Rescuing Your Daughter From the Princess

If you’ve been within 50 feet of a 4-year-old girl in the past decade, you can’t have escaped the fact that princess is a booming industry. From T-shirts emblazoned with “princess” to the fad for “makeover” parties to “princess potty seats”, there is no shortage of products with a tiara theme offered to girls. In her excellent new book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Peggy Orenstein writes as a journalist, a mother of an elementary school-age girl and a former girl herself to investigate the explosion of pink “girlie-girl culture.”

Common wisdom would have it that the demand for pink is simply hardwired into girls. Orenstein evaluates this by consulting with neuroscientist and Pink Brain, Blue Brain author Lise Eliot, a proponent of neuroplasticity–the idea that “[inborn traits], gender-based or otherwise, are shaped by our experience.” Eliot’s research shows that, in fact, when kids are tiny, “[they] do not know from pink and blue.” She argues that children don’t begin to label behavior or toys as meant for girls or for boys until between ages 2 and 3, as kids come to understand there are gender differences. It’s also the exact time when they’re handed toys that are gender-specific. In other words, Orenstein writes, “nurture becomes nature.” Boys are blued; girls are pinked.

So if not nature, what’s the force behind all the pinking? The easy answer is money. As one example, the ever-more-present Disney Princesses line grossed $4 billion dollars in 2009. The “father” of that line, Andy Mooney, tells Orenstein, “I wish I could sit here and take credit for having some grand scheme to develop this, but all we did was envision a little girl’s room and think about how she could live out the princess fantasy.” A sales rep at the annual Toy Fair has a more direct answer when Orenstein asks if all this pink is necessary: “Only if you want to make money.”

But even if cash-hungry marketers are pushing pink to rake in profits, there’s another piece to the puzzle: parents who buy the toys for their kids. Orenstein has a deep empathy for the competing pressures they face. She herself doesn’t want to restrict her daughter from choosing her own mode of self-expression–even if that’s a poufy princess dress–but worries that all the marketing itself constricts her daughter’s choices. Instead of the entire rainbow, girls only get to see the pink slice.

Orenstein’s sympathy extends to parents participating in the most extreme “girl-ification”–the pageant parents portrayed on the TV show Toddlers and Tiaras. Visiting a pageant held deep in the hill country of Texas, Orenstein leaves the tiara-fest more ambivalent. She’s not ready to dismiss the parents’ oft-repeated credo that pageants boost their girls’ self-esteem and that it’s okay to tell your daughter that she’s special. She also sees how much much participating in pageants can mean to a family. But it’s clear from her observations that Toddlers and Tiaras is doing its share of harm.

Orenstein mentions how exposés of the show have featured “psychologists who (with good reason) link self-objectification and sexualization to [a] host of ills previously mentioned—eating disorders, depression, low self-esteem, impaired academic performance,” often rebutted by the pageant moms, who then defend their actions. And within the book’s first pages Orenstein references the well-respected American Psychological Association’s Report of The Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls which offered hard evidence that an overemphasis on beauty and sexiness made girls vulnerable to problematic behaviors linked to self-objectification.

So how can parents balance these pressures in order to stem the tide of pink? Orenstein leaves the question open, which might frustrate some readers. She muses as she researches, reflects as she consults, and ends the book optimistic but uncertain about how root-level change can be achieved. On her website she’s just launched a “resources” section which offers suggestions of books for kids and parents, recommended shows and films, even a clothing line. Lisa Belkin of “Motherlode” in The New York Times has also responded with a solid list of suggested reading in her column “The Princess Wears Plaid.” Additionally, the Ms. Blog offers a list of contemporary retellings of fairy tales and myths from a feminist perspective. All ask readers to chime in with further contributions.

Orenstein has a final, crucial piece of advice: Just say NO to the overpinking. That might seem pat to a frustrated parent–saying no reaches beyond appeasing a demanding child to refusing cultural edicts that seem to whisper and shout from every side. Awareness is your best line of defense, Orenstein insisted in dialogue with Lori Gottlieb at a recent L.A. talk, as she repeated, “You just say NO.”


  1. Kathy OGorman says:

    My son-in-law works in construction, so when my granddaughter saw a jackhammer operator on the sidewalk, she knew what it was. She announced, “When I grow up, I’m going to have a pink jackhammer, and build pink buildings with it.” So the pink culture has some effect, but she feels empowered enough to build buildings!

  2. I read the book last week and really enjoyed it. Yes, it was a bit disappointing not to have more concrete answers, but I think acknowledging and criticizing princess culture is a good first step.

  3. This site is pink. 'She Writes' is pink. Adults don't wear tiaras (well, not so much anyway), but what about the glasses perched on the head? Same function. It isn't just little girls, we're all suckered in!

  4. Is it possible to redirect the princess impulse? What would young women want to be if princesses did not exist. I recently went to Sweden, noticed their royal wedding hoopla, and had to ask myself that question:

  5. I was raised in the countryside with 3 brothers, no sisters. I dressed like them (hand-me-downs) and grew up playing "male" oriented games. I went shirtless (at home) as they did in the summer, and didn't realize girls didn't do that until a little friend from school visited, and told me different. Still, when I began choosing my own clothes in the early '60's,, I opted for dresses, etc. Ny 3 year old granddaughter began showing pink preferences when she was 2, and now loves pink, Little Ponys, building towers and offices, and wants to be a Little Pony, or a doctor who raises Little Ponys.
    Her parents tried hard to not instill pink in her, but she got it anyway. Could there be something about the color itself that sometimes just attracts girls? I taught pre-kindergarten, and my favorite color is and always has been blue.

  6. I heard the author speak about the book recently on a local talk radio program in SF Bay Area…and was intrigued. My concerns for my 7 year old daughter is that she be able to make her own choices, and not be "herded" into the masses by profit driven Disney. Mothers and fathers must be aware of the dangers now, and in the future, of this type of brainwashing. Thank you for sharing your valuable insight.

  7. PioneerGrrrl says:

    I'll argue that Disney has one good movie. 1977's The Rescuers has a little girl named Penny who successfully rescues herself from child-abusing adults in a bayou.

    The two 'rescue aid society agents' who go to 'help' her really just are there for her to bounce ideas off of. She is the one who figures things out. Penny is strong, courageous, and smart.

    It's certainly more 'grown up' compared to Disney's other cartoons–past and present. But it shows a good female role model.

  8. I'll be using your write-up in conjunction with Orenstein's book next time I teach my gender and pop culture course. Thank you, Elline! Great piece.

  9. I’ll never forget this one time, during a community service event, that I got to paint a picture on the face of a little boy. He asked for a unicorn with a pink horn. My response? “Good idea, I like unicorns too.” His own mother’s response? “Oh, my son is SUCH a little girl.”

    You know what I had seen that “little girl” son do not an hour before? He went right over to a crying child and gave her his ice cream. Just like that, to cheer her up. I tried to explain to his mother that he had a good and gentle soul and that was something to be valued, but it didn’t get across.

    Apparently, in order for a little boy to actually be a boy, he has to rude and tough and Not Like Pink And Unicorns.

  10. My parents gave my sister and I books as soon as we were born (fluffy, soft-toy ones first, real ones when we turned 3), and very rarely bought us pink stuff. They couldn’t stop the flow of Barbies and Little Ponies in the birthdays, and one year we got princess costumes for Christmas – but Pocahontas was always my favourite and my sister wasn’t even barely interested in fashion until she turned sixteen.

    It is possible to avoid this madness; you can’t shield your children completely (but then again, why would you want to do that?), but you can give them a critical mind and encourage them to do other things.

    I do not buy the sympathy for the peagant parents. They are in charge of their children, and instead of living their little ridiculous fantasies of beauty and success through their girls, they should teach them to love themselves. These people have free will, and as such would be able to make different choices if they wished. They are also products of their environment – but that doesn’t exonerate them.

    We loved LEGOs, too.

  11. I don’t know,girls are very girly and not every person out there likes pink.Let go on this both of your,your making a big deal over 3 YEAR OLDS TOYS.There is nothing wrong with pink okay,older girls don’t always like it,but they’re marketing to 3 YEAR OLDS and 3 year olds use they’re imaginations so they want to be princesses and live with talking animals.When Peggy said that she lets her daughter have something shes trying to be the goody 2 shoes.On her blog she forces a 8 YEAR OLD to do 10NT GRADE STUFF.Not that its not impressive,but she’s actually trying to steal a childs childhood.She won’t even let her poor daughter be Clawdeen wolf or Frankie Stein for Halloween which by the way do not have pink as their fav color.Sorry,but its the truth.

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