In our current exhibit, we focused on removing the gender stereotypes from castle play. Here’s what happened.
You know the scene: a woeful princess cowers in a castle tower, every strand of her blonde hair perfectly in place, her waist impossibly small in her pink dress. Soon, some bright-eyed prince will come rescue her with his cartoonish biceps and flash his pearly whites, and if she hasn’t already fallen in love with him as he scales the castle walls, she will once he whisks her away on his horse.
As adults, it’s a story we’ve been told over and over again.
Children, on the other hand, may not be used to it yet—or the stereotypes that come along with it.
That’s why, when we designed our Once Upon a Castle exhibit, we wanted to take back the castle narrative from this cliché. We wanted to ditch gender stereotypes so that children could create their own stories and come up with their own characters. We set out to create a space where any child—no matter what their gender—could put on any costume, pick up any prop, and play however they want to play.
To begin, we made costumes children can wear regardless of gender, included a wide range of fabrics and colors (not just pink or blue), and coached staff to use neutral language like “your majesty” to make everyone feel welcome. Here’s what we learned.
It took weeks to tweak and finalize our ads.
Ditching gender stereotypes in our marketing proved more difficult than we’d assumed. We struggled to find the right way to get our message across—how to be clear while showing off everything the exhibit has to offer. But when you remove the gender from something, often you remove what’s stereotypically considered “feminine.” We began to wonder: Is it okay to strip the feminine from something just to resist gender stereotypes? Will girls still feel welcome?
Our goal wasn’t to exclude anything stereotypically feminine because it’s bad—we love pink! Instead, we wanted to make sure what we included wasn’t so strictly gendered that a child might get picked on for choosing the “wrong” thing—like a little boy in a pink costume getting made fun of by his friends, or worst yet, scolded by a parent/caregiver.
And the girls who visit the exhibit have no problem picking up the wide array of props and costumes and having a blast—even without a tiara in the mix.
Children know exactly what to do—but parents get confused.
Children don’t seem phased by the lack of pink or tiaras in Once Upon a Castle, however some parents have a harder time adjusting.
On one particularly busy day, a little girl around five years old starting asking for a tiara. We didn’t include tiaras in the exhibit because of how strongly associated they are with cartoon princesses—a gendered stereotype we wanted to avoid. It isn’t that we don’t like them, but rather that we wanted to encourage the children who visit to invent their own characters and stories instead of rehashing the ones they already know.
When her caretaker couldn’t find one, the child seemed disappointed for a moment, then scooped up the nearest crown, hopped on a stick horse, and charged toward an available sword at the other end of the exhibit.
Her caretaker, on the other hand, kept searching and asking for a tiara, not even noticing that the girl had moved on so quickly. It just goes to show you—sometimes kids adapt better than grownups.
Ditching stereotypes opens a whole new way to play.
Taking away existing rules lets kids make up their own. Since Once Upon a Castle opened, we’ve seen children switch from playing knights to jesters to chefs to wizards in a matter of seconds—they don’t have to be pushed or led in the right direction or follow any prescribed rules.
In fact, a lot of the time, it’s better not to prescribe, because that’s when their imaginations really shine.
So why does it matter? Our big takeaway from this process has been that too often we lead kids without watching to see what they do. Letting children lead is a cornerstone of Chicago Children’s Museum experiences. Children often have a better route. Sometimes it’s better to stand back, watch, and let them show us.
It’s what we try to do every day.