She knows a few of them, of course; short of cutting ourselves off from the outside world altogether it's hard to keep them out. She knows who Strawberry Shortcake is, thanks to a box of my old toys. She loves the dancing monsters of Yo Gabba Gabba, the British dog Kipper, and her best friend is an 18-inch fully-jointed Spider-man action figure from a thrift store. All of this is stuff she figured out on her own, from watching or listening. We try to keep the rest of it away from her attention, because we feel that there's no reason for her to know the name of every single cartoon character out there (and because she can't ask for what she doesn't know about).
When we are out somewhere and she sees one of the many, many licensed-cartoon characters on some piece of plastic crap from China, sometimes she'll take particular notice, but it's only in a general way. She doesn't know the word "princess" (she calls them "costumes"), let alone the name of each and every specific Disney one. My MIL tried for a long time -and still occasionally does- to refer to Piper as "our little princess, what a princess, she's such a pretty pretty princess" and I nipped that shit in the bud. Every time my MIL said it, I got queasy with visions of frilly pinkness and incessant demands for toys.
Piper has her own names for the things she sees, and we are happy to let her keep using her imagination on them. She calls Elmo "that red monster," Barney is "big purple dinosaur" and she thinks Dora is Strawberry Shortcake (except she says "Straaabery Portcake and it's so cute I want to punch myself).
Which is why I felt uncomfortable A LOT when we were hanging out with people who would correct her words for things, would say "No, that's Dora" or "that's not just a monster, that's Elmo" in a store. If she asked "who's that?" or "what's that?" about something instead of asking her back "Who do you think it is?" or "I don't know, what IS that?" like we do, they'd say, "Oh, that's Dora and here's Diego and here's 17 other characters from some cartoon..." or "That's a princess costume, princesses wear pink sparkly dresses and tiaras and look really pretty..." I cringed a little and wondered if she'd soon be asking for every toy Nickelodeon currently licenses. My dad let her watch an hour of Wonder Pets and the very next time we walked into a store, she started pointing at the toys and asking for the toys by name.
More than that, it saddended me. When she pointed at Sponge Bob and said "Hey, look at that weird yellow monster guy!" and she got "No, that's Sponge Bob Square pants, and he lives in a pineapple, and here let me sing his theme song for you..." back from the adult she was talking to, I almost cried. I wanted to hear her thoughts on "the weird yellow monster guy." I wanted to hear what she had to say. And now it was gone, lost because someone felt the need to correct her imagination.
I know I can't keep this up forever. I am certain, when she gets to pre-school or kindergarten or playgroup or whatever, that some other little girl will give her a strict crash-course in The Ways Of All Things Princess, but for now I am pleased that she prefers the toys others have made for her and wooden blocks to tv-based toys with flashing lights and noises. She likes monsters and coloring and loves the giant bin of our old Duplo Lego pieces my mom brought down from Michigan. She likes dolls, but I don't call her "little Mommy" or assume that it's something coded into her cells because she's female. She likes to carry dolls and stuffed animals around, take all their clothes off, and give them drinks from her cups. She gives her babies a bath by holding them down in a bucket of water. I'm not ready to assume she's a nurturing soul just yet.
I am also certain that whatever little child gives her The Princess Lecture will also educate Piper about activities are "for girls" and "for boys." No matter how much we fight it at home, I'm sure what other kids think she should be doing will seem more important to her. So just as my heart fills with joy to see her playing equally with trucks, dinosaurs, dolls, and blocks, I've started to feel a sort of pre-sadness for the day when this innocence slips away. I know that one day soon I will bring out her dinosaurs and trains, and she will look at me and say scornfully, "Mom, those are for boys. I can't play with those. Now, where's my princess dress?"