Interview: Peggy Orenstein

Peggy OrensteinPeggy Orenstein is the author of The New York Times best-sellers Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture and Waiting for Daisy. Her previous books include Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Kids, Love and Life in a Half-Changed World; and the best-selling SchoolGirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem and the Confidence Gap. A contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, Peggy has also written for such publications as The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Vogue, Elle, Discover, More, Mother Jones, Salon, O: The Oprah Magazine, and The New Yorker, and has contributed commentaries to NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Her articles have been anthologized multiple times, including in The Best American Science Writing. She has been a keynote speaker at numerous colleges and conferences and has been featured on, among other programs, Nightline, Good Morning America, The Today Show, NPR’s Fresh Air and Morning Edition and CBC’s As It Happens. You can visit her website here

TCJWW: Schoolgirls is a study of middle-schools girls, while Cinderella Ate My Daughter is more focused on younger girls (ages 3-9). Do you believe that society is disempowering girls at a younger age now, or is this a reflection of your own change in perspective because of your daughter? How do you feel marketing has affected your daughter now that she is older?

Orenstein: Marketing has definitely and demonstrably gotten more aggressive and more focused towards younger and younger kids—research is pretty clear on that. So the ideas about gender, about class, about race, about power are all well in play by preschool.  I wrote Schoolgirls in response to research that was coming out on how girls lost confidence around middle school, and my own recollections of what the teenage years were like. They didn’t feel that different for girls in the 1990s than they had for girls when I was young. But when I had a daughter, things felt. Well I was about to say different, but they were and weren’t. The gender segregation in the toy aisle, the clothing stores, the home décor, in food packaging was all far, far more intense than when I was little, and I was little in the days before feminism, really. And I was so shocked when I first encountered all of that, when I first walked into, I think it was Pottery Barn Kids, to look at the crib sheets and found this great divide between what was supposed to be for boys and what was supposed to be for girls—even before boys and girls knew they were boys and girls. It’s kind of interesting to me, too, that this is all happening at a time when our ideas about gender fluidity and sexuality have become more flexible. And then the whole Disney Princess thing which felt at once familiar, because of course some of those characters were around when I was a child, and different because it was so incessant and ubiquitous….But the short answer is, yes, I think gender stereotyping and the marketing of femininity now comes far, far earlier than it ever did. I also think in the years since Cinderella Ate My Daughter came out that more people are aware of that and finding creative ways to push back.

As for my own daughter… I’ve always thought of limiting her exposure to marketing and the coarser aspects of pop culture as being a way to protect both her childhood and her imagination. So she’s in a school environment where most kids have very little exposure to any of that. I remember asking her in second grade if she knew who Justin Bieber was and she squinted and said, “is he a boy in my school?” Now she knows, it’s true, but is totally disinterested. I’m not sure she knows, or would care, that there is such a thing as the Disney Channel. And Netflix, itunes and DVR have made it possible to watch TV without commercials. She and my husband watch a lot of Food Network. That’s the secret family channel, I think. I mean, we’re not Amish or anything. She went through a big Harry Potter phase and a big Roald Dahl phase. She is reading the Hunger Games trilogy now. But she’s also is heavily into Shakespeare. She doesn’t spend a lot of time online, either, though she does some made with code, dreambox, a little minecraft stuff like that. We do most of our shopping online, so we’re not in clothing stores much, either, except UNIQLO. We are suckers for UNIQLO.

So I’d say overall, she’s just far less exposed than most girls or boys her age. That said, we still walk down the street, we still see billboards and videos and movies in which the animated female characters’ waists are the width of a pin dot and in which the ratio of female to male characters is, at best, one-to-three and in which women are objectified, sexualized etc etc. So we talk about it. She probably gets sick of talking about it.  Sometimes she argues with me about it, and that’s fine. She doesn’t have to agree with me. But I figure if the culture is trying to brainwash her, I want to do a little brainwashing myself—I want her to hear my voice every time she sees an unrealistic female body, every time she sees an inappropriately sexualized image, every time she sees women (or anyone) used as things. And I think she gets that. Recently, we saw the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue with the cover that had the models dressed only in tiny bikini bottoms thrusting their rears towards the camera. She said, “What does that have to do with sports?” Next to it there was a regular Sports Illustrated that had a female Olympic skier in her ski outfit with a gold medal around her neck, looking very normal. Daisy grabbed a stack of those magazines, put them on top of the ones with the pornified non-sports-oriented image, said, “There!” and walked away. I thought, “Ok, I think we’re on track here….” She’s also been asking lately why there are so few Asian-American women in magazines, or as main characters in books, on TV, in movies, so that’s been an interesting conversation (she’s bi-racial).

TCJWW: Movies are also a large aspect of the marketing to young girls and Disney has made some strides (albeit small) towards stronger female characters in their films. Do you find that movies like Brave and Frozen are positive moves by Disney, or are they further encouraging the princess culture? Has Disney really changed, or are they still objectifying women in a more subtle fashion?

Orenstein: The short answer is: yes. Yes they’ve changed some; yes they’re further encouraging the princess culture; yes they’re still objectifying women in a subtle and sometimes not so subtle fashion. Yes to all of it. Some of the characters are certainly more modern, though much of the merchandise (which is where the money is) is not. I think they are responding to critiques like mine, though, at least to a degree. Obviously, in this day and age, Disney simply could not continue to make movies where the girl was rescued by the prince. That was not going to fly. And I’m pleased that’s the case. I’m pleased that they did the twist with the sisters as the core relationship in Frozen. But it should be noted that what they’re doing with these stories isn’t really an innovation—many of the classic fairy tales have super-spunky, independent, smart girls at the center. Walt Disney’s interpretation was not the definitive or the correct interpretation of those stories—they were the interpretation by someone who was of a particular period and it was an especially sexist, retrograde period at that (though one with some gorgeous animation).

What I’d really like to see, though, is a wide range of characters that don’t have to be princesses (and it’s worth noting that not all the “princesses” are even princesses—like Mulan and Pocahontas). I mean there must be some other concept they could come up with, right? Also, I hope they don’t feel they’re off the hook in terms of diversity because they’ve had one African American character, one Asian character, one middle eastern character and a Native American. It would’ve been great and super radical if they’d made two films featuring an African American lead back-to-back, for instance.

TCJWW: Parents raising young boys face similar challenges with having to fight the hyper-masculine culture portrayed in movies, books, and toys marketed towards them. Most of the movies that I have seen that feature the “damsel-in-distress” scenario also feature a heroic, one-dimensional man. Are there any toys, games, movies, or books that reinforce positive gender roles for boys?

Orenstein: I agree completely. It’s not so much my area of expertise, though. I always direct people to a number of fabulous resources for parents of boys: the books Packaging BoyhoodRaising Cain; Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection; Pink Brain, Blue Brain. The hyper-segmentation of young children’s lives does boys no favors either. It’s bad for everyone. And too often it encourages boys to see anything that is assigned to girls—the color pink, music, art—as lesser and not for them. That’s tragic.

TCJWW: I was surprised that you read the original Grimm fairytales to your daughter, but have since learned that children self-sensor when something is outside of their age-range. Yet, overprotective parents are the norm. How do you think reading these grizzly fairytales to children and being upfront with them can help children face their fears?

Orenstein: Well, I don’t know. It was an experiment, though over the years she has really loved them. Bruno Bettelheim has this whole theory about how fairy tales—as opposed to myths or legends—tap into children’s unconscious preoccupations with things like sibling rivalry or the fear of an omnivorous mother. And that despite the grizzly stuff, it allows them to work through those issues. Is that true? I don’t know. Bettelheim doesn’t address the fact, for instance, that the tales were less gruesome before the Grimms got ahold of them. The brothers amped up the violence because they thought it taught kids important lessons. And they cut out all the sex—there was a lot of sex in those fairy tales. So what about that, Bruno?

What I think is more to the point, though, is that stories have a different impact on kids than TV or videos or movies. I read a lot about boys and violent play while researching Cinderella and what researchers have found is that violent play can serve a purpose in kids’ lives, that it can help them—kind of like the fairytales—work through issues and feel powerful and all kinds of things. But only if it’s open-ended play and only if they’re making it up themselves. What becomes unhealthy, and is becoming more common in a marketing and media-saturated world, is playing by a particular script and acting that script out over and over and over in the same way. That is not the same at all. So when kids watch movies and TV and all that which puts specific images into their heads that may be more cause for concern than, say, reading a grizzly fairytale.

So I do think that kids need to be protected from some of the graphic images our culture presents them. Heck, I wish someone would protect me from a lot of them. But they also may benefit from other kinds of pretend violence that can make them feel more in control. So it’s not simple.

And then, I also extrapolate that for girls acting out the same pre-determined script about femininity over and over and over in exactly the same way is equally cause for concern. I never had a problem with the idea that if I gave my daughter a big piece of silk she might use it to play princess. But then she might use it to sail across the ocean. And then she might use it as a blanket for her teddy bear. We had all kinds of dress up in the house when she was little, including some princess dress-up, but I tried to choose things that were as open-ended as possible. The bonus, then, was that they lasted a long, long time, not just for those few years that they’re into Cinderella.

TCJWW: You noted in Cinderella Ate My Daughter that you were against children going online because gender specific marketing and self-objectification is magnified there. Do you still feel the same way now that your daughter has grown older and the web has grown?

Orenstein: I said there was the potential online for all of that to be magnified. Also for it to be challenged on sites like New Moon Girls or, for older girls, SPARK Movement or About-Face. I do not let my daughter engage in any kind of social media. I do not let her range freely on the Internet (obviously). She does not have a phone. She does some research for school online. And next year, as a middle schooler, she’ll need to be online more. It’s a very, very hard thing. We’re all—all of us parents—working it out as we go. I think it’s extremely important, though, to keep those things out of a child’s bedroom and to have times when, if they do have a phone, it is not in their possession, when they’re not plugged in. But so far, we’ve kept it in check. Talk to me again when she’s a teenager.

TCJWW: I noticed on your website that you are promoting toys and books that encourage strong female roles through “Fight Fun with Fun!” I know many parents struggle with buying their children too many toys, or buying the wrong kinds of toys, especially among young girls. How do you think these toys and books can strengthen a young girl’s sense of self outside of the focus on materialism?

Orenstein: It is really easy to give too much to kids. Especially your first kid. If I’d just put all the money I spent on Thomas Trains into her college fund… But it’s all a balance, isn’t it? You want your child to have time in nature, you want them to have physical activity they enjoy, you want them to be inspired artistically, intellectually, creatively. But sometimes, you also want to have suggestions for yourself or for family or friends for stuff to get your child for a birthday or Chanukah or whatever.

The thing is, there’s a tendency to just focus on what we don’t want our daughters to have and I wanted to think about what we could say yes to. Because you’ll never convince a girl that you’re trying to give her MORE choices about what it means to be female by saying no all the time. SO that’s where the fight fun with fun thing came up. I’m kind of embarrassed by how disorganized that page is, but I just kind of threw things on there. Now there are people who do this kind of thing for a living like A Mighty Girl. I was just trying to help—I don’t get anything out of it financially or anything. But people wanted alternatives to the most obvious stuff that you come across at Toys’R’Us or Target or wherever and there are so many wonderful alternatives I felt like I wanted to help busy, concerned parents a little bit. Just the other day, in fact, my own niece, who is a new  pre-K teacher, wrote asking me for advice for books so that she didn’t have to read anything about Frozen for the 50 millionth time. Honestly, I can’t remember books for 4-year-olds any more. That was a long time ago. But luckily, I could direct her to the web page and she could go out and get Strega Nona or something.

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