I recently had the pleasure of chatting with author Peggy Orenstein. Her book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From The Front Lines Of The New Girlie-Girl Culture, takes a look at the cultural shift that led to the creation of the Princess Industry and the impact (both subtle and overt) it has on young girls. It's an accessible read that combines facts, history, and a straightforward writing style that has you nodding in agreement much of the time.
With the holidays around the corner, my goal had been to talk with Peggy about how to deal with the "Buy! Buy! Buy!" consumerist attitude that pervades our culture. We eventually ended up there, but on the way we talked about so much more... from princesses and fairy tales to Halloween, dolls, and parenting. With the focus of this week being on princesses, I was eager to hear what Peggy had to say on the topic.
Peggy Orenstein: Our era has been so dominated first of all by visual media, and secondly by Disney—for better or worse. They get the last word...
The truth is with these stories, Disney has managed to corner the market because they're so big and they kind of own little kids' imaginations for so many generations. But they're just telling their version of the stories. This is not the story. He's [Walt Disney] not telling Cinderella. That's not really the Cinderella story. That's not really the Snow White story. It's not even the Grimm's version! It comes from his [Disney's] experience and his reimagination of it, and his attitude of gender and all these other things. It's his imagined version of these archetypal stories but they have become what we think of because his company is so big.
Discussing princesses led to discussing the commodification of girlhood, and what exactly these companies are selling...
PO: I don't like to say hyper-feminine because I don't think that's what femininity should be, and I don't even think we should define it that way. It's commodified, it's commercialized, it's narcissistic, it's sexualized, it's external, and that is what we're telling little girls it means to be feminine and what it means to be a person... The princess culture, as it has been sold to us, not only is it not about the protective culture it appears to be (that it's ostensibly protecting girls from sexualization, but in fact it's priming them for it).
There is still pressure to do everything, do everything well, and look hot while doing it. And I think that "and look hot while doing it" part, that's the new piece. It used to be that having it all did not include looking hot... But now it does and it includes it at a really young age. And while princesses may not be hot, per se...although one could argue—in fact I have a lot of mothers telling me that there are a lot of girls who won't stop pulling their shirts off their shoulders because princesses don't cover their shoulders—it's the first step on that road of wanting to look in somebody else's mirror to have yourself reflected, instead of looking inside yourself.
We somehow got onto the topic of the crotchless panties that were sold at a children's clothing store in Colorado, and our conversation began boiling down to parenting in general and how to navigate it all (in a world that has a store selling crotchless panties for kids!).
PO: There's this balance when you're a parent of limiting and literacy. I really do think we do a lot of discussion and pointing out. I prefer to read the old-fashioned children's book because they're less materialistic, but then they have lots of stereotypes about girls and women. When they come up we have this thing where my daughter and I look at each other, roll our eyes and shake our heads. So we recognize them and point them out. But at the same time, I really do limit her exposure...
I don't want the media raising my kid. I don't want them deciding for her what it means to be female... And people have this bizarre idea, I see it all the time on blogs and hear it often, "My daughter was just born this way and I like her to have the choice. [re: princess culture]" Really? You really think that a four billion dollar industry beamed at your daughter is giving you a choice? You really buy that? Because that's exactly what you're supposed to believe, and that is not true! And the only way to give her true choices is to offer her choices and to limit the choices that people are calculating selling her that will look like cotton candy and ice cream to her. Of course she's going to go for the ice cream.
As we talked some more, Peggy alleviated some of my fears regarding what I call the Princess Paradox—the idea that my hypocrisy shows a little in order to allow my son his princess fix.
PO: There are all the hypocritical messages that we constantly let in. Like Wonder Woman Barbie. Is Wonder Woman Barbie good? Is Wonder Woman Barbie bad? I don't know. But it scratched an itch for a certain kind of thing that she [Orenstein's daughter Daisy] wanted. She loved her Wonder Woman Barbie. But then she would do like Barbie funerals with it, and I'd think, "That's interesting."
There were some things that I outright banned. There was no fucking way she would have a Bratz doll. Or no bloody way Monster High was getting in my house. There was a lot that was just NO. And then there was a lot that was hypocritical, like a certain number of Barbies. You are a human being... We all have our contradictions and our hypocrisies and you do your best... You try to communicate your values as best you can. And sometimes you blow it. And sometimes you get caught in unknowing situations. And sometimes you're tired. And sometimes you turn a blind eye.
I wrote the book the way I wrote it, with the sort of humor and my sort of confusion as a parent because I wanted that reality in there. It isn't easy. It isn't clear. There are some bright lines, but there are a lot lines that are not bright. And there are a lot of times when it's hard to decide—when your four-year-old kid gets invited to the spa birthday party or the princess birthday party, and all her friends are going. And you really don't want that, you don't want that for her, but how do you say no when all her friends are going? How do you deal with that situation? There are ways—there are a lot of different options. That's the reality of parenting. How do you deal with things where you have contradictory feelings or opposing forces, and that happens with these things all the time? You're going to make good decisions and you're going to make bad decisions and you're going to make the best decisions that you can, and... save a little money for therapy.
Try to be conscious, try to be thoughtful, try to do what you can do, try to find alternatives, try to expand your repertoire and recognize that you can't be perfect.
For more about Cinderella Ate My Daughter and to read more from Peggy, check out this more lengthy interview from the Primal issue of Bitch.