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.”