Author Peggy Orenstein explains why our daughters are being told that how they look matters more than who they are
wOw: Your new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, stems from a much-commented-upon New York Times magazine piece that you wrote on the rise of “princess-mania” among a generation of very young girls. Why did this phenomenon strike such a chord for you?
Peggy Orenstein: The short answer is, because I’m a mom. When you have a daughter and you imagine her life these days, you think, “I don’t want her to feel she has to do anything because she’s a girl, and I don’t want her to feel she can’t do something because she’s a girl.” And I was going along raising her like that and suddenly, whammo, she goes to preschool and comes home within a week having memorized all the names and gown colors of the Disney Princesses, and I’m thinking, “What the heck is a Disney Princess?” At the same time, we were going around town — and I live in Berkeley, CA, so you can just imagine what goes on in places where women actually shave their legs — and the pierced-and-tattooed waitress at our breakfast joint gives my daughter her meal and says, “Here are your princess pancakes.” And the nice lady at the drug store asks if she wants a balloon then, without asking, hands her a pink one saying , “I know what color you want.” And finally we went to the pediatric dentist and she said, “Would you like to get up on my princess chair so I can sparkle your teeth?” And I thought, “Jeez, do you have a princess drill, too?” I mean, I availed myself of my mom’s cast-off tiara now and again and pranced around wrapped in an old lace tablecloth. But I did lots of other things too. When did every little girl start not just playing, but being a princess for three years? Why had this happened? Was it a sign that we were embracing their femininity or being blindly retrograde? Was it protective of premature sexualization or priming them for it? Those questions got me off and running.
wOw: In your book, you report from “the front lines of the new girle-girl culture:” not only Disney princesses, but the ubiquity of the color pink, Bratz dolls, and Miley Cyrus worship. Do you believe that “playing princess” contributes to the early sexualization of little girls?
P.O.: I think you have to define your terms here. The contemporary little princess fantasy is not what it was when we were little. Like I said, I played princess. You probably played princess. But you did not have a $4 billion industry and 26,000 princess-themed products being sold to you 24/7, 365 days a year. And that’s just Disney. So you have to look at the message of that culture, which is not the same, necessarily, as the message of the movies. “Tangled” is a great example. It’s the story of a sort of empowered princess, right? But go into Toys-R—Us and what do you see? “Tangled’ mega-cosmetics kit. “Tangled” compact. “Tangled” hair braider. “Tangled” vanity table where those wonderful lights that represented her self-determined destiny have been reduced to lights around a makeup mirror. So you have to look at the trajectory, at the whole of it, and that’s what I do in the book. I look at the ways the pretty princess because the spoiled, consuming, diva princess — more wicked stepsister, really. The girl with the T-shirt that says “pampered princess,” or with the crown on it that says, “give me the credit card and no one gets hurt.” The princess spa birthday parties. The princess makeovers (including the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique Princess Makeover at Disney World, which costs up to $190). And ultimately, the sexualized princess. And by that I don’t mean the sexually active princess. But the girl who learns from the get-go to define herself through how she believes others are judging her appearance — with that appearance being very narrowly defined and increasingly about hotness. The trajectory from “am I the fairest of them all” to “am I the hottest of them all” and the implications of that. The biggest growth market in cosmetics — the only growth market — is among girls 8-12. And when Walmart rolled out its geo girl line in January for girls that age, among its justifications was that since girls now wear clear lip gloss and nail polish at ages 3-5, during their princess reign, they “naturally” want a little “enhancement” by 8.
wOw: Who’s to blame for the so-called “pink menace?” Is it the marketers, who, in response to ever-increasing sales figures, are producing ever-increasing quantities of “girlie” products? Or is it the parents who continue to buy these toys?
P.O.: It’s symbiotic. Marketers make what sells. But once they see something sells, they make more and more and more and more. And parents — well, you know, we’re busy, we’re tired, we want our kids to be happy. And it takes effort to find alternatives. I think, too, we’re reluctant to do anything that we see squashing girls’ femininity. Which is why on my website, under resources, I offer ideas about other ways to support and celebrate little girls’ desire to assert they are girls — because that’s a natural developmental phase — that takes them off the flume ride that the larger culture wants to put them on.
wOw: What can parents do to protect their daughters from falling prey to the hyper-femininity that surrounds them?
P.O.: First of all, you have to fight fun with fun. Your little girl is never going to get the message that you want her to have broader choices if you’re always saying no. So you must find things to say yes to. Again, that’s why I’ve created this resources page (which people are welcome to email me to add to) for girls under ten. So you can find alternatives more easily. Alternatives that give her a way to act out femininity. Because while it’s great to give girls gender-neutral toys or gender-defying toys, it’s really, really important to little girls to have ways to express feminine identity. A lot of what I suggest is little stuff. Like [my daughter] Daisy and I got into Greek myths when she was about four. And she ended up going trick-or-treating dressed as Athena, Goddess of War and Wisdom. That’s a very feminine image, right? And yet totally different than Disney’s Cinderella. (Please don’t tell Disney that, though. I’m terrified that at any second they’re going to put out a Goddess makeup kit).
Anyway, for the littlest girls, then, it’s about limiting, on one hand (though not banning, because you’ll never be able to do that, frankly) and expanding their ideas and fantasies on the other. Sometimes that may even involve princesses. We had a lot of little plastic figurines of princesses, knights, kings, queens etc. And they were what they were: they didn’t have movies or TV shows or Dixie Cups with their faces on them. So they forced my daughter to play off-script, to use her imagination. Because that’s the other really sad part here — the ways the Princesses discourage imaginative play, limit and define it. Even their invention did that: the guy who came up with them thought of the idea at an ice show in 2000, where he saw a bunch of little girls in the audience dressed up like princesses. And they were using their imaginations and things from home to make those costumes. Disney could not let that use of creativity stand — they had to rush in and license it until they thought of 26,000 ways you could buy it instead.
wOw: As a writer, you’ve become known as an expert on the issues of womanhood, girlhood, and female empowerment. Do you plan to continue your exploration of these subjects? Or do you have a new topic up your sleeve?
P.O.: I always think I have a new topic up my sleeve, but I end up coming back around to those issues because, I guess, they never cease to interest and fascinate me. But we’ll see …
Editor’s Note: Peggy Orenstein is the author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture and three other books. A contributing writer to the New York Times magazine, she has been published in, among others, USA Today, Vogue, Parenting, O, The Oprah magazine, Salon, and the New Yorker. Orenstein lives in Norther California with her husband and their daughter, Daisy.