Q & A with Bestselling Author & Girl Shero Peggy Orenstein
Do you have or know a young girl obsessed with princess culture? A girl who, despite your best efforts to raise her to be strong and independent, suddenly insists on growing up to be Snow White?
Journalist and bestselling author Peggy Orenstein is back with Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girlie Girl Culture, a whipsmart, funny new book that explores the challenge of parenting in a culture determined to sexualize and sell to girls from the youngest ages. What are girls learning, and what can we do about it? Read on.
RS: Why did you decide to write a book about girls and princess culture?
PO: The short answer is: I had a daughter. Until then I was blissfully unaware of how gendered, hyper-sexualized and appearance-focused the culture of even the tiniest girls has become. The Princesses had sort of blindsided me. We didn’t have the products in the house. I had never even heard of Disney Princesses (because, it turned out, the Princess concept didn’t even begin until 2001).
But within a few weeks of starting preschool Daisy suddenly knew every one of the Princess’s names and gown colors as if by osmosis. So Princess obsession marked her first real foray into mainstream culture. And what did that culture tell her about being a girl? Not that she was competent, strong, creative, or smart but that every little girl wants—or should want—to be the Fairest of Them All.
And so while you may say, well, what’s the big deal about Cinderella at three years old, you’ve then got the lip smackers collection at 4 years, Monster High Dolls at 6, America’s Top Model at 9… girls are put into this little pink box at ever-younger ages. So while I’d always been interested in teenage girls, I had always written about teenage girls, but I realized all those things we have concerns about, the risks linked to premature sexualization and obsession with appearance—depression, negative body image, eating disorders, poor sexual choices—do not just spring forth when a girl blows out the candles on her 13th birthday cake.
Right now, for instance, Daisy, who is 7, is really into Mad Libs, so we were at our local independent book store in Berkeley and what do they have? PINK Mad Libs. On pink paper. And the topics of the little stories were, I kid you not, “The Perfect Makeover,” “The Cutest Boy in Class,” “A Trip to the Mall…”
I mean, HONESTLY!
Can girls be convinced to look at Disney with a wary eye, or is this a lost cause?
Not when they’re little. A 3-year-old can’t understand your brilliant deconstruction of a sales pitch. The only thing that penetrates is PRINCESSES and TOOTHPASTE TUBE.
But just saying “no” all the time is a trap too, because it’s hard to convince your daughter that you’re trying to offer her more choices when you keep limiting what she can have. So it’s really important to provide her with equally fun alternatives that satisfy that preschooler need to assert your gender.
That means, I’m afraid, that I’m telling parents they have to do some work. I hate to do that, because I’m a mom and I’m exhausted and frankly, it would be a lot easier to just let her have the spa birthday party. But if it’s any comfort, I get a lot out of looking for books, movies, toys and such that we both can embrace. Plus, I’ve noticed this interesting thing just recently. The toys that kids are “supposed” to play with are time bound. They know EXACTLY when they’re supposed to grow out of Disney Princesses and after the stroke of midnight on that day, they will NOT touch those gowns. Same with Barbie or Bratz or any of that stuff.
But I got Daisy these Papo figurines of kings, queens, fairies, Joan of Arc — this whole array of characters. They were $5 each, cheaper than most Barbie or Disney Princess junk (and God knows, American Girl). And they aren’t licensed out as breakfast cereal. They just are what they are. So she doesn’t know when she’s supposed to grow out of them. Therefore, she has played with them every day since she was three. And she’s still going strong using her true imagination with them. Best $50 I ever spent.
As to older girls, like you, I’m all about the dialog.
You have to listen to why they like what they like. You have to acknowledge what’s fun about it. And you can also express concerns, ask questions etc. Because, like I said, it’s not about Disney Princesses per se—it goes on and on.
I call it Girlz with a “z” culture. You see that “z” all the time. Bratz. Moxie Girlz. It’s “sassy” girl culture, which is little kid for “sexy.” It’s “all about you!” Self-absorption passing as self-expression. It’s the culture that tells them not only that they should be beautiful and sexy but that femininity is defined by narcissism. That girl power is about the power to choose to objectify yourself, rather than the freedom from it. Girlz Power. So I think with older girls you can really probe that distinction.
Already, at 7, Daisy is getting it. We were at Radio Shack recently and she dragged me over to see this robotic talking pink pig. It was named Princess. And when you touched its nose it said things like, “Oink, my name is Princess and I’m a princess,” “Oink, I’m going to marry a prince” “Oink, do you like my outfit?” We laughed so hard we nearly got kicked out of the store. For days we would look at each other and say, “Oink, my name is Princess and I’m a princess!” So she’s getting pretty savvy. And meanwhile, I am loving the things that she IS picking out—the movies, the books, the toys.
What are 3 things parents can do to make sure their daughters don’t consume the destructive messages of princess culture wholesale?
Number 1: Lock them in a tower. No, just kidding. That’s not really our job. Our job is to help them navigate through the culture, or to navigate through it for them when they’re too little to do it themselves.
One thing I want to be clear about is that, again, I’m a mom like any mom. I am totally imperfect. In the book I reveal all my horrible foibles as a parent of a daughter—all my contradictions and hypocrisies and embarrassing public scenes (like the time I had a meltdown in Target over a Barbie). I get tired, really tired, of these bloody constant “teaching moments.” I don’t WANT any more teaching moments. But this is the world in which we live. So you do your best.
Sometimes you mess up. But if you don’t try, you’re leaving your daughter at the mercy of the marketers. So you really do have to say no, find alternatives, talk to your daughter as she gets older. I am finding that works, at least for now. At least to a degree. It’s what I’ve got as a parent, you know?
And I believe we have power as parents. I do. I think about the food movement. Ten years ago, organic produce was fringy. PRODUCE was fringy. But because of a couple of books, parents were educated and they insisted on better. Now Congress has revamped the school lunch program. McDonald’s offers some healthier options. If we can change McDonald’s lord knows we can change Mattel.
What does your daughter, Daisy, think of the book?
She liked the last book better because her name was in the title. Honestly, I think she’s proud that I’m writing about how we raise and treat girls, as much as she can understand it. I do really wrestle, though, with the ethics of writing about my child. And I’m pretty sure I’m gong to stop doing it shortly. She’s getting old enough where it will soon be an invasion of her privacy.
Anything else you want to tell us?
You know, if looking in the mirror and asking, “Who is the Fairest of them All” at three years old helped them attain a healthier body image, shielded them from eating disorders, gave them healthy perspective on their appearance, reduced their obsession with it, gave them more control over their sexual choices, I’d be all over it. I’d say go for it. Pink me, Dude. But it doesn’t, it just doesn’t.
It’s a really damaging paradox: girls are told that the thing that makes them girls is the obsession with appearance, but that that appearance is never good enough. Most of us lived that. None of us want that for our daughters.
Rachel Simmons ♦ Our Daughters: Raising Confident Girls
Rachel Simmons writes our monthly column, Our Daughters: Raising Confident Girls. Rachel is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, and The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence. As an educator and coach, Rachel works internationally to develop strategies to address bullying and empower girls. The co-founder of the Girls Leadership Institute, Rachel currently serves as a consultant to schools and organizations around the world. Rachel was the host of the recent PBS television special, “A Girl’s Life,” and writes an advice blog for girls at TeenVogue.com. Rachel lives in western Massachusetts with her West Highland Terrier, Rosie, and teaches workshops for parents and girls in Northampton. Visit her website at www.rachelsimmons.com. – March workshop with Rachel Simmons in Northampton: Real Parents, Real Daughters (Grades 2-3) – Check out Our Daughters: Raising Confident Girls the last Monday of every month.