 12:52 AM EDT

I was aghast to hear my four year old daughter playing with her dolls the other day. The dolls are not the problem; the story line was. Tuning in and out while she nattered on, I suddenly realized the dialogue went something like this:

First Princess: "Oh no! The evil witch is coming. We need Prince Sean!" (Sean is the boy she's all but stalking at preschool).

Second Princess: "Oh! She'll cut our guts out. Where are the boys? We need boys."

FP: "Girls aren't strongly brave. We shall die! Who will save us? Oh! It's the prince. He'll save us."

All in a high-pitched and annoying ditzy soprano. It got so much worse than this, I had to sit her down for a chat. Where on earth was she getting this stuff?

I pummel her and her 7-year-old brother with feminist analysis of every medium they encounter, from billboards to story books to cereal boxes. I'm a single mom with a freelance career; they watch me struggle and kick ass everyday, all without help from a 'prince.' Yet, my daughter argues furiously with me that only boys are strong and brave and tough. She was actually offended when I called her a tough cookie after she'd done something cool. "I'm not tough, Mom! I'm a girl." Yeah, and if I'm very lucky, someday I'll get to wipe the sweat from your brow as you push out a fetus as big as you were. Then we'll talk about tough.

I know she's just trying to make sense of all the conflicting messages the world is lobbing at her, but overhearing her made me see just how naive I'd been to think my unrelenting feminist harangues would shield her from the world's low expectations of what she can do. Make her doubt herself, no matter what her actual accomplishments. Her four-year-old brain is telling her that she has to choose between feminity and strength. I know. She'll work it out over time. But, boy, was I freaked.

I fight bigotry for a living; surely my kids would be immune to it, right? The light came on when I took them to the movies this weekend.

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God help me: it was "Horton Hears a Who," reimagined as misogyny. NPR's Peter Sagal said it best:

In a new subplot added by the filmmakers, the mayor of Whoville has 96 daughters. He has one son. Guess who gets all his attention? Guess who saves the day? Go ahead, think about it, I'll wait....

Here is a father with 96 daughters—96 amazing, beautiful, unpredictable, mysterious, distinct, glorious human beings—but gosh, what in the world is he going to care about? I know, let's give him a moody silent uninteresting offspring, but this one's got a Y chromosome...that'll be boffo box office!

And there's this—not only does the movie end with father and son embracing, while the 96 daughters are, I guess, playing in a well, somewhere, but the son earns his father's love by saving the world. Boys get to save the world, and girls get to stand there and say, I knew you could do it. How did they know he could do it? Maybe because they watched every other movie ever made?

So where is my daughter learning to accept that she's weak, helpless, and second best? Everywhere.

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