Last Wednesday, I helped with my church’s fall festival. I expected to be working alongside some of my Sunday school mates at the registration tables. However, when we arrived, we were all separated to various games and attractions, including more inflatables than I’ve ever seen. I didn’t know Macon had so many inflatables. Slides 3 stories tall and steeper than 45 degrees. Jurassic Park raptor fighting ring. Mickey Mouse maze. Massive ball pits. Bouncy houses of nearly every conceivable theme. I worked in the preschool area, guardian of the Disney princess bouncy castle and slide (not to be confused with the smaller Frozen bouncy castle). And I was busy. I was so busy that I needed a couple extra hours of sleep the next morning.
I won’t get into the full argument here, but I have some issues with the princess culture Disney has developed, marketed, and sold to families. I have issues with children believing they are princesses and that the world revolves around them. I have issues with princesses being marketed for females and superheroes for males.
I am very keen on the fact that, though I grew up on Disney movies and still thoroughly enjoy them, my mother repeatedly told me that the stories aren’t true, that a prince isn’t ever going to come save me, that I don’t have to be pretty or submissive or someone’s daughter to be important.
I’ve known several women who have had breakdowns when they realized that the lessons the Disney lexicon taught them—from not having to grow up to a man solving all their most complicated problems—isn’t actually how to world works. But because Halloween is a time for pretending to be someone else, and many of the children were already in costume, I chose to embrace my bouncy castle’s theme. And here are a five things I learned.
1. Names have power. As I helped each child climb up to the castle’s netted entrance, I asked every child who their favorite character was. Then I did my best to call each child by that name. This worked easier than remembering actual names because I was already familiar with Belle, Jasmine, Snow White, and Mickey. Rotating through the same list of 8 or 10 names—even if I had 2 Cinderellas, 3 Snow Whites, and 2 Olafs at any one time—was easier for me and more fun for them. Plus, I could tell Prince Charming to stop climbing the cargo net, advise Princess Belle to wait for Princess Tiana to get out of the way before following her down the slide, ask Queen Elsa to come back out because her Mommy wanted her. For those who couldn’t decide on a favorite or who were too shy to talk to me, I said things like, “You have short hair like Mulan. How about I call you Mulan?” or “Rapunzel is one of my favorites. I’ll call you Princess Rapunzel.” Some of my kids left and came back later on. One little girl in a Finding Dory t-shirt asked me, “Do you remember my princess?” I didn’t, but we’d had a lot of little ones pointing up to Snow White around the time she’d come before, so I said, “Snow White?” I didn’t get a bigger smile all night. I probably had a hundred children come through that bouncy castle, and every one of them wanted to feel special.
2. Most kids respond well to high expectations. After dubbing each new child by their favorite character’s name, I lifted the netting at the entrance and called on them to “Look out for everyone who’s smaller than you” (I doubt any of them had seen Hook, but I certainly have). Politeness and sharing and patience were rewarded with another go down the slide, with thank yous and high fives. At one point, I climbed up the slide to get a warm hug from an Olaf who was scared to go down and had started crying. A group of princesses and princes were waiting behind him, eager but not pushing him, trying to comfort him, offering to go down with him. And every one of those kids was bigger than Olaf. Another time, I had trouble getting my purple-shirted Prince Philip to go down the slide. He was climbing on the outside of the stairs, then leaping down onto the bouncy floor below, which made the nearby children fall. So I told Prince Philip there was a dragon on the slide and asked him if he’d slay it for me. And he perked up, climbed to the top of the slide, wielded his invisible sword high above his head, and leaped, slaying the wide-winged beast on his way down. He rolled to the entrance by me with pink cheeks and a new sense of purpose. “Can I go again?” he asked, and I told him “Yes! But be sure you slay me another dragon.” It became his favorite part. And he recruited the other kids to do so, too. Cinderella and Snow White and Ariel had just as much fun slaying dragons as he did.
3. Kids like what they like. I had female Olafs and male Belles. I had a Superman, a Supergirl, a Robin, and a Darth Vader. I had Spider-mans in and out of costume. I didn’t hear any parents say that their boys shouldn’t go inside because the castle was for girls, though that probably happened. I encouraged hesitant boys, ones who have already internalized that princesses and pink aren’t for them, to come in and have fun. I told one older sister that her brother, who she said “doesn’t like princesses”, can like princesses if he wants, just like she can likes superheroes if she wants. When parents were trying to get their kids off this castle already, I told the kids how cool the dinosaur one around the corner was. And I saw little girls in puffy toole skirts grin and run for the line, just as I saw little boys do. Fun things are fun. Gendering colors and experiences ensures kids worry more and enjoy themselves less. And, for boys, telling them “girl things” aren’t for them also tells them they shouldn’t care about what girls care about, shouldn’t relate to girls’ stories. Boys grow up into men who believe the same thing.
4. We need more diversity. Of all the black children I had all night, only one of them told me her favorite princess was Tiana. Which is fine. Kids like what they like and shouldn’t be discouraged. But I wished, over and over, that my little black and brown princesses and princes had more racially diverse characters to choose from. I wish they could see themselves well represented. [And before anyone starts listing the characters of color in Disney properties, there’s a huge difference between represented and well represented. Just ask the Powhatan tribe what they think of Disney’s Pocahontas. And if you can’t be bothered to read their words (side-eye), here’s a catchy slideshow with pictures.] I wish my little white princesses and princes had more racially diverse characters to love and relate to, too. I truly believe that everyone would be better for it. Furthermore, diversity isn’t only about race. There isn’t a single mentally or physically disabled prince or princess, children can and do internalize absence.
5. You can’t please everyone. Most of the parents were just glad that their kids were tiring themselves out. They took pictures and delighted in their kids’ squeals and giggles. I tried to limit how many kids were inside at once and tried to let kids stay as long as they wanted, but the chaos and quantity was too much for a couple of kids. I wouldn’t have enjoyed it at their age, either, so I get it. And the kids like me usually went through the castle and down the slide once or twice before deciding to try Mickey’s clubhouse or the tricycle race. But I had one parent who only let her daughter go through once, declaring to me that it was too much for her Aurora, even saying as she turned away from me that “there needs to be some organization.” And there was, though looser than this parent wanted. I kept rolling numbers in my head, rolling names, trying to keep track of how many I had inside, calling up direction at times, but if five kids chose to come down the slide at once, I wasn’t in a position to discourage them. I suspect that the entire event was more than this mom was comfortable with. Maybe the girl felt that way, too, though I didn’t see any indicators from her. Which isn’t to say they weren’t there. But I couldn’t please everyone, and I couldn’t be upset about those I couldn’t please.
In the end, no one was hurt on the Disney princess bouncy castle and I don’t think there was any significant emotional trauma, either. So I call the evening a success. I may not run into those children again, and even if I do it is unlikely we would recognize each other. That’s kind of nice. I was someone who tried to make them feel important one Halloween, and I didn’t need to know them before or after to want them to feel that way.
Which is how I’ve been trying to act since then. The cashier is important and I want my behavior to tell her that, even if we’ve never seen each other before and never will see each other again. The driver who yielded when I would’ve punched it is also important. As is the bank teller and the woman walking her dog and the man fixing the stove. I can’t please everyone, but I can do my best. I can encourage diversity and acceptance that will make other people’s lives better. I can even expect some goodness of those around me.