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Are Disney Princesses Evil?

Author Peggy Orenstein on raising daughters in an age of gender-branded diapers, tiara-toting toddlers, and sexed-up preteens.

Where do Disney princesses fall on a 1-to-10 scale of harm to a girl's identity? How about Bratz, pink mania, Facebook? "All of this stuff seems 1, but might be 10, and you don't really know," says author and New York Times Magazine essayist Peggy Orenstein as we chat about her new book. "It's not any one thing. It's the whole onslaught." Cinderella Ate My Daughter is a highly entertaining (and disconcerting) romp. Orenstein hangs out with teachers, teenyboppers, marketing execs, social scientists, tots in tiaras, and her own seven-year-old to probe the beguiling contradictions of our growing girly-girl culture. Referring to the nearly half of six- to nine-year-old girls who wear lipstick or gloss, Orenstein tells me, "I don't know why the percentage is not zero." Read on for her lowdown on gender-branded diapers, Facebook's dark side, and how the parents of preschool beauty queens are more like us than we'd care to admit.

Mother Jones: You wrote that you had originally wanted a boy because you were afraid you might not be able to handle a daughter. Is having a daughter really that much more precarious than it was, say, 20 years ago?

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Peggy Orenstein: I think part of it was that I had been the supposed expert for the last 20 years, so I had 20 years of anxiety. [Laughs.] But yeah, I think it's a funny time, because on one hand there's all this good news about girls in education, girls in sports, they're doing great in college and all that, but at the same time the pressure hasn't abated at all on them. And I would (and do) argue that's the pressure has grown much more intense to define themselves and gain all their self-worth from the way that they look, and the way that they look is supposed to be, increasingly and increasingly younger, sexy. And femininity becomes defined for them by sexiness (you know, at the age of four), narcissism, and consumerism—all three of which are problematic for me.

MJ: Now let's see, 20 years ago there was—

PO: There's a couple differences. One is the market has gotten increasingly segmented. The girl stuff has gotten more girly; the boy stuff has gotten more boy-y. Two is that you have internet culture, which is 24/7, 365 days a year. And as they get older you have, not with littlest girls, but you have social media and all of that, and this very deep concern generated from that with how you present yourself. And your image becomes your self-image and your brand—there's a study where kids use that word to talk about their online persona.

MJ: So basically, kids have to be little marketers themselves.

PO: Yeah, marketing themselves. Or becoming their own little mini-Mileys or whatever the latest one is—their own little icons.

MJ: I found interesting your observation about how marketers of girly-girly culture rationalize their stuff as empowering, when it fact it's kind of limiting.

PO: Well, yes. It can feel like it's empowering because you think, well, girls are freer to express their femininity and their sexuality and we're not tamping that down or denying it anymore. But it ends up putting them, first of all, in this box. And secondly, premature sexualization of girls actually does the opposite of what people think it might; it actually disconnects them from their sexuality and makes for decreased sexual health as they get older. My kind of nightmare quote is from Deborah Tolman, who does research on girls and desire and is, I think, brilliant. She told me that by the time girls are teenagers, when she asks them how sexual experience made them feel, they respond by how they think they looked; they think that how they look is how they feel.

MJ: Yeah, that bit kind of blew me away.

Then there are the other Disney Princesses: Miley and Lindsey and Britney and now Demi Lovato, who just went into rehab for eating disorders and cutting.

PO: I just found that very striking, and very much of this era. I think there's a lot of effort into making us think it's benign, or that we can't do anything about it. But the mythology that this represents more freedom for girls, and more power and greater sexual health and greater self-efficacy, all of that; I think the evidence is really very much to the contrary. And nowhere do you see it really like writ large more than in these other Disney princesses. You know, Miley and Lindsey and Britney and now Demi Lovato, I don't know if you've heard of her.

MJ: No. [She's a teenage pop singer who portrays a teenager in the Disney Channel comedy series Sonny With a Chance.]

PO: She just went into a rehab for eating disorders and cutting and other sorts of things. It's an embarrassment for Disney. I mean, I don't know why they don't think they have to respond to what they're creating, but apparently they don't. They put the blame on the girls, or on families, or on stuff like that, not on the ideas that they're trying to make those girls embody—literally.

MJ: So beyond just the girl stuff, a lot of today's toys feel so prescribed to me. Like the building toys come in these specific kits, and the dolls come with these defined stories—

PO: I know!

MJ: Are we sending this message that kids needn't use their imaginations?

PO: My biggest surprise as a parent, or one of them, was how much of my job is about protecting my child's childhood. And when I think about what that means, in addition to her not wearing makeup when she's three years old, it's about imagination and making sure that her imagination isn't colonized by these prescribed scripts. I'm personally concerned with the script for girls. And for boys, too, but that's not what I write about. I don't mind that Daisy plays a little bit of princess now and again, or did when she was littler; that's fine. But if she's walking around doing the Cinderella story, and not even the Cinderella story, but the version which is all about getting the most stuff, then that's a problem. And there is evidence on violence, kids are acting out a prescribed script over and over and over—homogeneously across the country in their play—after they've been exposed to these TV shows or Internet stuff or robotic toys or whatever. I find that disheartening, and I'm sure it must contribute to this drop in creativity scores we're seeing.

MJ: Are we?

PO: Yeah, if you look at that Po Bronson story on the creativity crisis in Newsweek, there's been a steady drop in what they call "creative intelligence" scores since 1990, with the biggest drop being among elementary school students.

MJ: Okay, so let me have you rate the following on a 1-10 scale, with 10 being the most insidious for girls' development (1 is Mother Theresa, 10 is Dick Cheney): Disney Princesses.

PO: I'll tell you what is insidious about the Disney Princess, besides the fact that if you look into their merchandise, the 26,000 items, you're always finding books that are about "my perfect wedding." It's what it puts girls on the path for. And that it poses as something that protects girls, or staves off premature sexualization, when I think it primes them for it. I don't know where to put that on the continuum exactly. I guess eight?

MJ: American Girl?

PO: Five.

MJ: Barbie. The modern Barbie.

PO: One and Ten. [Laughs.] I'm so ambivalent about Barbie. I love and hate Barbie. I can't help it.

MJ: Bratz?

PO: Ten. [Laughs.] Monster High. You're forgetting about Monster High!

MJ: Okay, Monster High?

PO: Ten!

MJ: Social media?

PO: Again, one and ten. Just depends, and it depends on the age.

MJ: One of the things that struck me as a new parent is how innate some of the stereotypical gender roles tend to be. So that's okay. But then the marketers have learned how to exploit these roles so young...

PO: To amplify them and emphasize them and create them when they don't exist and amplify them when they do exist, yes.

MJ: So, is the female attraction to pink entirely nurture?

PO: It appears to be, since it didn't exist 100 years ago. It's totally socially constructed. And I think that one of the things that marketers do is convince us that something is natural when it's really been naturalized, and that's the whole point of marketing gender; it's "natural." Well, yes and no. It's natural for little girls to want to assert that they're little girls with whatever the culture gives them, because they want to make sure they stay little girls, because the whole penis-vagina thing hasn't quite kicked in and they don't know if their anatomy might switch and they might grow up to be something else. That's kind of scary, so they want to make sure that everyone knows you're a boy and everyone knows you're a girl. So you fixate on extremes that represent your gender, and that's a natural thing to do.

But when it is then packaged and sold to you in this extreme way, it separates the cultures of boys and girls, making it harder and harder for them to see one another as people—as the other sex rather than the opposite sex. It makes it very hard for them to be friends and to learn from one another. The research in the book that really struck me was the value of cross-sex play for both boys and girls, when it happens naturally. And you wonder, when everything is so coded, how do you do that? How do you play with the boy next door if you've got the pink Magic 8 Ball and the boutique Monopoly? And conversely, I think girls begin to think if something is not pink, it's not for them, and that's problematic. I mean, there's only one pink Lego kit. If pink is your only color, that's the only one you can get; everything else is for boys.

MJ: I was appalled as a parent that you can hardly find a diaper that isn't gender branded. They all have Disney Princesses on them, or Cars characters.

PO: I know. It's very annoying.

MJ: I would walk into Safeway and say, "WTF?" Isn't there something generic?

PO: It's true. At a certain point the children are cognizant and then they realize. But I always am concerned when people go the opposite way with girls; like when they say, "I never let my daughter play with dolls," or "I bought her the Cars diapers," or whatever. She knows those are boy things, so you're telling her that that which is associated with girls is somehow inferior, and I don't consider that an antidote. I think one of the challenges is to create an equally positive, joyful, fun, satisfying sense of femininity and feminine identity in a different way so that there are things you're saying yes to and satisfying that urge that your daughter has to be assert her girlness. The surface level of the culture, and really several inches into it, makes that very hard to do. I hate to put another thing on parents' plates, and especially on mothers' plates (because often it falls to them). But the culture is very intentional in what it's telling your daughter and what it's telling you about the message of femininity. And if you're not intentional and conscious back, you lose.

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