When my daughter Josie was seven, she said casually to me, “I know you say people can be beautiful at all shapes and sizes. But when I get to high school I hope I’m skinny, because that’s what boys like.” And I felt my heart twist in my chest.
But is it any wonder, given the culture she’s marinating in? I wasn’t shocked to read the recent BuzzFeed piece “Tween Girl Video Games: Let's Go Shopping And Find Rich Boyfriends," though I had no clue just how much pink gaming crap was out there. Looking at the web site for Girls Go Games was like looking into the pink, pink abyss. How many times can one web page use the words “makeover,” “celebrity” and “date"?
I am a feminist. I wrote a book with a model who nearly died of anorexia. And I’ve tried hard to imbue my daughters (now 10 and 7) with the sense that they’re more than just their looks; they’re more than just their bodies. But more than ever, girls are plunged from toddlerdom into a world that tells them very specifically how they’re supposed to look, what they’re supposed to value, how ornamental they’re supposed to be — whether on TV, in music, and now, more and more, in video games.
Thankfully, these games are not part of my kids’ world — they are avid gamers on multiple platforms, but they tend to be drawn to games that do not suck. This isn’t because I am a gaming whiz or ban girly crap; it’s because they like stuff that’s challenging and fun. They play Angry Birds, Breakout, Jetpack Joyride, Toontown Online, Bananagrams, Doodle Jump and PacMan. When their friends come over, they play Rock Band. When they go to Lila and Noemi’s house, they play Super Mario Kart.
This isn’t to say they don’t enjoy games I consider girly. They are apeshit for avatars, today’s instant-gratification digital paper dolls. When they need distraction on the subway, I hand them my iPhone; they promptly start making WeeMees and Make-a-Zombies. But unlike the blank-eyed bimbettes in the pinky-pink makeover games, these avatars have cute round South-Park-esque bodies, not sexualized ones. They come with gazillions of choices of expression, hair, skin tone, clothing. A WeeMee or Zombie can dress like the gothiest goth or the most lesbian Justin Bieber. Looking through my kids’ gallery, I see a Riot Grrrl-esque guitarist, a kid who looks like the black nerd in The Mysterious Benedict Society, a guy who looks like a goateed, semi-pathetic middle-aged hipster dad, a girl in a bathrobe and bunny slippers who appears to be on Nyquil, and a dude with braces, a green Jewfro and kitty ears. My girls wouldn’t want to play the GoGirlGames because there are way fewer design choices. And no humor. Or suspense. And the plinky music is annoying.
Of course most games for girls suck. In part, that’s because most games for humans suck. Most books suck, most TV shows suck, most music sucks. The problem with the specific suckiness of girl games is that they all suck in the same way: the skinny skanky girly princess you-are-nothing-without-a-dude way. But it’s our job as parents to counter those messages, to be gatekeepers and to have some clue what our kids are consuming and discuss the messages they contain. I bring home books I think are both good and fun. I read, so they know I think reading is fun. We watch The Simpsons and Top Chef together because they are fun. I am pro-fun. And when we see something anti-feminist or homophobic or bullying or just lame, we discuss why those things are unfun.
Admittedly, my kids are still of the age when I control — to a great degree — what they watch, read, listen to, download and play. I’ve talked about my values with them. I’m not such an awesome parent; I just pay attention. They know what I think is important.
To me, live-action Disney and Nick tween TV shows are far more insidious than girly games. Everyone dresses the same. All the girls have perfect barrel-rolled hair. Everyone’s skinny. Everyone’s white, even those who aren’t white. The heroes are sassy and snarky without actually being funny. Celebrity, wealth, and cute clothes are what matter. Anyone with an unusual passion is a dork. The need to be attractive to the opposite sex is the driving force in life. It’s relentless. And an immersive live-action universe of these values is way worse than a one-dimensional, barely-designed girly game. So at our house, we just watch a crapload of Phineas & Ferb. (But if they go to someone else’s house where there is iCarly, whatever. I’m not a crazy person.) In my experience, if you offer kids access to tons of good pop culture, they will not choose crap pop culture.
But okay, let's say they wanted to play free dumb girly games. I’d talk about why they are lame. I wouldn’t ban them, because then you’ve created forbidden fruit. And the kids would lose interest, because the games are limited and unimaginative and they suck. And as Peggy Orenstein pointed out in her very smart, very nuanced book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, we parents have to steer a difficult course between letting our kids participate in the wider culture and enjoy their gender while making sure they don’t think princess-ness and cuteness and ornamental-ness and merch (and oy, the merch) are all they are.
My 10-year-old starts middle school next year. She will still worry about what boys like, which makes me sad. There will be music that makes me cringe and movies I wish she wouldn’t see. But by 12 or 13, kids today are mostly making their own pop cultural choices. (Games will be the least of my problems.) I hope I’ve given her the tools to navigate the world and its narrow visions of girldom; regardless, I’ve got to relinquish the joystick of parental control.