As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I’m not a huge fan of the color pink. And, much to my mother’s chagrin, I try to avoid putting my daughter in anything that screams girly girl/princess/Paris Hilton. It’s just not my style and, to be honest, it kind of freaks me out. From the second I found out I was having a girl, I started stressing about how I was going to protect her from becoming one of those oversexualized, belly-baring tweens (or, um, seven year olds) I see in the news/on TV/at the mall/everywhere these days. Which is why when I got an advanced copy of Peggy Orenstein’s new book Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture I devoured it in one sitting. I couldn’t stop talking about the book to anyone who would listen. And everyone wanted to listen because it’s fascinating—and, yes, a little frightening. Peggy began researching the book after noticing her then-three year old could recite every Disney princess by name and corresponding gown color, a trick she’d picked up at pre-school. Peggy immediately began investigating what this ultra-feminine trend was telling young girls about who they are—and who they should be.
I always assumed that because I was a well-rounded girl (i.e., I grew up knowing how to shoot a gun, bait a hook and play with Barbies) that my daughter would be the same simply by osmosis. But, as they say, times have changed. And as mothers to daughters we need to be aware of how those changes can affect our kids. I recently had the opportunity to interview Peggy, and it was probably one of the most enlightening conversations I’ve had as a journalist—and a mother. Here are some snippets:
Was there a pivotal moment that made you realize you had to write this book?
I took my daughter, Daisy, to have her teeth cleaned and the dentist said, “Do you want to get on my princess chair and I’ll sparkle your teeth?” I thought, really? Are you kidding me? What is this? I wanted to look into the princess phenomenon not because I thought it was bad or good but because I was curious about why it had become so ubiquitous and what it meant for our girls.
Some moms would say, what’s the big deal? It’s just a princess! Why does the “girlie girl” culture drive you so nuts?
I get into this argument a lot. I’m not against girls playing princess but that that has become the only thing they’ll play and the definition of girlhood is troublesome. Since 2000 when Disney first branded its Princess line, sales have reached four billion. But these movies are not about the character or morality of princesses, they’re about having the most stuff. And finding the guy. Ariel gives up her voice for a man! A lot of the girl culture that seems benign or protective is actually putting girls on a path to see femininity as sexualized, as narcissistic, as commercial. I’m not saying wearing a Cinderella dress at three is going to lead to texting nude shots of yourself to random boys, but the emphasis on the external as opposed to the internal is a connecting thread there.
What surprised you most in your research?
I discovered that there is a pink boutique edition of monopoly. The game claims to be all about the things girls love: “buy boutiques and malls, go on a shopping spree, pay your cell phone bill and get text and instant messages.” And instead of hotels and houses you buy shops and malls. You have to start wondering when this stuff is so ubiquitous, what girls are learning about who they’re supposed to be.
Apart from becoming Amish, is there an antidote to this girlie-girl culture?
I wish! It’s an ongoing discussion you need to get on top of earlier than you think. You can start asking them questions about the movies they watch: “Why do you think this woman is portrayed this way?” “Why do you think they always have the women wearing teeny tiny clothing?” They need to know that you don’t think it’s OK. If you understand what this stuff is, what the trajectory is, what the research says about girls and body and sexuality and beauty, then you’ll think more smartly about what you let in when you have a choice and how you’ll talk about it with your kids. But it won’t be easy.
Your daughter, Daisy, is seven now. Any princess stuff in your house?
She had two princess dresses, but neither was Disney. If kids are basing their play on existing characters that they’ve seen on television 400 times they tend to act out the script. Psychologists all say that fantasy play is so important for a child’s development but it doesn’t work when they’re playing a character that has a script. If she’s wearing a Cinderella dress she’ll only do Cinderella. That’s a problem about what girls learn about girls, but it’s also a problem with how kids today play in general, both girls and boys.
How has the information you uncovered changed you as a mom?
Well, it’s tough convincing your daughter that you’re offering her more choices by telling her no all the time. And I still blow it a lot. I had a meltdown in Target over a Barbie and both Daisy and I wound up in tears and my husband ended up fuming. But we’ve found so many wonderful alternatives—they’re not the first things you’re going to come across and they won’t be in Toys R Us but they’re out there. We watch Miyazaki’s animated cartoons that are girl-positive in the most casual, non-didactic way. We read bible stories about women and Greek myths and legends. And Daisy dresses up and plays all kinds of fantastical castle games. She really has a sense of herself both as female and as powerful because she’s had the opportunity to see femininity as being an internal idea rather than something you buy.
So, what do you guys think? Do any of you with girls ever worry about this stuff? Any thoughts for how to keep the girly-girl culture in check? The kids and I were playing the other day and Alex said he was going to be a superman and Nora and I could be princesses. I said, "I don't want to be a princess, can I be something else?" He said, "Sure mom, you can be Batman. And Nora can be Darth Vader." Baby steps....
(Peggy also wrote this book about raising girls, which is on my list!)