I just finished the most amazing book: Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing our Daughters from Marketers' Schemes. I highly recommend this for any mom or teacher (and isn't that what all moms are anyway?) Plain and simple, the authors break down how girls today are targeted by marketers every step of the way, through what they see on TV to what the covers of board games have on them (by the way, not ONE had a girl winning the game.)
In our house, we don't watch commercials, even the ones on PBS. :) Although some of my sitters have been aghast to hear that my kids don't watch Disney films, the only thing my kids have seen is Mary Poppins. (No offense to you if you like them, I think 4 is far too young to pretend your prince needs to rescue you. Not to mention every "princess" in the movies has no mother, who has been conveniently killed off because she interferes with the plot. But I digress.) And while I thought that I was being a little overprotective, after reading this book, I'm glad we've taken that approach.
The book points out how "Girl Power" has been taken over by marketers to mean that you have the power to make yourself attractive to the opposite sex. Or that you can buy things. Your choices are pink, sparkly pink, and purple (don't believe me, go read the chapter excerpt on Amazon and see the research these women did.) Your choice is to be either one of the guys, or to try to get one. Seems cut and dried, but once you start looking, you see examples of this everywhere.
Luckily, the authors also point out ways to have good discussions with your kids, as early as preschool, and to let them be aware of what's around them. They never say "don't be a cheerleader, play the flute, like ballet, be girly", but they do point out that girls have a billion other options (play soccer, play the drums, take up kickboxing, and you can still be girly). They help you show your girls that marketers are trying to manipulate them, and that they are smarter than that. I've taken it a little further and make sure we mention everything in front of Petey too; this way he grows up understanding that girls (especially his sisters) are more than just pretty faces.
One of the things we do is just comment on things. Like the kids play dress up, and Angela yells, "I'm a fireman!" So I tell her, "Well, you're a fire fighter, because both men and women are brave and put out fires, right?" Or we watch Curious George, and I say, "Wow, isn't that great that Professor Wiseman is such a smart woman! Do you think she's a good scientist? Do only men get to be scientists?" And we talk about it.
Do you see this in your own kids? What do you tell them? Do you think this is a bunch of hooey and I should just put in The Little Mermaid DVD already and shut up?
Some more great reading:
The Paper Bag Princess: We're loving this book. What makes a princess a princess? For certain, it's not her clothes.
What's Wrong With Cinderella? A must-read for every mom. Because as the author tells her daughter, "It's just, honey, Cinderella doesn't really do anything."
Commercial-Free Childhood: Great site that shows how many strange places marketers are trying to get your kids' attention and build brand loyalty at a very young age.