A new crop of women is coming of age, matriculating into the universe of higher education, and entering the workforce. They grew up in an age of intense marketing towards children, and an age of specialty marketing towards girls. The Disney film franchise was entering a Renaissance period with the release of “The Little Mermaid” in 1988–with a wide-eyed plucky mermaid dreaming about growing up and becoming part of the world, and then “Beauty and the Beast” in 1991 with a wide-eyed plucky village girl dreaming that there must be more than her provincial life. In fact, Disney made a fortune on remaking the image of girls in movies. The old Disney films were filled with beautiful but vapid, lifeless girls who needed to be saved by even more vapid, lifeless princes. This new crop of heroines were defined in a different way: pretty, plucky, adventurous–they were corporate packaged junior feminists. They got into scrapes, they got out of them, they learned to love, and everything came up roses. Ever wondered how Ariel would fare in corporate America….
I see a lot of resumes in my job. I do lots of hiring. I do a bit of managing. One thing I’m convinced of? We’re not doing girls a favor by teaching them that sass, verve, pluckiness, and style are the keys to success. The bottom line? People succeed in jobs through competence, hard work, and common sense. How do you develop those traits? Well, hard work is just something you have to suck up and do. Practice helps. Competence? Well, see, ironically, that comes through hard work, and a fair amount of thoughtfulness. Common sense? That’s a bit more tricky. It does take experience, and you have to get out there and just try to get that experience, but it also comes through empathy, through calming down and seeing other people, through seeing past yourself. Ultimately, I think that the Disney princess image, while attractive, is ultimately terribly self-centered, with personal success an accidental feat, but something that you are naturally entitled to. This attitude is not compatible with the modern workplace. I’m sorry, it just isn’t. Pluckiness, by itself, doesn’t get papers filed on time. Killer shoes, nails, and a sassy suit that sets off your curves doesn’t lead an efficient meeting. Doe eyes can’t conduct a useful training session. An adventurous spirit can’t prepare a project proposal that looks professional and is free of errors. Ultimately, the accessories don’t make the woman. It’s a hard lesson for young career women to learn, and I see it all the time.
So, where do we go from here? I’m not one of those people who thinks we should all turn off our t.v.s, eat only vegetables grown in the garden, and only allow our children to play with carved, wooden toys. I think we all live in this world, we have to get to know it. Pop culture is part of the world. It’s fine to partake. However, I do think it’s important to round out the world for our young people. Sure, let them watch t.v., but also give them the chance to do hard things. To succeed. To fail. Love them, and help them try again.
Are current Young Women programs geared towards helping girls learn the life skills they’re going to need? Sure, they’ll need to know how to cook, (otherwise, life can be pretty darn expensive), and serve others, and have spiritual church experiences. But are we teaching them to be competent people? To work hard? To achieve? To gain communication skills, to have the chance to practice personable interaction with adults, to set hard goals, to learn, to enjoy life as it is, and not to try and reproduce some filmy, stylized, sheen of plucky romance over it? What can we do to help these girls grow into competent adults–no matter what they choose to do with their lives, whether it is pursue an education, a career, be a mother, be a spouse, be a friend, be a community leader, be an activist, be an artist, or any combination of these? How do we raise competent women?