The Princess Trap

Our daughter is getting into dolls and dress-up. What are programmer parents to do?

Illustration by Rob Donnelly

When my 4-year-old told me the other day that she was “ready for princesses,” part of me died. Not just because the day had finally arrived when that virulent meme had infected her, but also because of how utterly powerless I was to contain it. Let me be clear: These weren’t progressive princesses like Adventure Time’s Lumpy Space Princess and Doctor Princess (that’s just her last name). This kind of princess forced my programmer wife and me to do what we swore we’d never do to our child, which is deny our daughter a book. The one my kid picked up in the bookstore spent more pages describing its characters’ future husbands than the princesses themselves, and when a book about girls for girls fails to pass the Bechdel test, something is pretty wrong. Other princess books she looked at weren’t much better. Exemplary, idiosyncratic female role models, like Turtle from The Westing Game or Rat from The Snarkout Boys & the Avocado of Death, were nowhere to be found.

Getting more women into science and technology fields: Where’s the silver bullet? While I might get more hits by revealing the One Simple Trick to increase female participation in the sciences, the truth is there isn’t some key inflection point where young women’s involvement drops off. Instead, there is a series of small- to medium-sized discouraging factors that set in from a young age, ranging from unhelpful social conditioning to a lack of role models to unconscious bias to very conscious bias. Any and all of these can figure into why, for example, women tend to underrate their technical abilities relative to men. I know plenty of successful women in the sciences, but let’s not fool ourselves and say the playing field in the academic sciences or the tech world is even. My wife attributes her pursuit of programming to being a loner and pretty much ignoring wider society while growing up: “Being left alone with a computer (with NO INTERNET TO TELL ME WHAT I COULDN’T DO) was the deciding factor,” she tells me.

While our daughter is already addicted to tablets, she can pick any career she likes. What we want is for her to grow up with no preconceptions of women as less talented or capable than men, which is why we try to foster an environment in which our daughter can imagine herself doing anything.

But that means every day is a minefield of tiny yet potentially catastrophic gender signifiers—at least if your mind is as unhealthily obsessive as mine. Her animal toys, for example: Which are male and which are female? Trying to avoid pronouns drove me insane, and I can’t bear using a singular “they.” So a few years back, I arbitrarily decided that of her three dinosaurs, the stegosaurus and triceratops are female and the apatosaurus is male. But as the animals piled up, my memory failed me. While my daughter tends to default to making the animals male (with some exceptions, like a noisome stuffed green dinosaur named “Smelly”), I’ve taken to swapping pronouns to try to even the balance. I can’t remember exactly when I do this, so some animals have switched genders multiple times. My daughter seems to roll with it.

Things get trickier outside the apartment. Our local toyshop is neatly divided into two aisles, one with building sets and model trains and games, the other with Barbies and princess dresses. It’s not that dress-up and dolls are inherently terrible, just that an exclusive focus on stereotypical-girl interests severely limits the scope of unstructured play, which is so important to creative development. When we visit the shop, we try to minimize our involuntary sighs, but our child notices when we get more excited about the boys’ side. Not that she’s realized it’s the boys aisle—because it’s not. It’s a kids aisle.

Attempts to correct the balance can be subtly ham-fisted. Outside the toy store one day, marketers for Lego were giving away building sets. Each kid got to choose a hydroplane in the traditional Lego style, piloted by a generic buttonhead Lego figure, or a “Lego Friends” lavender and pink desk with flowers, a laptop, and a svelte female executive figurine. We took both. At home, we swapped the pilot’s baseball cap with the executive’s shoulder-length brunette hair to give her more of a tomboy look, but we couldn’t get her to pilot the damn plane. She was too big for the seat, whether sitting or standing. My daughter really wanted the woman to fly the plane, so obviously she was going to pilot that plane even if she had to be superglued into it. After I failed to attach the executive to the hydroplane, my daughter saw the hole on the underside of her foot and attached her to the wing so she was standing on one leg. Perfect.

Even worse, the hydroplane was way more complex and fun than the desk, with moving parts and more pieces. If it’d been me and I’d just assembled the desk set, I’d have walked away thinking Legos were boring. The lesson for parents with curious daughters: Avoid the less complicated Lego Friends sets intended for girls.

The Lego Research Institute uncannily captures my wife.

I share this example not to shame Lego, which has adapted and sold fan-made creations like geochemist Ellen “Alatariel” Kooijman’s “Research Institute” set—which deserves more than the limited run it had. (And to be fair, its Lego Friends Dolphin Cruiser set looks reasonably interesting. More like that, please.) Just as there are many disparate causes discouraging women from pursuing science careers, isolating any one incident as an ungodly horror (even that idiotic Barbie computer book) risks missing the larger insidiousness of a very difficult and maddeningly diffuse problem. The moments can be subtle. My daughter does have some (unisex) Duplos, and they do seem to give her a bit more creative latitude than most domestic dollhouse sets do. For example, I walked in on her “farm” one day to see that a Duplo horse was hanging and swinging from a winch attached to a tower. “Why is Horse up in the air like that?” I asked. “Because this is a sharing farm, and he was not sharing,” she said. (He was eventually granted a reprieve.) It’s difficult to model such collectivist discipline in the conventional domestic setting of a dollhouse.

And while I’m on the subject of collectivism: Some time back, I spoke to a Slovak biophysicist about her experience under communism. She said that she hadn’t encountered a tremendous amount of sexism because party membership and cronyism trumped all else, including gender and merit. It shouldn’t take a return to Lysenkoism to increase female participation in the sciences, but even Doctor Princess can only encourage kids so much. I think the onus, unfortunately, remains on individual parents to make sure their boys and girls question every instance of groupthink, whether it’s which toys girls should have or whether Frozen is actually all that female-empowering. Questioning things: That’s how science is supposed to work, isn’t it?

If my daughter chooses not to go into the sciences, that’s fine too, but she deserves to know that these possibilities are open to her as much as to anyone. The other day, as I assisted her in gleefully performing heart surgery on her tachycardic bear (“I think we need to cut him open”), I felt optimistic.