The Dark Side of Pink and Pretty


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.

10 Responses so far.

  1. avatar HauntedLady says:

    The girlie-girl thing has been around for a very long time. Look at women’s roles and their directed interests from the nineteenth century. Any woman who strayed from the socially-assigned path ran into tremendous difficulties. It stayed that way until the sixties, with a brief diversion during World War II because women were needed for labor.

    When I was a little girl in the early 50s, gender roles were pretty well defined. Girls were pink and boys were blue. Girls got dolls and toy kitchen sets and toy dishes and toy carpet sweepers. Boys got train sets and chemistry sets and erector sets. Advertising reinforced this disparity and, yes, Disney was part of it. The biggest difference is that we have more sophisticated methods of influencing what people buy for their kids. I do remember, though, that a lot of mothers, including my own, had no problem saying no when anything went too far.

    • avatar Lila says:

      Haunted Lady, I also was given baby dolls and such. I hated them, never played with them, and there are many pictures of me playing with my brother’s Tommy gun and Army jeep (foreshadowing?).

      I hated my little smock-dresses that seemed just DESIGNED to show one’s underwear. It was an issue of dignity, though I could not express it at that age (3 or 4). I always much preferred pants, which enable one to scrounge in the dirt and climb trees while preserving one’s modesty. All I knew was – I don’t want my underwear showing!!

      Contrast those feelings with what Bella Mia writes below – now young girls get slutty-looking Bratz dolls practically at the same age I was given baby dolls. Padded bikini tops are marketed to 7-year-olds. You can’t find a AA-cup training bra without push-up padding. And miniskirts that are barely wider than a belt are marketed to preadolescents. Not only does it not other them to have their underwear show (if they even wear it), they WANT it to show, especially if it is a thong.

      The whole message that girls our age got from toys and marketing was that girls were supposed to delicate, deferential, and all about home-making and raising families. The whole message today’s girls get from their toys, clothes, and media is that girls are supposed to be all about sex, sex, sex. As if there is nothing else to aspire to.

      This isn’t sexual freedom. Freedom means choice. This is a societal expectation that girls will “put out.” And then, of course, we are horrified when they do… at earlier and earlier ages.

  2. avatar Bella Mia says:

    We’ve just seen batches of photos of Liz Taylor, and if she wasn’t a girly-girl, I don’t know who was. I think the problem is really an issue of TOXIC feminization rather than hyper feminization. When I was growing up, it was about princesses and BRIDES. But the enjoyment was really about the beautiful fabrics, and the limited role play aspect – not the cosmetics – although that was fun, too. We liked to drift around in the beautiful dresses. Boys had the capes, we had the gowns.

    What’s worse now is the slut-ification of the little girls, pre-teen and tween girls -and that’s directly related to TV, and girl’s/women’s magazines which have always played a big role in American culture. There was a great article at the Wall Street Journal this week: “Why Do We Let Them Dress That Way?” A quote….

    “But it’s easy for parents to slip into denial. We wouldn’t dream of dropping our daughters off at college and saying: “Study hard and floss every night, honey—and for heaven’s sake, get laid!” But that’s essentially what we’re saying by allowing them to dress the way they do while they’re still living under our own roofs.”

    A princess wand won’t get your daughter an STD, but the slut-culture certainly may lead her to entertain behaviors that may. Abercrombie just came out with a padded bra swim suit for 8 year olds! That’s a breaking news story.

    With a “Sex is Cheap: Why guys have the upper hand in the bedroom, even when they are failing in life” (A SLATE article*) attitude, men are in the driver’s seat, and young women have decided to compete for the lowest common denominator. The youngest and marketers clue into this anxiety. It’s tragic really. And the guys are thrilled.

    Here’s what we did:
    1) Buy the princess stuff – a handful of items – hat, halloween costume, wand, fingernail polish, stories, bedding, etc – and sprinkle with a few movies.
    2) Encourage art, music, dance – more fun for girls. I had ballerina wallpaper growing up.
    3) Encourage a love of animals and nature – we’re big horse people, dogs, cats, and gerbils too (Yes, our girls’ gerbil was named Pocahantas.)
    5) Educate them to be religiously devout – social science is showing that the devoutly religious have advantages in life that make it worth serious consideration. This takes the focus off the shallow culture promoted by the media, and turns their focus to interpersonal relationships, and creativity, Dr Drew says we have a crisis of narcissism and an obsession of worshiping really sick, disturbed people, ie celebrities.
    4) Emphasize modesty throughout childhood and young adult hood: this is hard.
    Fortunately,we have a faith (Mormon) that sets certain dress standards that we encourage, and adhere to ourselves as adults.
    a) Shorts have to be walking shorts, not daisy dukes.
    b) Swimsuits are one piece.
    c) Shirts/Dresses are not sleeveless, necklines not plunging. Shrugs or bolero jackets work.
    d) Dresses are within a few inches of the knee – like 2-4 inches, not 12 inches.
    e) Leaving the house, girls must look acceptable to parents. (This goes for the boys too, but for them it’s mostly concerns about grooming standards.)

    How it’s worked out: Relatively successfully. There have been a few borderline prom dresses, and sleeveless shirts under leather jackets they swore would stay on. But I do know that when I dropped them off at school they were dressed attractively, in name brand clothes, but significantly more modestly than girls I saw walking into the school in super low-cut halter tops, and micro daisy duke shorts with butt-cheeks hanging out the back. (How DO the boys concentrate?)

    So honestly, the princess stuff is small potatoes compared to what lies ahead on what now seems to be the Autobahn of female sexual cultural development. Meanwhile guys maintain their adolescent lifestyles into their 30’s – and it’s easy to see how and why they’ve been abundantly accommodated and rewarded.


  3. avatar KayeM says:

    While I appreciate the concern, I think you are projecting your own feelings onto your daughter.  You do understand that the Disney Princess thing is simply a passing phase, and not one that really leads to establishing lasting identity roles.  Actually, in our house it’s been important in establishing exactly what my daughter doesn’t want to be.  My daughter went through the 4 year old obsession with the D Princesses,… wanting to dress in Princess gowns everyday.  We did indulge this fantasy play, while continuing to read her a variety of books, and expose her to museums and science centers, etc. (Incidentally, I never found it much different than my son wanting to wear Harry Potter Hogwarts robes daily.)  I would ask you, and anyone who is stressing over the Princess stage, to spend some time interacting with 9 year olds.  You will find girls who have decidely distanced themselves from everything D Princess… entirely purposefully… you will hear them discuss their conscious effort to remove everything D Princess from their lives.  You will also hear their complete and utter rejection of the color pink! God help you, if you put a pink marker on the craft table…seven 3rd grade girls will sit motionless because none of them will use it.  My 9 year old no longer idolizes Cinderella, she would tell you that Cinderella is “stupid”!   She’s also the first one to point out how “lame” a girl that needs rescuing is!  Her favorite “fairy tale” now… The Paper Bag Princess, if you are not familiar with that one you should check it out. Her new hero… Mia Hamm!  The funny thing is… none of this required me “conditioning” her otherwise, it was a natural evolution for her personality.  I let her go through her D Princess phase until she was ready to move on and leave it behind her.  The only thing I did, as well as her Dad, was continue to emphasize and expose her to the things that we find important in our lives. 

  4. avatar anneh says:

    And while we’re on the subject of “Disney Princess” and the sexualization of young girls, I would point out a simple truth…just look at the actual physical shape of all these “Princesses” – Barbies every one of them.  These are the “figures” – both literally and figuratively – that our daughters are taught from an early age to emulate and idolize.  Large double D breasts, tiny wasp waists and long, long slender legs.  As the mother of two daughters – now 22 and 19 – despite my best efforts to keep these, and other Disney-type princesses at bay they have had a very real, and negative, impact on my daughters’ self-image.  While I cannot blame these images for all that’s wrong with the sexualization of young women, I think these kinds of promotions of an unreal, unattainable sexualized female form certainly are contributing greatly to this very real problem.

  5. avatar calgal says:

    Hurray!! A real topic on WoW! So many other topics are aimed at grown-up, grown old women who are still in their princess phase and want to know about hair, makeup, and clothes so they can pretend they’re tweenies. Love it that here is a discussion about empowering the next generation of women. Thoughtful article, thoughtful, helpful responses. Thank you all!

    I even appreciate the Mormon plea for modesty, although I vividly remember spending the first half of any class at BYU rubbing my frozen knees back to sensation because the campus dress code said no pants for the women, even in the depths of winter. And no, Mom, nylon stockings did NOT keep my legs warm.

  6. avatar Pam Fink says:

    Ahh.. it’s nice to know that I’m not the only one modified by today’s world. I used to talk about how if I were to have a daughter, I’d lock her in a tower until she was 21, just to protect her from the insanity of today’s world. I’ve never been one to like pink, it drives me nuts that you have to have pink or blue. (and apparently green, which USED to be a “neutral” color, is turning in to a boy color!)
    And now, here I am, 30 weeks pregnant with my first, and we’re pretty sure it’s a girl, and here is someone who’s written a book to help me not have to lock my little girl in a tower for the first 21 years of her life. (not that I would, mind you…)
    All I can really say, is that I second, third, fourth, fifth, and so on all the previous comments. You all think the same as me. There have been times I thought I was the only one.
    KayeM, i think, the reason your daughter grew out of the D princess stage was because you continued to expose her to other things in life. You took her to museums and such. That helped her see that there was so much more to life than being a Princess. I think in today’s world, what a lot of parents do (and perhaps what the author is worried about) is enforce and continue to do the princess thing for their little girls. They don’t take them out to the museums, and to the science centers. They encourage their little “Princess” to stay a princess by buying them everything, even a brand-spanking new car on their 16th birthday (NOT going to happen in this household…) with the word Princess decaled across the top of the windshield. And then they wonder why their precious “Princess” is doing things they don’t want her to do…
    I hope my little girl doesn’t turn into one of those “Princesses”… Wish us luck. (and BTW, my WDH (Wonderful Darling Husband) totally agrees with me.) Still, wish us luck…

  7. avatar K T says:

    I think this idea of the whole pink and girly things can have its positives and its negatives. Somegirls are raised like that from when they were little and had no control over it. Which would lead back to the parents. Parents may do this to try to teach their kids the difference between ‘boy’ stuff and ‘girl’ stuff. But parents may not realize that they are implanting these themes in their kids heads and promoting the stereo-typing of the color of pink and girls. I remember when I was little and we used to go through drive throughs, I would (most of the time) want a boys toy because the girls ones were dolls or pink frilly things.

    But really thats just an opinion of mine.