When I was growing up, I had a hard time remembering that McDonald’s and Disney were not the same company. I still have a hard time remembering that. Both aggressively market products few can spend their entire lives resisting because their advertising budgets are unrivaled and because they have mastered the recipes for broad appeal. Both are aggressively exported to other countries, representing all that is optimistic, colorful, unsubtle and indulgent about America. Both are harmless in small doses but unhealthy when they attain the monopoly on a child’s life they’ve been aiming for.
I’ve just finished Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture by Peggy Orenstein. Like Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation, Orenstein examines a corner of our culture that does not take constructive criticism well. It is because of the magnitude of the pink princess deluge driven by Disney and their ilk combined with their defensive refusal to admit any fault or responsibility—“It’s what every girl wants!”—that her work deserves such a warm welcome.
For any of her failures to perfectly repair the girlie-girl culture in 200 pages, Orenstein offers several impeccable articulations of the problems. Princess packages are problematic when they impose rote scripts and must-have shopping lists, stifling rather than encouraging creativity. Sexualization is problematic when the implied goal is not to attain pleasure but to please a man in exchange for being approved of as pretty. Social networking online is problematic when “the self becomes a brand to be marketed to others rather than developed from within.” And the Muppets are problematic when, for all their ingenuity, they still can’t come up with more than two female Muppets. I think I’m going to end up quoting her a lot.
The New York Times praised her book while emphasizing that it is little cause for alarm seeing as most girls outgrow the pink princess phase. As a former Snow White wannabe, I know this can be true, but I had kick-ass feminists in my life to help me along the way, including a dad who sewed my costumes. I hesitate to agree with the Times’s assertion that “most” move on. Orenstein provides depressing figures on the rise of female eating disorders, the recent drop in computer science degrees, the persistent problem of young women equating “feeling good” with “looking hot.” Even as I tend to surround myself with self-confident, intellectual women who define themselves as much more than their prettiness and their purchases, I regularly encounter those who fit into Orenstein’s figures. They are the ones whose fathers only gave them credit cards, never engaging them in intellectual discussion, and who now avoid debate like an ugly outfit. They are the ones who know that appearing pretty means non-threatening, so self-confidence is tossed out for coyness, self-assertion is abandoned for pouting, and wit is relinquished for fawning giggles in the presence of men. They are the ones who torture themselves over their looks—“I’m so ugly! I’m so fat!”—in order to land a man and then keep him from cheating, spending more of their day unhappy than any other people I know. They are the ones who have not left the princess phase because they do not know how to.
Too often criticism of the princess culture is misconstrued as bitter resentment by those who just don’t have what it takes to wow the guys or woo the pageant judges. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is sincere concern inspired by the hard evidence of the very real dangers that motivates critics like Orenstein:
There is… ample evidence that the more mainstream media girls consume, the more importance they place on being pretty and sexy. And a ream of studies shows that teenage girls and college students who hold conventional beliefs about femininity—especially those that emphasize beauty and pleasing behavior—are less ambitious and more likely to be depressed than their peers. They are also less likely to report that they enjoy sex or insist that their partners wear condoms.
Depression, eating disorders, STDs, and unwanted pregnancy are nothing to sneeze at. Meanwhile, a study conducted at the University of Houston found women who identify as feminists demonstrate less hostility toward men than women who don’t. A Rutgers University study found they are also more likely to be in a relationship and their partners report more satisfaction with their sex lives. Isn’t that the happily ever after every parent wants for their daughter?
Sometimes Orenstein’s feminist alternatives to the pink princesses sound soft compared to the roar of her reprimands. Focusing only on the (admittedly daunting) price of the dolls, she misses a major opportunity to understand the educational, multi-cultural brilliance of the American Girl history series. Disney’s The Princess and The Frog promotes independence, battles lookism and exemplifies egalitarian romance in all the ways Beauty and the Beast failed to, yet Orenstein’s review of the film was as weak as its box office performance. Princess Fiona of Shrek is bad-ass and the third film in the series parodies princesses better than anything else it takes a jab at. However, I wonder how necessary any model of romance—feminist or traditional—is for the preschool set.
Indeed, it is important to distinguish between the pre-pubescent girls and the post-pubescent ladies in books and toy stores, and on the screen. Sparkles and daisies are innocuous. Unrealistic beauty standards and boy-crazy storylines are not. The original Strawberry Shortcake and Rainbow Brite were not the cleverest female role models, but they acted their age and thus appropriately for their target audience. Their cadres of friends were coed. They regularly outwitted male villains—proving that girls’ problems aren’t limited to cat fights—and the reward was always a happier world, either more colorful or fruit-filled. Like Hello Kitty, Strawberry Shortcake and Rainbow Brite demonstrated that to be cute is to be round and childlike, not dangerously busty-yet-skinny like Barbie and the Disney Princesses. But both Rainbow Brite and Strawberry Shortcake have since been redesigned to at least suggest adolescence:
Characters that were not invented first and foremost to sell dolls and costumes are usually a safer bet. Lilo and her sister Nani of Lilo and Stitch are two of the best female characters in cinema history, let alone the Disney canon. Meanwhile, Pippi Longstocking is worshipped in Northern Europe by boys and girls alike. Indeed, wouldn’t a more pro-active welcoming of boys into the princess culture dilute a lot of its sexism? How about dads reading The American Girls to their sons as often as moms read Harry Potter to their daughters? Orenstein does recognize the potential for that revolution, citing a Creighton University study that showed half of boys aged 5 to 13 chose to play with “girls’ toys” as often as “boys’ toys,” but only after they were promised that their fathers wouldn’t find out about it.
Like the families relying on fast-food several times a week, many parents find it difficult to resist the pink marketers’ schemes and the peer pressure foisted upon their daughters in play groups. There is nothing wrong with the occasional indulgence, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with the color pink. But just as we have demanded healthier Happy Meals and more farmers’ markets, we should demand more varied toys, activities and role models for our children, refusing any monochrome model of girlhood.