Beneath a Pile of Tulle and Tiaras: Talking with Devorah Blachor
I was hunting around for my copy of Devorah Blachor’s new book, The Feminist’s Guide to Raising a Little Princess: How to Raise a Girl Who’s Authentic, Joyful, and Fearless—Even if She Refuses to Wear Anything but a Pink Tutu, when I heard raucous laughter from my eight-year-old daughter’s room. Turns out, she’d swiped the ARC and was cracking up over Blachor’s “Top 10 Rejected Sofia the First Plotlines.” Sure, she laughs now, but five or six years ago, we were there in the trenches with Blachor, whose toddler daughter insists on wearing a shimmery pink dress wherever she goes and will only pee in a princess pull-up.
Blachor’s book is often very funny, but it’s also a thoughtful analysis of parenting in the Age of the Disney Princess, and will be a balm for parents, especially for the kind of mother who insisted on gender-neutral onesies. Blachor asks: Why do Disney fairytales feel so excruciatingly un-feminist? What draws our smart, powerful, independent girls to the fairy wings and tutus in a playroom full of carefully selected STEM-themed toys crafted from sustainably harvested wood? And how much should parents stress over it all?
Recently, Blachor—who has written columns for the New York Times, humor pieces for McSweeney’s, and mystery novels under a pen name—answered my questions via email.
The Rumpus: What made you want to write this book?
Devorah Blachor: I wrote a satirical piece for the New York Times parenting blog called “Turn Your Princess Toddler into a Feminist in 8 Easy Steps.” The reaction surprised me. It went viral and was written about in other pubs and blogs. Readers reached out to me in a way I hadn’t experienced before. I understood that this anxiety I had for my daughter—that the princess culture was going to adversely affect her—was a widespread one.
Rumpus: What was it like to construct a book from pieces that originally appeared online?
Blachor: Originally those humor pieces helped me generate ideas for the book, which was amazing because it can be daunting to write a proposal. But once I got going, they became more like accessories to the book. I would have my chapter outlines, and then I would see if and where I could fit the humor pieces to complement the chapter.
Rumpus: So, is it possible to be a feminist while baking Frozen-themed cupcakes? How do you define feminism?
Blachor: In 2017, feminism can’t be separated from intersectional feminism. And while I realize the word feminism is in my book title, it’s not addressing the different systems of oppression and discrimination. I don’t think I could write a funny book about that. So go ahead and bake cupcakes, but also read bell hooks.
Rumpus: You identify pretty quickly that the desire to keep girls away from princess culture is about control. Why do you think that, for a certain kind of mother, there is that urge to make our kids be a certain way? Like, we would probably all say that we want our kids to be happy and just be themselves, but then if that involves something we find tacky or stupid, we recoil.
Blachor: From the moment they come into our lives, there’s this tension between what we want for our children and what actually happens. Like, we might not want them to poop through their diapers while we’re at the park and have forgotten to bring spare diapers, but invariably that’s exactly what happens. It happens literally when they’re babies, but then it happens metaphorically as they grow older. That’s one of the best and also the worst parts of parenting: confronting our expectations and then letting them go over and over again. It’s like a permanent mindfulness course going on right in our homes, and it’s for free except for the cost of the diapers.
Rumpus: This book is full of funny little interludes. I loved the rejected Sofia the First plotlines so much. Do you ever think that writing stuff like this is like a kind of therapy to help you keep your mind occupied during some of the more mind-numbing stretches of parenthood?
Blachor: Yes, definitely. I only wish I’d taken more notes. That annoying parenting cliché is right—it’s going by very fast.
Rumpus: I appreciated that for as many questions as you do offer answers for, there are many that you admit you haven’t figured out yet—like how to portray a fair, progressive division of household labor when out of necessity one of you works in an office all day and the other is home doing all the childcare and housework. When you started writing the book did you think it would be more authoritative and parent-guide-y? Or did you always write with the idea of embracing the unanswerable?
Blachor: Definitely the latter. One of the vexing things about modern parenting is that people and magazine articles and websites try to impose their authority over you. Some of us go through insecure phases where we doubt ourselves as parents, and that’s compounded by the noise of the advice givers. I don’t want to be part of that noise.
Rumpus: I loved how you pinpointed and tracked the birth of “princess culture.” I loved the anecdote about the Disney exec seeing little girls in handmade princess dresses and having his light bulb moment. Do you think there’s a reason it really caught on and ballooned in the early 2000s, culturally speaking?
Blachor: I think we all know, by now, that we are neck deep in an era of backlash to feminism. The alt-right narrative—that feminism is a hate-filled and destructive movement—has wormed its way into the mainstream. As a society, we’ve allowed the princess culture to explode, at least in part because of the desire to see feminism out the door. As a child of the 70s, I didn’t own one frilly dress. It’s astonishing to see how that whole “free to be you and me” sensibility has been buried beneath a pile of tulle and tiaras.
Rumpus: I was surprised to realize at some point in the book that you don’t live in the US. Is the princess culture as prevalent overseas?
Blachor: I’m not sure. We were living in Jerusalem when Mari first encountered princesses in an Israeli preschool program. Other girls had princess backpacks and water bottles, and there were princess gowns in the dress-up corner. My British in-laws sent Mari her first princess item, an anodyne book that played music and which she found irresistible. We moved to Luxembourg when Mari was four, and after she started school she immediately bonded with other girls over princesses. Also, the first foreign sale of my book was to Turkey. That’s hardly a comprehensive report on the international state of the princess brand, but it doesn’t seem to be exclusively an American thing.
Rumpus: I share your utter bafflement at adults who love Disney. What’s up with them?
Blachor: My beloved sister is one such adult so I can hardly go full snark about them. But I do believe these people generally possess more optimism than I do, and can probably suspend disbelief in the movie theater more efficiently than me.
Rumpus: The specter of Hillary Clinton looms large over these pages. I could tell that when first writing, you were expecting the book to be published in a very different USA. As a mother of a daughter, what do you think of the current political climate?
Blachor: I wrote a draft of the book expecting that there would be a woman president when the book was published. Delivery date to my editor for that draft was November 1, 2016. But the editor went on a one-month sabbatical and pushed the delivery date back a month. In the interim, Mari colored in the circle by Hillary’s name on my absentee ballot and we mailed it in. Then the sky fell.
So I had those few weeks to work on another draft because suddenly the entire book seemed frivolous and nothing was funny anymore. I made very sad edits. Eventually I found my sense of humor again and convinced myself that humor is a worthy pursuit, even in these dark times. Whether that’s delusional or true I couldn’t say.
The political climate? Dismal and hopeful in equal measures. On the one hand this is an unbelievably regressive, inbred, and ignorant administration. On the other hand, progressives are mobilizing. In the months after the election, EMILY’s List reported that more than 10,000 women reached out to them saying they wanted to run for office. If there’s a story of redemption buried in this shit show, it will be a representational revolution—not just a woman president, but women, POC, and members of underrepresented and marginalized groups running and getting elected in significant numbers. Let us pray.
Rumpus: Do you ever worry about Mari growing up and reading this and being embarrassed, or feeling exposed? As writers, what’s our relationship and responsibility towards our kids’ future selves?
Blachor: The first satirical piece I ever published was called “A Mommy Blogger’s Lament.” The essay was about my son, and when it was published I imagined him one day not getting a job because a prospective employer would come across it.
I’ve definitely been increasingly circumspect about what I write, and writing less and less about children as they grow older.
Having said that, I was raised in a house of secrets. Everything was a secret—sex, money, depression. Like the true name of God, it was all unspeakable (I was raised in a religious Jewish home) and, when I grew older, I understood the emotional cost of keeping everything hidden. I’d love for my kids to grow up unburdened by secrets, and believing that we have nothing to be ashamed of. Like so many parental aspirations, I can’t imagine I’ll succeed with this one, but you can’t blame a mother for trying.