Journalist Peggy Orenstein, author of the recently released New York Times bestselling Cinderella Ate My Daughter, among many other books, answers five questions from writer/scholar Elline Lipkin, author of Girls' Studies, about writing about girls, getting past being "pinked," what happened to girl power, and what anxious parents can do.
1.) You've written this book as a journalist, a mother of a young girl, a former girl yourself who grew up in the '70s. You also spoke with national experts on gender as well as polling other mothers at your daughter's school. How did you manage writing from so many perspectives and integrating such a wide chorus of voices? Was there a generational divide you had to cross in understanding your daughter's girlhood from your own? What surprised you most about how things have changed?
The biggest surprise was that we have to talk about these issues of pretty-diva-sexy with younger and younger girls. If we were having this conversation 10-15 years ago we’d be talking about provocative dress or music or images and their impact on teens. Maybe on 12 year olds. But not 4 year olds. And I wasn’t sure when I started if things like the Disney Princesses—the whole world of pink sparkles and 21-piece toddler makeup sets that are marketed towards girls—is protective against premature sexualization or primes them for it. Obviously, I now lean towards the latter answer.
But it’s not that easy to see. Parenting is so present tense—when you have a 6 month old you can’t imagine having a 3 year old. When you have a 3 year old you can’t remember having a 6 month old. It’s hard to connect your deeply adorable toddler in her deeply adorable princess dress looking in the mirror and asking “am I the fairest of them all?” with the 15 year old who is looking in the mirror and asking the same question, but now full of doubt and the answer is always “No, but maybe if I bought....”
The weaving in of different voices, though, that’s just natural to me. It’s how I’ve developed as a writer. I pretty much write exactly as I talk.
2.) Within your career you've brought keen analysis to topics which seem to be generated from your own experiences, such as in Flux writing about women negotiating career and family, personal and professional ambition, and then centering Waiting For Daisy around your own struggle to have a child. This book draws from the experience of having a young daughter. Have you ever felt anxious about exposing your personal life or that there would be professional backlash for basing your work exclusively around women-focused issues?
I’ve never worried about a professional backlash. I sometimes feel a little weird when people discuss me on the internet or in reviews as if they know me, when what they know is the version of me on the page—me, yet not me. But I guess it only really bothers me if they hate me! Which sometimes they do, of course.
I do have limits and lines. My husband doesn’t especially like me writing about him. And I don’t feel like I can continue writing about my daughter much longer. Right now she doesn’t mind and she’s little and I am careful about what I write in terms of exposing her. But soon it will be an invasion of her privacy.
For me, though, writing from personal experiences has been so rewarding. I haven’t always done that. I used to write more straight-ahead reported pieces. But more and more I found that as a writer I was looser, more honest, more analytical and more thoughtful, not to mention funnier, when I stepped out from behind the veil of false objectivity. It was a scary thing to do at first, but the feedback from some of my earlier personal essays—especially the one I wrote about having a miscarriage in Japan—was so moving to me that it encouraged me to write more.
Also, with this book it was important to me to show I was a fellow traveler, not an expert from on high. I didn’t think people needed or wanted to be hectored about how they were raising their girls in this complicated world. I tried to write like a friend, like a peer, like a real live person and mother, which I am.
And one more thing: long, long ago when I was in college I learned that feminist writing was about breaking down hierarchies. But then I realized that within academia, those feminist writers who were talking about breaking down hierarchies were writing in this obtuse way that only other academics could read and that totally supported hierarchy. I took that lesson at its word. I am anti-expertise in my expertise. So I actually have an intellectual and philosophical underpinning to my writing style that I’ve thought through. Which shocks me, but there it is.
3.) I was struck in Cinderella Ate My Daughter by the constant influx of contradictory pressures that girls must reconcile: be attractive but not too sexy, be smart but not too loud about it, be savvy but act innocent, as you describe with budding teen stars. Then there's the nature/nurture debate about what gendered traits are inborn v. learned. Is it possible for girls to even understand who they are outside of constant consumer input? What resistance does a girl really have against being "pinked"?
Yes. I believe they can and I take a lot of faith and strength from the girls I know—my nieces, who are wonderful young women, though they are a little old for the true intensity of this trend. But also my daughter and many of her friends and their families who have made a really concerted, conscious effort to raise girls not to disdain pink or that which is attributed to girls, but to embrace other ideas and images and narratives and stories and movies and playthings that celebrate girlhood in different ways, that give them a broader idea of what femininity is. So we can do it, and I’m really hoping that this book will jumpstart that conversation, because it’s hard to do alone. You don’t want your daughter stigmatized or excluded. You need community.
4.) How did "empowerment" become such a tainted term with the notion that strengthening girls' self-esteem can come by "choosing" makeovers and sexy clothing? Are programs like Girls Rock Camp outpacing things like "tea parteaz" (yes, with a "z" at the end of it all!) which lets girls play dress up while calling it self-esteem building? Can a girl really make her own cape and escape the tiara?
I call it Girlz Power—with a “z.” When you see that z you know it’s going to be empowerment as the power to shop; it’s going to be empowerment by the “choice” to pursue physical perfection. Daisy got this make your own messenger bag kit for her 7th birthday. It had iron on transfers of hearts, flowers, all that stuff you’d expect but it also had transfers that said “spoiled” “brat” and “pampered princess.” She was appalled and said, “Mom, why would anyone put “spoiled” on their purse???” But what has happened is self-absorption has somehow come to represent or indicate self-confidence. It’s bizarre. And I tease it out in a chapter on girls and power.
5.) What advice would you give to women who are anxious about raising daughters?
The first thing is, don’t expect yourself to be perfect. Mothers have SO much on their plates, and you are never going to do everything right. It would be freakish, weird, and unpleasant if you did. Plus, it would put therapists out of business. In general, I think mothers need to cut themselves a little slack.
Which is not to say that this shouldn’t be taken seriously. There are psychological, emotional, and cognitive issues at play that are really important. And I think it’s vital to keep in mind that you can’t say “no” to your daughter all the time and expect that she will get the message that you’re trying to give her broader choices about being a girl. That will not work. When girls are little, in particular, they NEED to express their “girlness” (and boys their “boyness”). It’s part of understanding what a boy or a girl is, and they do that through dress or play.
When I was a child it was about baby dolls and playing Mommy. Now it’s all princess all the time. They’ll latch onto whatever the culture gives them that they think reflects their sex. If they think hopping is only for girls, 4-year-old boys will not hop. It can be totally arbitrary or totally stereotypical. So it’s important to understand that—there is a developmental reason why your daughter won’t let you wrestle her into pants all of a sudden and why she wants that princess dress. But that doesn’t mean you totally indulge that.
It’s the ideal time to offer her choices, images, stories, playthings, etc. that are FUN and celebratory of femininity but not hinged entirely on appearance. The Miyazaki movies, like “Kiki’s Delivery Service” or “My Neighbor Totoro” are ideal alternatives to “Little Mermaid” or “Cinderella.” Greek myths (made child friendly) have fabulously complex, archetypally female characters. One thing we did when I just could NOT find anything I wanted Daisy to wear (call me crazy, but I didn’t like the t-shirt that said “Give Me the Credit Card and No One Gets Hurt”) was we got a bunch of cheap white t-shirts and had ourselves a mother-daughter dye-ing party. We made some beautiful, subtle (not too hippie) tie dye shirts that were the envy of her classmates. She was so proud because she made them herself, too.
So it takes creativity, ingenuity, community. And it’s totally worth it. I think about it like the food movement. Fifteen years ago, who had heard of trans fat? Who cared whether the chickens were in a cage? But now many of us do care—really because of a couple of books. And those books sparked conversation and a movement and now Congress is revamping the school lunch program. McDonald’s has some healthier choices. If we can make McDonald’s blink, I think we can make Mattel blink.