The Princess Problem

Cinderella Ate Her Daughter

By Janine Defao

Author Peggy Orenstein's Foray Into Girlie-Girl Culture

Peggy OrensteinYou know the old saw about being a better parent before you had children? Berkeley, California author Peggy Orenstein can do you one better. She was an expert on girls before she gave birth to one.

Orenstein, a contributing writer to the New York Times magazine, had spent decades researching and writing about girls, women and culture, with bestselling titles including Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem and the Confidence Gap and Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids and Life in a Half-Changed World.

She knew all about girls struggling with body image and self worth, and about women fighting against outdated concepts of gender roles. Accordingly, she kept the decidedly anti-feminist princess tales (look prett y and get rescued by a man) away from her daughter. So, imagine her surprise when she found Daisy, at age 3, lying on the fl oor in the middle of a crowd of kids, arms folded across her chest, pretending to be Snow White and waiting for her prince’s kiss to revive her.

Cinderella Ate My Daughter cover

“If princesses had infiltrated our little retrohippie hamlet (of Berkeley, CA), imagine what was going on in places where women actually shave their legs?” muses Orenstein in her new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture (Harper Collins). The book chronicles the inescapable resurgence of prett y and pink – and its emphasis on how girls look – examines media from fairytales to Facebook, and cautions that “the choices we make for our toddlers can infl uence how they navigate (our culture) as teens.”

Orenstein, 49, spoke with partner Bay Area Parent about the book and her continuing struggle to help her daughter, now 7, chart a course through popular culture.

The pink, princess, girlie-girl culture is so pervasive. You write that there are 26,000 Disney Princess products alone. How can you shield your daughter from it?

I don’t know that you can shield them. It’s everywhere. But, you can fi nd ways to counterbalance it. As parents, there’s a lot on our plates. It’s really tempting and easy to give pink and prett y a pass and think they’ll grow out of it.

The princesses are her first foray into mainstream culture. What’s it telling her? Th at the most important thing is to be “the fairest of them all.” It may be the fi rst time she’ll hear that, but it won’t be the last.

It’s really hard to convince your daughter that you’re off ering her more choices in life if you’re constantly saying no. You have to fi nd things you can say yes to and ways to say yes that are okay with your values, and fun for her.

What about the parents who say that the princess phenomenon is at least better than Bratz and the other “sexy” dolls?

One of the questions I had was whether the litt le girl princess culture protects or primes girls for sexualization. I think it does the latt er, the way it’s cast now.

Our princess play was not the same as princess play is now. It was not so heavily marketed and ubiquitous and was not all about looking pretty.

My daughter got a make-your-own messenger bag kit for her seventh birthday. It came with patches that said “pampered princess,” “spoiled” and “brat.” She said, “Mom, why would anybody want to put that on their purse?”

The “girl power” ideas of the 1990s have gott en distorted, and confi dence has been equated with bratt y-ness and spoiled-ness and pampered-ness.

Nearly half of 6- to 9-year-old girls regularly use lipstick or lip-gloss. Th e percentage of girls ages 8 to 12 using eyeliner and mascara has doubled since 2008. We have been inured to the impact and pervasiveness of sexualization of litt le girls. And, we know that premature sexualization is linked to vulnerability and all the things we worry about as parents of girls: eating disorders, body image, sexual risk-taking.

After your research, where do you come out on nature versus nurture? Is some girliness innate?

It’s important for girls in preschool to exert their girliness. Th is is not about squelching girls’ desire to be girls. Th ey don’t realize at their age that their sex is permanent. When your daughter throws a fi t and doesn’t want to wear pants, she wants to wear dresses to prove she’s a girl, and girls wear dresses.

There’s this need to go to the extreme of what your culture gives you in terms of what it means to be a girl. If you don’t want them to go with that, fi gure out what you can give them. When we were girls, that need was not fi lled by giving us sparkle lip-gloss. I got my fi rst Bonnie Belle Lip Smacker when I was 12. Now, you get it when you’re 3. Barbie was created for 9- to 12-year-olds. Now she’s for 3- to 7-year-olds.

Should you indulge that need with pink Tinker Toys, Monopoly, Yahtzee and all the other “girl” versions of toys out there?

There’s this relentless segregation going on. You sell more products if you hyper-segment.
There’s now pink Scrabble with “fashion” spelled out on the lid and pink Monopoly where you buy boutiques and malls.

I went to Arizona State University, where some of the top experts in gender development are studying the importance of cross-gender play in preschoolers. It blew me away.

It’s not that you force kids to play across sex, and most of the time they don’t. But when they do, it’s incredibly benefi cial emotionally, psychologically and cognitively. Th e litt le biases in social skills and reasoning skills that they’re born with expand during those years. If they play together more, they don’t. For instance, girls with older brothers have better spatial skills. That’s profound.

Kids with cross-sex friends in elementary school have better dating relationships. The less they other-ize the opposite sex, the better. But the things we give them other-ize the opposite sex.

Armed with your research, have you found it easier to be consistent?

No. I’m wildly inconsistent all the time. Th at’s what it means to be parents, especially in a culture that doesn’t refl ect our ideals. I wrote about a time when we both ended up in tears in Target over a Barbie doll. I gave in.

It is really hard, and I am in sympathy and solidarity with parents everywhere about this stuff .It’s easy to know where the extremelines are. For me, Bratz are over the line. But, so much is mushy and unclear.

Spend a few hours thinking about your values and alternatives and thinking about the context. If you don’t do that, you’re really turning it over to all those companies and products to defi ne your daughter’s femininity.

I never imagined how much of my job as a parent would be to protect my child’s childhood, to protect her imagination and her girlhood… and allow her to create her own fantasies and develop her own inner life. Th at set me on this path.

You do your best and understand what you can. Try to be consistent and talk to your daughter, so when you no longer have that control over her, she is able to make her own decisions. She’ll make them inconsistently, too. What other choice do we have?

I see my daughter making really good decisions. She was Athena for Halloween. That was better than Cinderella.

By Janine Defao, an associate editor at Bay Area Parent is a mother of two, including on princess fanatic.