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  • Pedi-Files:Reading the Foot in Contemporary Illustrated Children’s Literature
  • Jennifer M. Miskec (bio)

The “cult of the ballerina” has long been a part of children’s culture, and its identifying symbols—what Adrienne McLean describes as “tutu, toe shoes, and tights” (3)—are by now familiar aspects of the hyper-feminine ballerina/fairy/pink princess aesthetic commonly associated with little girls and femininity. Even from a dance theory perspective, “ballet continues to be conceptualized as a feminine art, especially when compared with music, painting or poetry” (Foster 8), the dominant image of the ballet dancer being “fragile, ethereal, virginal, and submissive” (Shapiro v). On its own or as a part of fairy/princess culture, the feminine codes of ballet and of the child in “tutu, toe shoes, and tights” is the same. Feminist cultural critic Peggy Orenstein traces the Disney-led commodification of the fairy/princess aesthetic over the last decade in her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, but while she provides a thorough and important cultural critique of “girlie-girl culture,” Orenstein’s focus on “princess mania” (4) in particular fails to consider how the cultural codes of ballet specifically contribute to the analysis of popular little-girl culture. She also only briefly mentions picture books. In this article, I consider how the iconography of ballet—accoutrement, movement, and especially the pointed toe—in contemporary picture book illustrations reveals cultural notions of ideal femininity. Further, I discuss how the balletic foot eroticizes the young child. While high heels, for example, are deemed inappropriate for a young girl to wear outside of dress-up play, the arched and en pointe foot is left unproblematized in the context of the ballerina/ fairy/pink princess image in children’s picture books. I contend that the author and/or illustrator’s ideologies of femininity are reflected in his or her construction of the child’s foot, yet these ideologies, even when troubling, often evade notice—let alone critique.

A perfect example of this phenomenon appears in Ian Falconer’s Olivia and the Fairy Princesses, a recent addition to his popular picture book series. In it, the six-year-old pig Olivia tells her parents, “I think I’m having an identity crisis. . . . I don’t know what I should be!”1 It seems all of the little girls (and some of the boys) around Olivia want to be princesses, but she wants to stand out and be different. In a series of images, [End Page 224] Olivia is shown off-center in double-paged illustrations, surrounded by nearly identically-clad peers dressed in “big, pink, ruffly skirts with sparkles and little crowns and sparkly wands.” First at a birthday party, then at dance recital try outs, and finally at a Halloween party, Olivia is the only child wearing “a simple French sailor shirt, matador pants, black flats, a strand of pearls, sunglasses, a red bag, and my gardening hat”; a one-piece, black-and-white-striped union suit; or a warthog costume. Olivia wonders, “If everyone’s a princess, then princesses aren’t special anymore . . . Why do they all want to be the same?”

Olivia’s criticisms are the same as Orenstein’s, both wary of the increasingly popular and highly commodified princess culture—at least the generic qualities of it. How can it be special if everyone looks the same? Orenstein argues that inviting little girls to participate in the highly commodified, billion-dollar princess industry that “make[s] their appearance the epicenter of their identities” (5) is a cultural problem, which Olivia is shown resisting. Beginning with the cover of the book, Olivia is depicted looking at herself in a hand-mirror, perhaps considering how others see her, negotiating the Lacanian ideal-I, her self in a social context. Olivia appears uncomfortable in the fairy princess outfit favored by her peers, the gender identity that culture expects her to inhabit, in the costume culture expects her to wear because she is a six-year-old girl. Although Olivia is shown wearing a frilly pink dress, fairy wings, tiara, and wand, she wears the outfit over a black-and-white-striped union suit, her hand on her hip, her expression...


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pp. 224-245
Launched on MUSE
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