2.21.2011

orenstein, porter and the disneyfication of (very) little girls

Last year, I highlighted a story about a study proving that "almost nothing we do with our brains that is hard-wired. Every skill, attribute and personality trait is moulded by experience." This inspired one of my better posts, "science proves that men and women are from the same planet", relating the belief that so-called traditional gender roles are innate to to a right-wing worldview, especially anti-intellectualism and anti-feminism.

I thought of those ideas when I read a column about Peggy Orenstein's recent book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture. I haven't read the book yet, but I have read Orenstein's superb 1994 book Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem and the Confidence Gap. I was working with teens at the time, and this book was so powerful, I wrote to the author - on paper, pre-email! - to thank her. So when I see Orenstein's name, I pay attention.

This column by Catherine Porter in the Toronto Star sums up the ideas from Cinderella Ate My Daughter.
In her new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Peggy Orenstein of the New York Times examines the hypergenderized world of little girls, who by age 3 are taught — through their Cinderella tiaras and Belle ball gowns, and mostly by our “oohs” and “ahhhs” over them — that being pretty in a Disney way is what matters most.

That’s the first glass-slippered step on the shimmery slope of objectification, she argues, that leads to black camies and knee-high boots at Hannah Montana concerts by 10, no undies Britney Spears-style by 13, and carefully posed photographs of themselves sent to all 622 Facebook friends. . .

The lesson our daughters are learning, starting with that Disney gown: their lives are performances; they are consumers and marketers.

“Rather than raising a generation of Cinderellas, we may actually be cultivating a legion of step-sisters — spoiled, self-centred materialists, superficially charming but without the depth or means for authentic transformation,” Orenstein writes.

. . . .

• Nearly half the girls surveyed in Grades 1 to 3 want to be thinner.

• Nearly 43,000 children under 18 had “surgically altered their appearance” in 2008, over twice as many as a decade earlier. In 2009, American teenagers had received 12,000 injections of Botox.

• Two-thirds of college students tested by psychologists scored high on the “Narcissistic Personality Inventory,” meaning they are excessively self-involved.

• Close to half of 6- to 9-year-olds girls regularly use lipstick or gloss. Almost one in five girls, aged 8 to 12, wear mascara.

This was before Walmart released its makeup line for 8-year-olds.

These trends are not natural. Our kids aren’t growing up faster, Darwin-like. They’re being pushed by marketers — who created the toddler and tween categories — and we are letting them. We think they are just expressing themselves, the same way we express ourselves by squeezing into skinny jeans and paying $30 to get our eyebrows “weaved.” They’ve just stepped onto the beauty machine earlier than we did.

. . . .

Disney announced this month a deal to enter 580 maternity hospitals in the U.S. to give new mothers a free Disney onesie if they signed up for DisneyBaby.com email alerts.

This is painful to read, its implications monstrous to consider. Among other things, it sickens me how something as elemental as giving birth becomes just another marketing opportunity. Among other things, I wonder how anyone could read this and still believe gender roles are innate.

Porter uses an excellent analogy - one close to my heart - to describe Orenstein's advice to parents:
Orenstein hopes her book is to processed girldom what The Omnivore’s Dilemma was to processed food — a call to action. Her message isn’t to ban all princesses. It’s for parents to chaperone their daughters through that world consciously.

“It is strategic then, absolutely vital — to think through our own values and limits early, to consider what we approve or disapprove of and why,” she writes. “I refuse to believe that parents are helpless.”

Parents are not helpless, I agree. But they are often overwhelmed. And they must first believe these trends are harmful before deciding to consciously help their daughters navigate these minefields. What happens to the girls whose parents are oblivious - or cheerfully complicit?

3 comments:

johngoldfine said...

I had a woman in an advanced writing course a few years ago--a good writer with a very quirky and individual take on life and writing--whose blogger website for the course was festooned and garlanded with Disney princess dreck. Her sense of irony was otherwise intact, but her self-identification with the princesses seemed proof against it.

johngoldfine said...

I was thinking about this post and remembered a dog we got as a rescue when she was 6 months old and already saddled with the ridiculous name 'Precious.'

We decided to keep the name 'Precious' since did respond to it and she had enough other problems to deal with at first, but my wife and I couldn't resist teasing each other by buying her a pink leatherette collar set with rhinestones. Very much a Disney look and name....

Presh turned out to be a rugged little girl, 110% farmdog, and pretty soon she went collarless and it was only when we saw the smirks and rolling eyes of people we were introducing her to did we remember how silly her name was. Even today, 10 years after her death, 'Presh' and 'Precious' do not fall on my ears as absurd names.

So, anyway, there's a sample of one: a girl on track to narcissistic princesshood who nevertheless managed to break out of the pink rhinestone ghetto and define her own life on her own terms.

Seriously--people who think it's okay to objectify and commodify children probably won't offer dogs very much better than a life of teddybearhood.

I hope I haven't strayed off-topic, but sentimentality, cruelty, and the marketplace are all linked, whether we're talking children or dogs.

laura k said...

Not off topic at all, and I appreciate your calling this "cruelty". Allowing girls to be used in this way is a form of passive child abuse, although often more down to ignorance than anything else.

I wondered about Presh's name - it hardly seems like your kind of name!

My off-topic issue, btw, is more about gamethread-type chat than tangential thoughts like this. Allan says I'm being too controlling, so perhaps it's a silly issue of mine. That is always a possibility!