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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.

MJ: Daisy knows you write about her, right?

PO: Yeah. She knows. She hates the title of this book, by the way. Hates. Hates. Hates.

MJ: Does she feel like she's in the spotlight?

PO: I don't know. I think she will, and I don't think I'm going to do it for too much longer because of that. I think she's kind of young enough that it doesn't matter much. Another couple years, you know, I've got to stop. She feels special for it: She told one of her friends that she's famous—that her name is in the title of a book.

MJ: Well, she is sort of famous.

PO: Well, every once in a blue moon, somebody recognizes the two of us together. You know, maybe three times, but it's happened. If I yell like, "Daisy, stop that!" across Andronico's [a local grocery store]. People will turn and see the two of us and they'll say, "You must be Peggy." But that doesn't happen very often. Much more often, I go into a bookstore and they take my credit card and have no idea who I am, and I feel depressed!

MJ: So, once kids enter school, the peer influence and pervasiveness of the gender marketing becomes even stronger. Is it a losing battle for parents?

PO: I think we're made to think it's a losing battle. A really good analogy is the food movement: Not that long ago, the idea of feeding your kid with organic fruit and vegetables or paying attention to sustainability or any of that—that was very fringy. And I guess some people will argue it still is to a degree, but it's kind of mainstream fringy now.

MJ: If you can afford it.

PO: Yeah. But people all over are attentive to this, and it matters, and people are bringing it to the schools. Even McDonald's has had to put in some kinds of healthy choices. If you can get McDonald's to move a little bit, we've got to be able to do the same for Mattel.

Even McDonald's has had to put in some kinds of healthy choices. If you can get McDonald's to move a little bit, we've got to be able to do the same for Mattel.

MJ: But Mattel's just going to follow its bottom line.

PO: So is McDonald's. Right. So if people stop [buying], or people demand some alternative, they'll make it. And the question is, will people do that?

MJ: It demands that parents say no to all the stuff that companies are putting out there that the kids salivate over, so you have to be this naysayer...

PO: Well, when kids are little, you can just say no. You really can. But you do find yourself saying no all the time, which is the dilemma. That's why you have to do the work to find the things that you can say yes to. And sometimes that is work. But it's fun work and rewarding work. And you get to read children's books, and that's always better than reading grown-up books.

MJ: Definitely!

PO: There's real value to thinking more consciously about toys. And as parents are more like-minded about it, that gives you some support as well. There was this really interesting nugget that I saw in an article in the New York Times about elementary school-age girls and bullying. And they had these two points that really resonated with me: One was that girls who watch Hannah Montana are bullying more than other girls, are more relationally aggressive than other girls. But it has no effect on boys. I thought that was kind of interesting.

MJ: Hannah Montana, 1-to-10?

PO: I think the point is that all of this stuff seems one and might be ten, and you don't really know. And it's sort of not any one thing. I think it's the whole onslaught—the combination that's coming at girls. When you look at it one by one, with the exception of some of the really out-there things like Bratz, it is hard to tell. And it is intentionally confusing to parents. Hannah Montana—yeaah, it's just stupid. But on a scale of one to ten, how bad is it that Miley Cyrus was wearing a promise ring when she was 16? I think that's a 10. I don't want this girl wearing a promise ring and then turning around and, you know, objectifying herself a year later. That's not a good message. And the script of the show apparently it is a problem because apparently it makes girls aggressive.

Hannah Montana—yeaah, it's just stupid. But on a scale of one to ten, how bad is it that Miley Cyrus was wearing a promise ring when she was 16? I think that's a 10.

MJ: Where do you stand on single-sex classrooms?

PO: Depends on the class. Depends on the school. Depends on the girl. I think regressive discussion about single-sex classrooms, like the Leonard Sachs stuff, is just patently absurd—that, like, boys learn better standing up, moving around, when the walls are painted blue, and when it's cold in the room. And girls learn better in a circle and when it's warm and sharing. I mean, it's all the most stereotypical drivel and it goes back to that issue of reinforcing separate cultures of gender—and that is a 10! That is a harmful thing—the idea that you reinforce, amplify and ensure the separate cultures, and deny the opportunity for cross-cultural communication and play and discussion and learning. That's just a gigantic problem.

MJ: In one chapter, you hang out with the parents we all love to hate: Those who enter their five-year-old daughters in beauty pageants. Your treatment was quite sympathetic.

PO: If I just wrote, "Look at these despicable people who are sexualizing and objectifying and freakifying their kids," that really wouldn't make you think very hard. I think one of the effects of Toddlers in Tiaras and all that is to let us off the hook about what we do to our own girls. And the rationale that these women use: it doesn't hurt them, it's not harmful, it's just fun, it's just play, it's just pretend, I wouldn't do it if they didn't want to—all that kind of stuff is exactly the same language you hear from mothers talking about why they buy their three-year-olds lip gloss. In the book, there was a statistic about the percentage of six-year-old girls that wear lipstick and mascara. And I don't know why that percentage isn't zero. Why is that even 1 percent? The amount we spend on clothes, the amount we spend on makeup for 6- to 10-yr-olds, and all that, and the supermodel birthday parties, and the emphasis on prettiness in their play—I did sort of feel like she who is innocent cast the first stone. And I'm not saying I don't do any of that stuff.

The Grimms amplified the goriness and took out the incest. There was a lot of, you know, Sleeping Beauty wakes up pregnant. Rapunzel's in that tower, and they're not just holding hands—she gets pregnant with twins.

MJ: You also you also went back and looked at the old fairy tales. What struck you most about how they have evolved?

PO: The Grimms were collecting folk tales that had been around for hundreds of years. Some people say there's like a thousand Cinderella stories out there; they're in every culture, going back at least to the 9th century in China. The Grimms amplified the goriness and took out all the sex. It's been said that these folk tales were the porn of their day. Basically, these stories were for adults. The women would be sitting around doing the spinning, or whatever women did back then. And they'd be bored and they'd tell these stories. The Grimms collected them and as they got more popular, they took out all the—there was a lot of incest. There was a lot of, you know, Sleeping Beauty wakes up pregnant. Rapunzel's in that tower, and they're not just holding hands—she gets pregnant with twins. And so there's a lot of stuff in there that the kids don't know about.

Anyway, they amplified the violence, so that we parents now go, ew, I'm not sure I want to expose my child to that. But we don't mind exposing them to this other stuff. The other thing that struck me was that, in the Disney versions most of us grew up with, it's really more about the prince. The girl is obviously still the star of the show, but it's about the prince's fight to win her. And she's very passive. But the Grimm's princesses are not passive. They're really actors in their own fate. And they're often clever; they're often strong. They're not just sitting there being pretty. And when you start looking through the Grimm stories, there's really a lot of good stories in there to read to boys and girls, cuz I never think you should be reading stories about strong women and girls only to girls. But there are great, great fairy tales and there are great, kind of archetypal lessons for kids and for adults in them: I learned a lot about motherhood.

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