Sunday, February 6, 2011

Teaching with and against Cinderella

Blogging and listening to Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture. The book is a call to action for parents, to reject a pervasive princess consumer culture for preschool girls and at the same time support their children's pleasure and joy in playing and pretending.

Children are growing up in a world where it's possible to live in character, to be princesses from head to toe from breakfast to bedtime. Childhoods are immersed in transmedia, dense flows of consumer goods in media franchises such as the Disney Princess films that spin off DVDs, video games, and everything imaginable from mermaid toothbrushes to fluffy Cinderella slippers.

However, in my research on young children's pretend play and film-making with popular media in preschool and kindergarten classrooms, I'm finding that children are critical players and knowledgeable consumers of transmedia. Given opportunities to write and play with their favorite media themes and toys in school, young girls (and boys) find ways to twist and remake stories with princesses who take matters into their own hands and fight off dragons themselves.

The key seems to be play. When children have regular and repeated opportunities to play these texts, they don't take up the same stories but improvise and invent, changing their roles when a princess identity becomes too restrictive. When children have the chance to draw storyboards and film their doll play, puppet shows, or pretend dramas, they are put in powerful positions as authors and directors that encourage rewritings and remakings of the stories they love.

So it's not just a question of parents working to change popular media. Teachers can encourage children to make critical productions that still allow children to engage in the kinds of princess play so popular with their peers. By providing critical media curriulum that includes production with new literacies (film-making, podcasting, remixing, etc.), we can help children see that they have the power to reshape these commercially-given and widely-circulating princess narratives and rework Cinderella into more active and satisfying storylines.

But it all begins with making a space to play with (and critique) popular media in early childhood classrooms. And that means re-centering play as a valuable and necessary part of the preschool and kindergarten curriculum.


  1. This post supports what preschool teachers have noted anecdotally for years. Where I worked, we observed that children often started re-enacting television and movies between the ages of 3 and 4. Even though we requested that children be sent to school without commercialized attire, children continued to play imaginatively using characters defined for them by the media even when there were no toys representing those characters available in the play space.

    We saw exactly what you're describing. Young girls typically expanded their play beyond the bounds of the original work. I think it's interesting that it continues this way as the children age.

    I'm not sure if you mentioned this in your article (I confess to only finding time to read the abstract), but we noticed that boys were less likely to deviate from the original storyline and needed some coaching to branch out. Power Rangers, Transformers, and the like seem to encourage children to form strict opinions about who does what. There were also more issues of power being dealt with through play that involved superhero-type characters than with princesses and their ilk. I don't know why, but I'm sure someone's studied it by now.

  2. Great point! For more on superheroes, gender, power and play, check these out:

    Writing Superheroes: Contemporary Childhood, Popular Culture, and Classroom Literacy by Anne Haas Dyson

    Boys and Girls: Superheroes in the Doll Corner by Vivian Paley