(INTERVIEW) Peggy Orenstein on How Playing Princess Affects Girls

7 years ago

Last summer at Epcot, we were getting on the Figment ride when the cast member smiled at my daughter and said, "there you go, Princess." And as our little tram jerked into the laboratory, my daughter whispered, "but how did he know? How did he know that I am a real and actual princess?"

My daughter loves pink and tulle and ballet. She would like to be a scientist, rock star, and mermaid when she grows up. She can name every Disney princess plus a host of other damsels she thinks should enter the Disney pantheon. She wants to make sure the amp we're getting for her electric bass can be turned up extra loud.

In other words, she is like every other six-year-old at the heart of Peggy Orenstein's new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter.

The book challenges and provokes. It forces the reader to think about her actions; in regards to herself and in regards to every little girl in her life. It will terrify you as well as give you hope. It sets a new bar in girlology studies.

Peggy Orenstein has been writing about girls for about 20 years, starting with her groundbreaking Schoolgirls and most recently, Cinderella Ate My Daughter. As she says in her new book, "After all, girls will be girls, right? I agree, they will--and that is exactly why we need to pay more, rather than less, attention to what is happening in their world."

But a page later gets to the heart of that statement, the question that is on every reader's mind:

...What are you supposed to do about it? Lock your daughter in a tower? Rely on the tedious 'teachable moment' in which Mom natters on about how if Barbie were life-sized she'd pitch forward smack onto her bowling ball boobs (cue the eye rolling, please)?

The rest of the book aims to answer that question while also admitting that it's not a X + Y = Z situation. There are things we know are detrimental to a growing girl's psyche, but we enter murkier waters when we try to discern what works and try to figure out what we need to do in order to raise self-sufficient, emotionally-healthy girls. By examining the messages girls receive -- especially in the form of marketing -- Orenstein aims to get us closer to finding a formula that has does more good than harm.

It's an important subject that I'm glad is in Orenstein's capable hands because she infuses it with... well, if not sparkles, then something akin to magic. Mary Poppins sang that a spoonful of sugar helped the medicine go down, and Orenstein's approach in all of her books is to infuse a warm voice with interesting tidbits (do you know why none of the Disney Princesses are making eye contact with each other when you see them on a label? I now do) in order to get you to pay attention to the key message.

Because Orenstein is an awesome woman, one who is revolutionizing the way we treat, think, and talk about young girls, I asked her a few questions as I read her new book.

Melissa: It all started for Daisy with Snow White, and strangely enough, for my niece and daughter (5 years apart), it was Snow White too. My daughter still has never seen the movie or read a book about Snow White, whereas, she had seen plenty of other Disney princesses. Why do you think so many girls seem to start with Snow White when she doesn't have a lot of personality as you point out in the book?

Orenstein: I have no idea. I’ve never heard that before. Though come to think of it, Snow White was the first Disney movie I ever saw as a child. It scared the Bejeezus out of me. I had to be carried out screaming. And I was fifteen years old at the time. Just kidding. I was three. Anyway, I don’t know why, but it’s an interesting thing to ponder.

Melissa: Perhaps someone else will have the answer for why Snow White is so prevalent as a gateway princess. Though you're quite clear at the beginning of the book that there isn't a simple solution and the point of this book is to get the brainstorming going, people still seem to be upset with the lack of concrete answers in the book. Do you think this response is indicative of how much parents are struggling on how to combat marketing's effect on girls?

Orenstein: Yes, I think so. I hope so. I mean, I wish I could’ve given you the five quick ways to fix it. And I do have more ideas about that now that I’ve been out on the road for awhile. So maybe I”ll do something in another edition of the book. But meanwhile, I have been developing my own eclectic, evolving ideas on my web site of how to “fight fun with fun.” It’s on the “resources” page. There are books, toys, movies, clothing lines, craft ideas... All kinds of things that can help you reinforce and celebrate your little girl’s femininity without continually linking it to appearance and/or play-sexiness. At least it’s a start. And if anyone has ideas, email them to me. It focuses on girls under 10.

Melissa: You've been writing about girls for over 20 years -- how has your approach to the subject matter personally changed since becoming a mother? And how much do you think the world has changed since the writing of your groundbreaking book, Schoolgirls?

Orenstein: Well, becoming a mother turned me from being a backseat driver to being behind the wheel, which is humbling! But it’s not just motherhood—I’ve changed as a person, a writer, a woman in the intervening years since Schoolgirls was published. I mean, that was 17 years ago, right? So I think one big difference is that I’m more comfortable in my skin, I’m more confident in my own authority and “right” to be writing. When I wrote Schoolgirls, I was so afraid no one would take me seriously. I felt I had to be very sober and grown up. And when I went out to give talks I dressed very conservatively. I put on this persona. That’s gone now. And that’s the tone of the book -- it's more personal, more honest about my own confusions and contradictions as well as funnier. That’s who I am. That’s how I see the world. I don’t need to prove justify it any more.

By saying that, I’m not putting Schoolgirls down in any way. I’m just saying it’s a book written by my younger self with all the strengths and weaknesses that implies.

As to how the world is different. Well, girls have caught up in a number of realms. They’re now doing great in school, going to college more than their male classmates, attaining leadership roles, flooding the sports field. At the same time, the pressure to define themselves by their appearance, to make it the epicenter of their identity hasn’t changed one whit and, in fact, it’s grown younger. And they are expressing and acting out that contradiction—the percentage of girls who feel pressure to be “perfect” has risen since 2000, as has the percentage who are excessively concerned about appearance as has the percentage that say in order to be popular a girl has to be thin and pretty. So what’s confusing to me as a mother and fascinating as a journalist is how girls navigate that and why it’s happened.

Melissa: What was -- for you -- the most shocking statistic you encountered in the writing of this book?

Orenstein: This isn’t a statistic, more of an observation. Deb Tolman, a professor of psychology at Hunter College who has been studying girls sexual desire for decades told me that increasingly when she asks teenage girls to describe how an experience of arousal felt, they respond by telling her how they felt they looked. She has to remind them that looking good is not a feeling. I think that’s so telling.

But statistics? I guess that nearly 50% of girls 6-9 surveyed by the market research group NPD said that they wear lipstick or lip gloss regularly, and the percentage of 8--12-year-olds wearing eye liner and/or mascara doubled between 2008-2010. I fully know why the number of 8-year-olds wearing eye makeup isn’t zero. But apparently 8--12-year-old girls are the fastest growing market—the ONLY growth market—for cosmetics. So get ready for your third grader to miss her school bus because she doesn’t have her “face” on.

Have you read Orenstein's new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter? What were your thoughts after reading it?

Photo Credit: Reenie Raschke

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her novel about blogging is Life from Scratch.

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