The acclaimed author of the groundbreaking bestseller Schoolgirls reveals the dark side of pink and pretty: the rise of the girlie-girl, she warns, is not that innocent.I’ll confess now, I’m really not the target audience here – I don’t have any kids, and I don’t really plan to. Kay’s the mom, but I’m the one with the patience to read digital books, and when this book caught my eye on netGalley, I didn’t think twice about requesting it. And I’m glad I didn’t, because it turned out to be both an informative and engrossing read.
Pink and pretty or predatory and hardened, sexualized girlhood influences our daughters’ lives from infancy onward, telling them that their image is more important than their essence – that how a girl looks matters more than who she is. But how many times can a parent say no when her daughter begs for a pink tulle princess dress? Does playing Cinderella shield girls from early sexualization – or prime them for it? Is today’s little princess going to be tomorrow’s sexting teen? And what if she is?
These questions hit home with Peggy Orenstein and so she went sleuthing. She dissected science and pop culture, created an avatar online, and parsed the original fairy tales. The stakes in this culture war turn out to be higher than she ever imagined: nothing less than the health, self-esteem, development, and futures of our girls. The potential negative impact of this new girlie-girl culture is undeniable-yet armed with awareness and recognition, parents can effectively counterbalance its influence in their daughters’ lives.
What I really want to emphasize about this book – you know, other than its content – is that it’s never boring. I know that non-fiction often turns people (like me) off, because there’s this idea that it’s going to end up reading like the most boring textbook you ever had, but in this case, at least, this is not so. Orenstein has a good sense of humor, and her writing style is very engaging, very conversational, and very easy to read. The subjects flow very naturally, and the studies and figures Orenstein presents are never difficult to grasp. Plus, she balances them out with the human factor – stories about situations she’s been in with her own daughter, situations her friends and the people she’s interviewing have been in, and it all blends together to create this very engrossing narrative. I’ve read it twice, and both times I was both surprised and a little disappointed to find that I’d reached the end.
Content-wise, Orenstein makes a lot of great points here, and explores a lot of issues and questions that arise in the mass-marketed world of children today. She starts out examining the rise of the Disney Princess toy line, and from there takes a look at the way companies have segmented and color-coded children’s…everything. Toys, clothes, television programs. I’ve worked in a toy department for the past two years, and I’m not sure I’ve seen a toy specifically made for little girls that isn’t pink or purple. Yet this wasn’t always the case – at one time, according to Orenstein, pink was considered a masculine color, and blue a feminine one. But the marketing executive’s excuse for the color-coding and ultra-feminine toys for girls of today? It’s what the kids want. Girls are just born loving pink.
So Orenstein tackles this theory – is it what the kids want? Are there some toys that just naturally appeal to girls? Orenstein’s findings lead her to a series of other subjects – child beauty pageants, the original Grimm’s fairy tales, Disney’s real-life princesses (think Miley), and our social-networking obsessed culture, among other things. To her credit, Orenstein is very fair and seemed willing to let her ideas of what may or may not be good for young girls change, which is far from the extreme, staunch feminist perspective I expected. She’s not self-righteous or preachy, and is more than willing to expose the flaws in her own parenting methods.
When investigating the world of child pageants, for example, she shows a completely different, very human side of a pageant family that had been villainized in other media outlets covering the same subject. And when confronted with information that suggested that the ultra-girly that stage some children – including her daughter – go through might not only be normal, but healthy, she wonders if her strict no-princess policy might have been too harsh, even damaging.
I do have to bring up one point I disagreed with Orenstein on, only because it’s one we talk about in this blog a lot, and it kinda bugged me. While discussing fairy tales and her search to find some strong female protagonists in them, Orenstein brings up modern-day children’s literature, and how the “pro-girl” messages within them usually end up meaning “anti-boy”. She cites The Paper Bag Princess (which I remember fondly from my days in school) and says this:
The heroine outwits a dragon that has kidnapped her prince, but not before the beast’s fiery breath frizzles her hair and destroys her dress, forcing her to don a paper bag. The ungrateful prince then rejects her, telling her to come back when she is “dressed like a real princess.” She summarily dumps him and skips off into the sunset, happily every after, alone.It’s a fair enough thought, not wanting to see marriage and family made out to be the undesirable alternative – they’re not, and to each his own, right? But I don’t think it’s fair to say that that is what Paper Bag Princess, or other stories like it, do. I mean, it doesn’t say that the Paper Bag Princess skipped off into the sunset to be alone forever. It means she was strong enough to dump the boy who couldn’t accept her for who she was, and perhaps someday she found one who could. Or maybe she didn’t. But what’s wrong with that?
To me, that is Thelma & Louise all over again. Step out of line, and you end up solo, or, worse, sailing crazily over a cliff to your doom. I may want my girl to do and be whatever she dreams of as an adult, but I also hope she will find her Prince (or Princess) Charming and make me a grandma. I don not want her to be a fish without a bicycle; I want her to be a fish with another fish. […] Yet the typical “feminist alternative” to the marry-the-prince ending either portrays men as simpletons or implies that the roles traditionally ascribed to women are worthless.
I think there is something wrong with saying that a heroine (in any story) ending up with nobody is bad. It takes a strong woman can find happiness without a mate, and I think society already puts too much emphasis on how love and marriage and family are the only ways a woman can be truly happy. That’s one of the biggest problems I had with The Princess and the Frog – they spent the entire story convincing this girl who was perfectly content devoting herself to achieving her dreams that she couldn’t really be happy unless she had a Prince Charming to share her success with. What kind of message is that?
Again, not saying that there’s anything wrong with love and marriage and family, but I also don’t see anything wrong with a few book promoting the idea that that a girl can happily skip off into the sunset alone, in a world of thousands that don’t offer that option at all.
That aside, I learned a lot reading this book – too much to summarize here, and I wouldn’t want to anyway, because I firmly believe that any mother, father, aunt, guardian, or hell, even older sibling, should read this book. Still, there are a few interesting tidbits I wanna share. Like…
- President Roosevelt, concerned about declining birthrates among white Americans, actually encouraged the production of baby dolls and children’s vacuums, dust pans, mops, etc., as a way of pointing young girls back in the “right direction”. Boys, on the other hand, were encouraged to play with things like trucks, tools, and building blocks, to prepare them for a more engineering-based workforce. Social engineering at its finest, amirite?
- Young children don’t quite grasp the concept of permanency until around age three. So, say, a two-year-old girl doesn’t really understand that she won’t grow up to become a boy. This is why some children become so obsessed with things that they see as representing their genders (like princesses); it’s a way of solidifying their identity.
- According to a study cited in the book, rather than feeling the freedom of having more options, girls today feel the need to “fulfill all the new expectations we have for them without letting go of the old ones”. To be ambitious but nice, pretty and agreeable, smart and good-looking. I gotta say, that strikes a cord, doesn’t it? Woman can be condemned for being stay-at-home-mothers, while at the same time “career women”, or those who opt not to start families at all, can be seen as abnormal or selfish (God, there was this one Tyra episode…UGH, don’t get me started). It seems like it’s all or nothing these days.
That’s only a little of the information Orenstein has to share. This book is chalk-full of it, and I think that is one of its greatest strengths – it’s about awareness. It brings up concepts and explores the scientific and social findings behind both sides. Unfortunately, this book is a bit lacking in conclusions :/ I was pretty disappointed to come to the end and find that Orenstein has no definite answer, no certain advice – she admits that even the textbook solutions she’s been giving for years don’t work for everyone, because every situation is different. And I get that: that there isn’t one answer to such a complicated and varying issue. But after examining so many different subjects and theories, the conclusion essentially amounts to “parent your kids the way you think is right.” Well, yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s what most people are doing anyway.
But, again, I don’t think answers are why this book is important – I think what’s important about it is the fact that it exposes parents to a variety of issues that affect their children, that they may not be fully aware of, not to mention important information about the growth and development of their children. I’m definitely more aware now, of things like the gifts I give my niece and nephew, and if I ever do have a child (unlikely as that is), I’ll be glad I have this awareness stored away.
And for that, I definitely say:
Not that this is any surprise, given it’s my recommended book for January. And, er, apparently half of February, ahahaha ^^;