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These toys are to cry for

Miami Herald, February 4, 2006

Much as I'd looked forward to dressing my almost 2-year-old daughter as something extraordinary for the neighborhood Halloween party, between post-Wilma chaos and work I could barely improvise a gypsy costume. Oh well, I thought, there'll be all sorts of fantasies in effect.

Instead, there was only one. Every other girl among the 20-some toddlers was a princess or a fairy or something with a big fluffy skirt that made it hard to do much besides look adorable.

Where were the witches, cats, cowgirls and superwomen? I'd expected a few frilly visions. But an entire party of fledgling divas?

I thought feminism had moved us past this 30-some years ago, but apparently we've gone back to the '50s, only with more marketing and more sex.

''We had Free To Be . . . You And Me, they have Disney Princess crap,'' says my friend Jenni, whose daughter Goldi was recently invited to a Princess Tea Party (it's a line of party gear) birthday for a 3-year-old classmate.

Besides Marlo Thomas' 1972 tribute to self-definition, we also had Barbie and Easy Bake Oven and lots of other stuff that taught us to stay pretty and stay home. But my sisters and I had blocks and cars and paints and many books without princesses. Our fantasies weren't all about dressing up. And I don't remember the same relentless onslaught to instruct ever younger girls in how to primp.

And the only alternative to sweet seems to be slutty. The four hottest selling toys for girls last year were Barbie, Bratz, Dora the Explorer and Disney Princess. Cinderella -- as ballroom beauty, not resilient heroine -- is Disney's hottest new product. Bratz, dolls for girls 4 and up, sport club-going heels and Botox lips, while Bratz Babyz are a pedophile's dream, sexed-up toddlers in frilly bikini bottoms.

One of the few exceptions is Dora the Explorer, a go-getter with sneakers and a backpack, who goes on problem-solving adventures with her friends and helps others. At the end of every episode she sings ''We did it!'' with a twisty dance that Romina loves to do with her. But in the toy aisles I mostly see princess Dora, in a gown that would make it awfully hard to climb mountains to rescue kidnapped stars.

And it has an effect. Parents say ''Oh, she just loves the girly stuff.'' But if all kids see is girly stuff, that's all they're going to want. I've seen preschoolers proudly mincing in heels that would make it impossible to negotiate a playground (apparently you gotta work it to nab a potty-trained boy these days), while Mama cooed approvingly.

Yes, I know part of parenting is overseeing how your children experience the world. But you only have so much control. I can make sure that she doesn't watch commercial TV, that she has puzzles and cars as well as dolls. But if it's hard to shield her now, it'll be impossible as she gets older. And I don't want to cut her off from the world. I just don't want it to reduce her to a doll.

That so much of toy culture does that to girls confounds and infuriates me. I'll try to buy her a toy at Target, and get enraged that I have to spend so much time sifting through make-up kits and jewelry sets. Why do I have to go to catalogs and specialty stores for toys that will encourage her to be creative and strong and resourceful? Relentless selling may be a fact of our culture. But could they sell my daughter some other options?

Friends talk sensibly about balance and oversight and how as long as their daughters see strong women and have a choice between active and passive, they'll be OK.

But they also describe similar moments of being overwhelmed by a pink and lavender sea. ''As long as she gets to climb trees, she can be Tinkerbell for Halloween,'' my friend Marya said of her 4-year-old daughter. The next night she called me from Toys 'R' Us. ''I take it all back,'' she said, ``I'm trying to buy her roller skates, and all they have is Barbie, Bratz and Disney Princess.''

Especially in Miami, where plastic surgery can seem as common as make-up, carping about too much dress-up for your daughter can make you feel like an uptight outcast.

Yes, biology is, to some degree, destiny. Spend time with small children and you realize that boys really do gravitate toward trucks and guns and girls toward dress-up and dolls.

Maybe careful personal solutions are all we have. ''I can't squelch who she is, but I set limits,'' Jenni says. ''We can't completely keep them from being exposed to this whole princess thing, but we don't have to buy into it.'' She'll take Goldi to the princess tea party, but she won't get her a gown. And she counts on her daughter's natural exuberance to make her impatient with wearing one.

I hope that works. But here's what I worry about: Because we were raised by women who broke with the idea that all you had to do was wait for your prince, we learned it was more fun to have your own adventure than be the prize in someone else's. What I don't understand is how a whole new generation could forget that. After all, they're the ones buying the gowns.

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