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.