From her home in north Berkeley where she lives with her filmmaker husband Steven Okazaki and 7-year-old daughter Daisy, Peggy Orenstein has been opining for years for the New York Times magazine about the world of girls and feminism. Last week, her latest book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, was published and it is already climbing the bestseller list. (It will debut at #13 on the New York Times list Feb. 13) The book is both an expose of and meditation about the corporate push to market princesses and pink and early sexuality to young girls.
Orenstein just escaped the historic snows of Chicago (she got on the last plane leaving O’Hare on Tuesday) and is about to embark on the West Coast portion of her book tour. (She will be speaking Feb. 7 at St. John’s Church in Berkeley) Berkeleyside caught up with her to ask a few questions.
Do you wear pink?
Of course I wear pink. I’m not a crazy person. But it’s such a tiny slice of the rainbow and although in one way it seems to celebrate girlhood, it also repeatedly and firmly fuses girls’ identity to appearance then it presents that connection not only as innocent but as evidence of innocence. And that innocent pink pretty quickly turns into something else, a kind of diva, self-absorbed pink and ultimately a sexualized pink.
What is Daisy’s position on the color now?
Truthfully, she was actually never that into pink, which is part of why I became so aware of it. It was never her favorite color, but people were constantly pressing it on her. I remember being in a drug store and the very nice clerk offered her a balloon, then asked what color she wanted and before she could answer, (I think she was going to say purple) said, “I bet I know,” and handed her the pink one. Daisy looked at me kind of confused, like she wasn’t sure if she was supposed to say thank you or no thank you. And I thought, really? When did THIS happen? I think last time I asked her, her favorite color was “rainbow.” That’s all right by me.
What’s the big deal about little girls being obsessed with princesses? Hasn’t that always been the case?
Comparing the way girls do Princess today to the way we played is like comparing a five-channel TV to a satellite dish. There are 26,000 Disney Princess products alone—considering they can’t slap them on cars, liquor, cigarettes anti-depressants or tampons, that means they’re on EVERYTHING. And it becomes this mandate, the only game in town. I remember going to Daisy’s preschool and they were doing a project where they were making a book, each one filling in the sentence “if I were a [blank] I’d [blank] to the store.” So if I were a ball I’d roll to the store. And the boys had filled the sentence in all kinds of ways. Yes, some said Lightening McQueen but they said puppies, bugs, raisins, all sorts of things. The girls said exactly four things: Princess, Ballerina, Butterfly and Fairy. One especially ambitious girl said “Princess, butterfly fairy Ballerina.” It’s too narrow. The teacher was really surprised—she’d been around a long time and this was really when the princess juggernaut was truly taking off. She had tried to get the girls to broaden their imaginations but said they just wouldn’t.
No question it’s cute. And it can feel 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’s part of this flume ride that defines girlhood as makeovers and spa birthday parties and princesses and Bratz dolls and being the fairest and ultimately the hottest of them all, that encourages them to define themselves from the outside in instead of from the inside out. It pretty quickly slides from playing pretty, to playing “sassy” to playing sexy, which does the opposite of what people might think in terms of girls’ emotional and psychological health. Being objectified — judging yourself by the way you think others see you — actually disconnects them from their sexuality and makes for decreased sexual health as they get older. One of the most sobering conversations I had was with Deborah Tolman, who does research on girls and desire. She told me that by the time girls are teenagers, when she asks them questions about how arousal or desire felt they respond by how they think they looked. She has to tell them looking good is not a feeling. As parents of daughters — and for those of us who are women ourselves — I think we understand that potential, that vulnerability, and it’s the last thing we want for our girls. So it’s the magnitude, the dominance and what, in the commercial culture, it’s channeling girls into that’s disturbing.
What accounts for the rise of the Disney princess phenomenon?
Money. That’s the short answer. The phenomenon is actually only about 10 years old. Obviously, there were princesses in movies before that and girls played princess, but Cinderella, Snow White even Belle and Jasmine, those movies were just family movies, not “princess” movies. They were like Peter Pan or Pinocchio. The movies came out, there’d be a little merchandise, a Halloween costume or two, and then they’d be gone until next time the film was released from “the vault.” Then in 2000 the new head of consumer licensing got this idea to market the female characters separately from the movies—for the first time in Disney history-and call them “princesses.” They rolled it out and the first year it was a $300 million business. By 2010 Princess took in $5 billion. And that’s just Disney. So they say, well, we just give girls what they want, as if magnifying a desire is less coercive than instigating it.
How can the emphasis on pink and princesses hurt girls in the long run?
There’s no a + b=c here. Im not saying if your daughter waves a magic wand she’s going to get an eating disorder. That would be absurd. But there’s a lot of effort into making us think it’s benign. 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 (who just got out of rehab). That flip from fetishizing wholesomeness to fetishizing what comes after.
One of the things I hadn’t thought of was the impact of this hyper-segmenation on the relationship between girls and boys. 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. However, when it’s 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. I ended up doing a lot of research on the value of cross-sex play for both boys and girls—cognitively, psychologically, emotionally, on their future relationships in the home and workplace. Turns out it’s incredibly important and valuable to them in the long run when it happens naturally, which it does ( you don’t need to force it). But you wonder, when everything is so gender-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 scrabble set that says f-a-s-h-i-o-n on the cover? 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.
And of course, pity the boy who likes pink. Unless, maybe he lives in the Bay Area.
Berkeley prides itself on being a liberal, thoughtful beacon of a city where parents are tuned in to gender stereotyping. Have you found mothers here to be more sensitive to princess marketing gimmicks than mothers in other parts of the country. Or are we just like everyone else?
We’re a version of it, for sure. We maybe more aware in some ways of these issues, but we go to the same stores, we are confronted by the same products, we live in and have to navigate the same culture and have to help our girls navigate it as well. It would be arrogant to say we’re superior or so different. I noticed this phenomenon in Berkeley, so…. there are a whole range of attitudes and decisions around pink-and-pretty products, diva products, sexualized products among both progressives and conservatives although for different reasons. My hope is just to give parents some perspective so when they do make these choices, or help their daughters make them, they can be intentional and think through their own values and potential consequences. You know, parenting is so present tense. When you have a six month old you can’t imagine having a 3-year-old. When you have a 3-year-old you can’t imagine having a six month old. So it’s hard to connect the dots, hard to see the arc of how the culture pushes girls to see femininity, identity, and sexuality as a performance rather than something internally felt.
In which part of Berkeley do you live?
I live in North Berkeley. I’ve lived in Berkeley for nearly 19 years. I moved from San Francisco I married my husband because he had a rent controlled one-bedroom apartment. With a parking space. At the time, that seemed the height of luxury.
Where do you do most of your writing?
I work either in my office in our back yard or, when I’m lonely, I go to work with my husband, Steven Okazaki, who’s a filmmaker, and work in his spare office.
In your acknowledgments, you thank some Berkeley writers, including Ayelet Waldman, Sylvia Brownrigg and Ruth Halpern and call them your “mother superiors.” Can you tell us a bit about your writing and editing process? Do you show your work to these mother superiors for feedback and comment?
It’s not so much about the writing as those women are my ideal readers, the ones I hold in my mind while I work and think, if this argument passes intellectual muster with them, if this joke would make them laugh, if this idea would make them think, then it stays in the book. And on a personal level, they’re the ones with whom I discuss these issues—we all have daughters, we all were girls and they are all incredibly smart, insightful women and moms. They’re three of my very dearest and most trusted friends.
What’s your favorite part about living in Berkeley?
Well, I just spent 12 days on the East Coast and Midwest where my readings were snowed out in New York, Washington DC and Chicago. I barely got out of Chicago—I was on the very last plane out before they shut down O’Hare for two days. So what do you think my favorite part is?
Orenstein will also be reading from her book Feb. 17 at 7:30 p.m. at A Great Good Place for Books in the Montclair district of Oakland.