Female desire and the princess culture
- Published: 12 February 2011
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Far from being an innocent case of ‘dress ups’ the rise of princess culture results in a disturbing scenario where all that early training for girls to focus incessantly on their appearance lasts a lifetime, writes Margot Magowan.
13 February 2011
Thank you Peggy Orenstein for writing the brilliant book Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Every parent should read this new, excellent analysis of the ubiquitous princess kid-culture and its various mutations in the world of grown-up women.
Orenstein, a NY Times journalist, mom, and writer takes on and deconstructs two (so annoying!) messages every parent hears if she dares to challenge the monarchy of these frothy creatures.
Myth number one: We’re just giving girls what they want!
Orenstein responds with a brief history of marketing and information on child brain development – some major points paraphrased here:
Pink: Children were not color-coded until the early 20th century. Before that, babies wore all white, because to get clothing clean, it had to be boiled. Boys and girls also used to all wear dresses. When nursery colors were introduced, pink was more masculine, a pastel version of the red, which was associated with strength. Blue was like the Virgin Mary and symbolized innocence, thus the girl color. When the color switched is vague. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Alice in Wonderland all wear blue. Sleeping Beauty’s gown was switched to pink to differentiate her from Cinderella.
Baby doll: In an 1898 survey, less than 25% of girls said dolls were their favorite toy. “President Theodore Roosevelt… obsessed with declining birth rates among white, Anglo-Saxon women, began waging a campaign against ‘race-suicide.’ When women ‘feared motherhood,” he warned, our nation trembled on the ‘brink of doom.’ Baby dolls were seen as a way to revive the flagging maternal instinct of girls, to remind them of their patriotic duty to conceive; within a few years, dolls were ubiquitous, synonymous with girlhood itself. Miniature brooms, dustpans, and stoves tutored these same young ladies in the skills of homemaking…”
Princess: When Orenstein herself was a kid, being called a Princess, specifically Jewish-American, was the worst insult a kid (and her family) could get. How had a generation transformed this word into a coveted compliment?
Disney Princesses as a group brand did not exist until 2000. Disney hired Andy Mooney from Nike. He went to a Disney on Ice show and saw little girls in homemade princess costumes.
Disney had never marketed characters outside of a movie release and never princesses from different movies together. Roy Disney was against it, and that’s why, still, even on pull-ups, you won’t see the princesses looking at each other. (How’s that for a model for girls in groups or female friendships?)
Princesses are now marketed to girls ages two to six. Mooney began the campaign by envisioning a girl’s room and thinking about a princess fantasy: what kind of clock would a princess have? What type of bedding? Dora and Mattel followed suit with Dora and Barbie princess versions and then along came everyone else.
Toddler: Clothing manufacturers in the 1930s counseled department stores that in order to increase sales they should create a ‘third stepping stone’ between infant wear and older kids clothing
Tween: Coined in the mid-1980s as a marketing contrivance (originally included kids eight to 15)
More on tweens, toddlers, girls and boys: if there is micro-segmentation of products by age and gender, people buy more stuff. If kids need a pink bat and a blue bat, you double your sales.
Splitting kids and adults, or for that matter, penguins, into ever tinier categories has proved a surefire way to boost profits. So where there was once a big group called kids we now have toddlers, pre-schoolers, tweens, young-adolescents and older adolescents, each with their own developmental and marketing profile…One of the easiest ways to segment the market is to magnify gender differences or invent them where they did not previously exist.
One major fallout of gendering every plaything? “Segregated toys discourage cross-sex friendships.” Boys and girls stop playing together. Orenstein writes about the long-term effects:
This is a public health issue. It becomes detrimental to relationships, to psychological health and well-being, when boys and girls don’t learn how to talk to one another…Part of the reason we have the divorce rates we do, domestic violence dating violence, stalking behaviors, sexual harassment is because the lack of ability to communicate between men and women.
Eliminating divorce or domestic violence may be an ambitious mandate for a pre-school curriculum, but it’s not without basis: young children who have friends of the opposite sex have a more positive transition into dating as teenagers and sustain their romantic relationships better.
Myth #2: That princess stuff is just a phase– she’ll grow out of it!
Princesses are marketed to girls two to six years old; there’s something very creepy and dangerous about making these kids victims of billion dollar industries. Kids’ brains are literally being formed, they’re malleable. So this little phase is helping to create a brain that lasts forever.
Scientists have pretty much moved on from the anachronistic, simplistic debate of nature versus nurture. It’s now understood that nature and nurture form and create each other in an endless loop. Your experiences influence your wiring.
For example, small kids can make all kinds of sounds to learn languages. Lise Eliot, author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain is quoted by Orenstein
Babies are born ready to absorb the sounds, grammar, and intonation of any language, but then the brain wires it up only to perceive and produce a specific language. After puberty, it’s possible to learn another language but far more difficult. I think of gender differences similarly. The ones that exist become amplified by the two different cultures that boys and girls are immersed in from birth. This contributes to the way their emotional and cognitive circuits get wired.
“It’s not that pink is intrinsically bad, it is such a tiny slice of the rainbow,” Orenstein writes.
To grow brains, kids need more, varied experiences, not fewer.
Phases don’t vanish, they mutate.
Orenstein’s book traces how the real life Disney stars/girl princesses (ie Lindsay Lohan, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Hilary Duff, Miley Cyrus etc) attempt to make their transitions from girl-princesses into adult ones; or more crassly, from virgin to whore.
Orenstein writes it’s impossible to commodify one end of the spectrum and not the other, and there are so few models of healthy female sexuality out there.
Our daughters may not be faced with the decision of whether to strip for Maxim, but they will have to figure out how to become sexual beings without being objectified or stigmatized.
All that early training for girls to focus incessantly on their appearance lasts a lifetime. What happens when these girls try to grow up? Orenstein writes girls learn, “Look sexy, but don’t feel sexual, to provoke desire in others without experiencing it themselves.”
How does this emphasis on dressing up and attention for appearance affect kids as they grow? Stephen Hinshaw, quoted from his book The Triple Bind, explains:
Girls pushed to be sexy too soon can’t really understand what they’re doing…they may never learn to connect their performance to erotic feelings or intimacy. They learn how to act desirable, but not to desire, undermining, rather than promoting, healthy sexuality.
The basic message I got from this book: the issue is not pink or princesses, but to give your kid more experiences not less. Remember – there are many colors in the rainbow!
(1) Encourage and reinforce cross-gender play. If your daughter is playing with a boy, acknowledge it, reinforce what they’re doing. You are the biggest influence in your kid’s life, you’re not ‘just another person.’ Talk to your kid’s pre-school teachers and administrators about encouraging cross-gender play. There is much in this book about how teachers are not trained in this area at all and miss opportunities to help brains grow.
(2) Remember, your kid is not a small adult. She has a different brain. Help that brain grow! If your son picks up a My Little Pony, buy it for him instead of yet another car. It won’t make him gay! It will make him smart!
(3) Your kids are watching you! Again, they are not just little people with fully formed minds. If you criticize your appearance (or another woman’s), how you treat your partner, how you eat, she takes note.
Margot Magowan is a writer and commentator. Her articles on politics and culture have been in Salon, Glamour, the San Jose Mercury News, and numerous other newspapers and online sites. She has appeared on “Good Morning America,” CNN, Fox News, and other TV and radio programs. Margot co-founded the Woodhull Institute an organization that trains young women to be leaders and change agents.
Currently, she is Director of Woodhull’s Fellows Program which provides media training to women leaders so their ideas get out to influence much larger audiences. For many years, Margot worked as talk radio producer creating top-rated programs. Margot’s short story “Light Me Up” is featured in anthology coming out from HarperCollins in June 2011, and she is currently writing a chapter book about the fairyworld. Margot lives with her husband and their three daughters in San Francisco.
She blogs at ReelGirl, where this article first appeared.
Image: JeongMee Yoon, The Pink Project - SeoWoo and Her Pink Things 2, Light jet Print, 2008. Courtesy of the artist.