Pirate Princesses (Gender Equity in Toyland, but not in Eggland)

As a father of a girl, I’m highly alert to the ways that toys are marketed to children. It’s not that boys don’t have gender-specific marketing and that I’m not concerned about issues related to boys: I am concerned and they do. But two factors come into play: One, my son has Down syndrome, and so my list concerns and points of advocacy are quite specific. Two, as I’ve written before, the pressures on girls push them into positions of weakness, vulnerability, and superficiality.

A great advocacy group, “Let Toys Be Toys,” has persuaded a number of U.K. stores, including Toys R Us, to forgo gender-specific marketing of toys. This is a good. A boy who wants a doll shouldn’t have to go to the “girls” section. A girl who wants a car shouldn’t have to go to the “boys” section. It’s not so hard to label them – “Cars.” “Dolls.” Now the question is whether groups like “A Mighty Girl” can get the U.S. retailers to follow suit.

But not all the news is good. In Norway, you can now buy gender-specific eggs: Pirate Eggs. Princess Eggs.

My daughter recently didn’t go to a birthday party because it invited you to dress up as your favorite “princess.” She doesn’t have a favorite princess, as it happens, but she does love dressing up as a pirate.

Speaking of Pirates and princesses, here’s Saxo Grammaticus, from his History of the Danes, Book 7:

 After this Siwald was succeeded by his son SIGAR, who had sons
Siwald, Alf, and Alger, and a daughter Signe. All excelled the rest in
spirit and beauty, and devoted himself to the business of a rover. Such a
grace was shed on his hair, which had a wonderful dazzling glow, that
his locks seemed to shine silvery. At the same time Siward, the king of
the Goths, is said to have had two sons, Wemund and Osten, and a
daughter Alfhild, who showed almost from her cradle such faithfulness to
modesty that she continually kept her face muffled in her robe, lest
she should cause her beauty to provoke the passion of another. Her
father banished her into very close keeping, and gave her a viper and a
snake to rear, wishing to defend her chastity by the protection of these
reptiles when they came to grow up. For it would have been hard to pry
into her chamber when it was barred by so dangerous a bolt. He also
enacted that if any man tried to enter it, and failed, he must
straightway yield his head to be taken off and impaled on a stake. The
terror which was thus attached to wantonness chastened the heated
spirits of the young men.

Alf, the son of Sigar, thinking that peril of the attempt only made
it nobler, declared himself a wooer, and went to subdue the beasts that
kept watch beside the room of the maiden; inasmuch as, according to the
decree, the embraces of the maiden were the prize of their subduer. Alf
covered his body with a blood- stained hide in order to make them more
frantic against him. Girt with this, as soon as he had entered the doors
of the enclosure, he took a piece of red-hot steel in the tongs, and
plunged it into the yawning throat of the viper, which he laid dead.
Then he flung his spear full into the gaping mouth of the snake as it
wound and writhed forward, and destroyed it. And when he demanded the
gage which was attached to victory by the terms of the covenant, Siward
answered that he would accept that man only for his daughter’s husband
of whom she made a free and decided choice. None but the girl’s mother
was stiff against the wooer’s suit; and she privately spoke to her
daughter in order to search her mind. The daughter warmly praised her
suitor for his valour; whereon the mother upbraided her sharply, that
her chastity should be unstrung, and she be captivated by charming
looks; and because, forgetting to judge his virtue, she cast the gaze of
a wanton mind upon the flattering lures of beauty. Thus Alfhild was led
to despise the young Dane; whereupon she exchanged woman’s for man’s
attire, and, no longer the most modest of maidens, began the life of a
warlike rover.

Enrolling in her service many maidens who were of the same mind, she
happened to come to a spot where a band of rovers were lamenting the
death of their captain, who had been lost in war; they made her their
rover captain for her beauty, and she did deeds beyond the valour of
woman. Alf made many toilsome voyages in pursuit of her, and in winter
happened to come on a fleet of the Blacmen. The waters were at this time
frozen hard, and the ships were caught in such a mass of ice that they
could not get on by the most violent rowing. But the continued frost
promised the prisoners a safer way of advance; and Alf ordered his men
to try the frozen surface of the sea in their brogues, after they had
taken off their slippery shoes, so that they could run over the level
ice more steadily. The Blacmen supposed that they were taking to flight
with all the nimbleness of their heels, and began to fight them, but
their steps tottered exceedingly and they gave back, the slippery
surface under their soles making their footing uncertain. But the Danes
crossed the frozen sea with safer steps, and foiled the feeble advance
of the enemy, whom they conquered, and then turned and sailed to
Finland. Here they chanced to enter a rather narrow gulf, and, on
sending a few men to reconnoitre, they learnt that the harbour was being
held by a few ships. For Alfhild had gone before them with her fleet
into the same narrows. And when she saw the strange ships afar off, she
rowed in swift haste forward to encounter them, thinking it better to
attack the foe than to await them. Alf’s men were against attacking so
many ships with so few; but he replied that it would be shameful if
anyone should report to Alfhild that his desire to advance could be
checked by a few ships in the path; for he said that their record of
honours ought not to be tarnished by such a trifle.

 The Danes wondered whence their enemies got such grace of bodily
beauty and such supple limbs. So, when they began the sea-fight, the
young man Alf leapt on Alfhild’s prow, and advanced towards the stern,
slaughtering all that withstood him. His comrade Borgar struck off
Alfhild’s helmet, and, seeing the smoothness of her chin, saw that he
must fight with kisses and not with arms; that the cruel spears must be
put away, and the enemy handled with gentler dealings. So Alf rejoiced
that the woman whom he had sought over land and sea in the face of so
many dangers was now beyond all expectation in his power; whereupon he
took hold of her eagerly, and made her change her man’s apparel for a
woman’s; and afterwards begot on her a daughter, Gurid. Also Borgar
wedded the attendant of Alfhild, Groa, and had by her a son, Harald, to
whom the following age gave the surname Hyldeland.

And that no one may wonder that this sex laboured at warfare, I will
make a brief digression, in order to give a short account of the estate
and character of such women. There were once women among the Danes who
dressed themselves to look like men, and devoted almost every instant of
their lives to the pursuit of war, that they might not suffer their
valour to be unstrung or dulled by the infection of luxury. For they
abhorred all dainty living, and used to harden their minds and bodies
with toil and endurance. They put away all the softness and
lightmindedness of women, and inured their womanish spirit to masculine
ruthlessness. They sought, moreover, so zealously to be skilled in
warfare, that they might have been thought to have unsexed themselves.
Those especially, who had either force of character or tall and comely
persons, used to enter on this kind of life. These women, therefore
(just as if they had forgotten their natural estate, and preferred
sternness to soft words), offered war rather than kisses, and would
rather taste blood than busses, and went about the business of arms more
than that of amours. They devoted those hands to the lance which they
should rather have applied to the loom. They assailed men with their
spears whom they could have melted with their looks, they thought of
death and not of dalliance. Now I will cease to wander, and will go back
to my theme.

When I teach this story (I say to the readers making it to the end), I note that although it seems transgressive, at the end Alfhild is forced to put on the dress, perhaps raped, and definitely forced into marriage. Students are usually really into the Viking pirate princess story by then, but are also cheering for a happy ending involving a wedding and babies, so are often quite shocked when I say this.

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