Peggy Orenstein is the author of the New York Times bestselling book Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture. Orenstein’s book (her fourth – she also wrote the bestseller Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self Esteem and the Confidence Gap) is an exploration of our cultural fixation on pink and princesses and everything else we associated with girliness. Orenstein is herself the mother of a seven-year-old girl, and it was when her daughter went off to pre-school that Orenstein first became aware of how pervasive the princess obsession is, and just how aggressively it is marketed to very young girls.
What Orenstein found, when she began researching the reach and power of princess culture, and when she spoke to psychologists, historians, marketers and other parents, is that the fixation on pink princesses isn’t benign. When it’s marketed to girls as the only correct expression of femininity, it can shape, often perniciously and permanently, how those girls view their own bodies, their sexualities, and their place in this world. The discussion Orenstein began when she first wrote about princess culture in 2006, and which she continues in this book, is a crucial one, a fascinating one, and one in which we all have a stake. You can read an excerpt of Cinderella Ate My Daughter from the Ladies Home Journal here.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Peggy Orenstein.
Chloe Angyal: Why did you start writing this book?
Peggy Orenstein: Because I had a daughter. I had been writing for years about teenage girls and women, but I had never really thought much about that early childhood time, partly because it didn’t used to be a time in which culture intruded in the same way. It was a fairly protected time. So I hadn’t thought about it as a journalist, and then when I became a mother, I of course imagined that I would be raising my daughter to have no limits, not having to do anything and being able to do anything she wanted. And then she went to pre-school, and came home with this new identity of the Disney Princess. And I wasn’t so sure that this was necessarily a bad thing, but it got me looking around and noticing the pervasiveness of pink and pretty and princess. They’re just everywhere! It was not something I remembered from when I was a child, and I wondered what happened and whether this was something that was protective against sexualization of girls, or something that was priming them for it. That’s what got me going on it, and it started with the princess thing and little girls, and opened up into looking at the way that girls at an unprecedentedly early age now are learning that femininity and sexuality and identity are a performance.
It is different writing now that I have a daughter. First of all, I’m older, so my identity has shifted. When I wrote Schoolgirls, I still more identified myself as a girl, and not at all as a parent – I didn’t even plan on having children at that point. And at that point, I was often asked where my hall pass was, when I was doing reporting in the schools. With this book, I think I’m more firmly in the parent camp, and looking at it as a parent and as a protector, because with the girls who are twelve and thirteen, it’s about them starting to step into the world of womanhood. But little girls are not doing that, or they shouldn’t be doing that. But that is what we’re telling them that women should be in their play. I mean, that was one of the purposes of toys, historically: to communicate gender roles to children. It was little dustpans or irons or baby dolls when I was a little girl, and now it’s pink and princesses and makeup. So that’s communicating a clear message about what femininity is to little girls and about what’s expected of them as adults. But you can’t interview a three-year-old about her thoughts on body image and femininity. It’s a totally different reporting that you do. It was more outer directed, and the personal parts are really more about me and my relationship to her, whereas in my reporting on teenagers years ago, I didn’t write that personally at that point, but when I did it was about my relationship with myself, not my relationship with my child.
CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
PO: It turns out that this heroine is only quasi-fictional and I hadn’t realized it. My favorite book was called Mrs. Mike, which was about a sixteen-year-old girl who in 1900 when from Boston to Canada because of her health, and married a mountie and lived a life of tragedy and adventure. It turns out that a lot of it was fictional even though I thought it was non-fiction. I also love Francie from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn pretty much every year from when I was ten to when I was twenty-five. In terms of little girl books, I’m still a big Laura Ingalls fan. I love Laura Ingalls. I grew up in the Midwest and my grandfather was a homesteader. So that had a profound impact on me, because I felt like I was reading my own history with those books.
CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?
PO: Since the book has come out, let’s see if I can keep track of this, we’ve had the cosmetics line that Walmart announced for eight- to twelve-year-olds, because girls are wearing clear lipgloss and nail polish at three and four, so naturally they want a little enhancement by the time they’re eight. And because I know that I want my daughter to miss the school bus in the morning because she hasn’t got her face on yet. There was the Disney reaching to the crib story, which is based on the Disney princess model. They’re now going into maternity wards, about 600 maternity wards, into new mothers’ rooms right after they’ve given birth and offering them a new branded Disney onesie and signing them up for a new Disney mailing list, and they’re using this as – and this is a quote – a “beachhead” for a product line that hopes to be as vast and as all-consuming as the Disney princess line. They realized that that was the one childhood group that was not hooked on Disney products yet. So you start with the Disney princess onesie and work your way up to the Disney princess wedding dress. What I’m thinking is that maybe they can market a Snow White coffin so you can go womb to tomb.
CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
PO: That’s way too big a question! There are so many facets – internationally, domestically, ethnically – that I don’t even know where to begin with that one. There’s not just one feminism anymore. There are a lot of people attached to a lot of different issues, wanting to be heard, and I think one of the challenges, for any social movement, is being heard, and remaining relevant, and finding ways to galvanize people and move them to action when they feel like they’ve heard it before. I say that from the perspective of a journalist who tries to keep things in the public eye, and I see that it’s very hard to continue to write about the ongoing discrimination and violence that women face, for instance, in a way that people feel they’ve heard, even when they haven’t. And to make people care, and act. That’s the challenge that I face as a feminist. My challenge has been to find ways to communicate ideas and issues and dilemmas that are ongoing, in ways that can remain relevant and vital and revitalizing. So, for example, with the issue of the sexualization of girls, it was hard to find a way to communicate it that wouldn’t make people shut down and say, “Oh, I already know this, I’ve already heard this.” In this case, and it’s not true with every issue that I would write about, it was not only pointing out what was new right now in terms of the ageing down of the issues, and the commercialization of the issues, and the all-consuming nature of the issues, but it was also a matter of tone. The hardest part of the book for me was striking a tone that readers who did not necessarily already agree with me could relate to, and that could inspire some thinking and perspective shifting on their part.
CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
PO: Sushi, Diet Coke and my daughter.