Are Pink Things and Princesses Oppressing Our Girls?

In recent years, there have been a slew of books and articles that have sounded the alarm about an overly girly culture that is potentially teaching our girls to be helpless, dependent, and pretty. From the sea of pink to the endless shores of princesses, a girl can hardly turn around without being told that being pretty matters more than being strong or smart and that getting the guy is the one thing that makes life worth living. Is girlish fixation with pretty dresses, pink and purple, and princesses really a concern? Is it a sign that the present generation will set back the gains achieved by feminists of the past? Does it mean that marketers are controlling the minds of our children? Or should we just lighten up?

To tackle these questions, let’s begin with Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture (Harper, 2011). In this book, Peggy Orenstien raises some challenging questions and reflections that I’ll attempt to address from my perspective as a middle-class mother of a young girl:

“Once more, I live in Berkeley, California: if princess had infiltrated our hamlet, imagine what was going on in places where women actually shaved their legs?”

Yes, imagine what must be going on in that rest of the country, in that wide, unenlightened mass of land between New York and Berkeley. I can only speculate and cringe about what the backwards inhabitants of Ohio might be allowing their daughters to do if even Californians let them wear pink.

“It is tempting, as a parent, to give the new pink-and-pretty a pass — .So if a spa birthday party would make your six-year-old happy — “

Number of 6-year-old girls I personally know, outside of Berkley, who have been taken to a spa: 0.

“And even if you think the message telegraphed by a pink Scrabble set with tiles on the box top that spell F-A-S-H-I-O-N is a tad retrograde, what are you supposed to do about it?”

Umm — I don’t know — maybe buy a regular Scrabble set instead? Or write a hysterical book about it. One or the other.

“Old Dora versus New Dora?”

Old Dora, clearly. That’s an easy one. Hasn’t the market decided that already anyway?

“Do pink TinkerToys expand or contract its definition?”

Ummm — neither? It’s a color, right? Pink? A color? The toys can still be used the same way. (You know, to build houses in which to confine and subjugate women.) Not that I’ve ever seen pink tinker toys myself. My daughter’s set was pretty much wood color. But I’m willing to worry about the pink tinker toys I’ve never seen if it will help to empower my daughter.

“How do you instill pride and resilience in her? Reject the Disney Princess Pull-Ups for Lightning McQueen?”

Connect the dots for me on that one, because I’m not seeing how either option instills resilience. Well, if you send her to preschool in nothing but her Lightening McQueen pull ups, I suppose she’ll be mocked, and if she survives the mockery, that will instill resilience.

“What’s your policy on the latest Disney Channel “it” girl?”

I couldn’t say. We don’t have cable. Lack of television reception spares me the effort of developing policies, apparently. However, I do have to develop a policy on Coyote and Road Runner, because we have the DVDs. Do you think they instill more pride and resilience than Tom and Jerry?

“Meanwhile, although Mulan (the protofeminist young woman who poses as a boy to save China) and Pocahontas are officially part of the club, I defy you to find them in stores.”

Been to Target much? Wal-Mart maybe? Do they have those near the spa in Berkley?

“I do not question that little girls like to play princes — but — it’s a little hard to say where ‘want’ ends and ‘coercion’ begins.”

I do not question that I like to eat ice cream. But when Baskin Robins has 31 flavors, and I walk into the store, and choose a flavor, and pay for it, and eat it ‘” is that really my choice?

“I have never seen a study proving that playing princess specifically damages girls’ self-esteem or dampens other aspirations.”

But I see you’ve written a book about how we should be afraid it might anyway.

It’s not just pink and princesses, however, that threaten to retard the progress of generations. It’s marketers as well, who want to dress our young daughters, if not like royalty and rulers of the realm, then at least like walkers of the street. And that brings us to Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers Schemes (St. Martin’s Press, 2006) by Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown.

While I agree to some extent with the authors’ diagnosis in Packaging Girlhood (i.e. marketers are sending poor and/or limited messages to girls; there’s too much rubbish in popular culture; too many of the available girls’ clothes are too skanky; the media puts girls into limited and stereotypical categories), I can’t say I got much out of their prescription. Again and again, they seemed to suggest that the one thing you can’t do is simply say “no,” and the other thing you can’t do is ever draw attention to the fact that others will judge your daughter by what she wears or by how she comports herself. That would just be encouraging conformity at a time “we are often trying to encourage our daughters to deemphasize what others think.” Well, from my perspective, it depends who the others are and what they think and why they think it. I’d like my daughter to be conscious of the messages she sends while at the same time having firm values she holds onto despite the shifting winds of opinion. I’d like her to seek out friends and mentors worthy of respect and to consider their opinions.

I know you cannot escape media and commercialism (a point the authors emphasize), but you can certainly limit it with family living choices, and sometimes that requires just saying no. The solution for the authors is always dialogue, and while I think it is a grand idea to talk to my children, I also think it’s a grand idea to make countercultural choices as well (such as not having commercial television reception in the home and only watching select shows and DVDs), and quite alright to say thing like, “Under no circumstance will you wear that miniskirt to school.” So, for example, when the author talks about “R rated horror movies that middle school girls watch,” I find myself thinking ‘” how about I simply don’t allow my 12-year-old girl to watch R rated horror movies? Wouldn’t that be so much easier than letting her watch it followed by forcing her to participate in an at-home Woman’s Studies class that analyzes how it belittles women? Because here’s what I’ve noticed thus far'” after watching a film like Disney’s Tangled, my daughter wants to go outside and ride her bike. She doesn’t want to answer questions such as, “Does there have to be a girl-meets-boy romantic ending? Can you think of another happily-ever-after scenario?” And, frankly, I don’t want to spend my time “pointing out the maleness of the pop music industry.” I’d rather spend it listening to Bob Dylan and Van Morrison.

Though in some respects not as extreme as other books in the sky-is-falling-on-our-girls genre (the authors even point out some of the media exaggerations with regard to girls and sex), the authors still give too much credit to media for choices that are probably equally influenced (or even more influenced) by things such as innate gender preferences, subculture, socioeconomic status, and parental discipline (or lack thereof).

Innate preference is the most ignored contributor in books such as Packaging Girlhood and Cinderella Ate My Daughter. The concept of supply and demand is lost. These authors seem hung up on the idea that supply creates demand rather than vice versa. I’m sure there’s a little of each going on, but in a commercial society, demand will always ultimately have more influence than supply. It’s easier, from a commercial perspective, to respond to demand than to create it, though of course marketers will try their hand at both.

Some of the authors’ concerns in Packaging Girlhood frankly made me laugh out loud. They are worried about the fact that Mr. Boddy in the Clue game is male and the body in the Operation game is male. Yes, they are worried about lack of gender equality in board games. Could we maybe take a break and focus on genital mutilation or wife beating or something? I swear, if Clue had a woman who got murdered and Operation had a woman being operated on, Lamb and Brown would instead be writing, “Oh, so women are just dispensable now? We can just kill them off? Oh, so it’s okay for women to be naked and dissected on a table like an object?”

Marketers do try to squeeze girls into molds, but so too do writers who sound alarms. Girls shouldn’t wear skirts because they prohibit play, suggest Lamb and Brown. Colors have specific meanings, they imply: for instance, like red means brave and pink means, apparently, subservient to men. Tell that to my girl who’s crossing the monkey bars at break-neck speed in her pink skirt while beating the boys in a game of lava tag.