A few years ago, author Peggy Orenstein sent her daughter Daisy off to preschool — and within a week, she noticed a profound change.
"She came home having memorized, as if by osmosis, all the names and gown colors of the Disney princesses," Orenstein tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. Suddenly, Orenstein began noticing princess references everywhere, surrounding her daughter.
"The waitress at our breakfast joint would hand her her pancakes and say, 'Here's your princess pancakes,'" Orenstein says. A pharmacist offered a pink balloon. The final straw came at Daisy's first dentist appointment. "The dentist asked, 'Would you like to get in my princess chair so I can sparkle your teeth?' And I just thought, 'Oh my gosh, do you have a princess drill, too?'"
That obsession with everything pink and princess is the focus of Orenstein's new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture.
The Danger Of Being A Princess
Orenstein says very young children don't yet understand that your sex is fixed — that you can't go to sleep a girl and wake up a boy. So little girls may be drawn to pink, sparkly princess gowns as a way of asserting that they're definitely girls.
But an overemphasis on pink can eventually be harmful, Orenstein says. "Those little differences that are innate to boys and girls, if they're allowed to flourish by having kids grow up in separate cultures, become big gaps.
"When your daughter is sitting there in her room, with her pink princess dress and her pink Scrabble kit ... and her pink Magic 8-Ball, it just makes those divisions so much bigger and so much harder to cross."
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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
"Cinderella Ate My Daughter" is a new book by Peggy Orenstein, who's written for years about women and girls, and how they're treated in this culture. But this book is about Peggy Orenstein, the mother of a little girl named Daisy. She joins us now from California - that is, Peggy - not Daisy.
Ms. PEGGY ORENSTEIN (Author, "Cinderella Ate My Daughter"): Thank you very much. Great to be here.
WERTHEIMER: To explain what's going on with this book, I'd like to ask you to read from the introduction. You're talking about the shock of knowing so much about raising girls, and then actually having to raise a girl.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. ORENSTEIN: Yeah. (Reading) I was supposed to be an expert on girls' behavior. I had spouted off about it everywhere - from the Los Angeles Times to the New York Times, from "The Today Show" to Fox TV. I had been on NPR repeatedly, and that was the problem. What if after all that, I was not up to the challenge myself? What if I couldn't raise the ideal daughter?
WERTHEIMER: Well, I guess we have to say to you, welcome back to NPR.
Ms. ORENSTEIN: Thank you very much. Glad to be here.
WERTHEIMER: Now, you clearly wanted to be sure that your little girl grew up smart and powerful and independent. When did you discover that your daughter wanted to be a princess?
Ms. ORENSTEIN: Well, you know, yeah, that's exactly right. When you have that little girl, you think - you don't want her to feel like there's anything that she can't be, and you don't want her to feel like there's anything that she has to be. And we were going along like that, and then she went to preschool. And within about a week, she came home having memorized, as if by osmosis, all the names and gown colors of the Disney princesses.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. ORENSTEIN: And - yeah. And I thought, you know, what the heck is a Disney princess? And meanwhile, we were going around town and, you know, the waitress at our breakfast joint - who's all tattooed and pierced - would hand her her pancakes and say, here's your princess, pancakes. And the lady at the drugstore would say, would you like a balloon? I know what color you'd like. And she'd give her a pink one without asking.
And finally, I took her to the pediatric dentist, you know, for her first check-up - she was about 3 years old. And the dentist asked, would you like to get in my princess chair so I can sparkle your teeth? And I just thought oh, my gosh. Do you have a princess drill, too? You know, when did every - I did not remember this from when I was a child. I don't know about you, Linda, but you know, I did not remember that every little girl was constantly, 24 hours a day, a princess swathed in pink.
WERTHEIMER: You've researched this, like the...
Ms. ORENSTEIN: I did.
WERTHEIMER: ...researcher that you are. Can you explain how we got all tangled up with princess? I mean, it was a - you tell a story in your book about a marketing executive from Disney who discovered princess-ness.
Ms. ORENSTEIN: So Andy Mooney, who had been working at Nike, came to Disney to the consumer products department, and they were kind of in a wreck right then, and they were not doing very well. And he went out and got to know the brand. So he went to an ice show in Phoenix, and he saw all these little girls dressed as the female characters. And horror of horrors, they had made their own costumes.
Ms. WERTHEIMER: Oh, my God.
Ms. ORENSTEIN: So they were not wearing licensed products.
This pink light bulb went off in his head, and he realized that he could gather all these characters and license the heck out of them. And the very first year, it was a $300 million business - it brought in $300 million of revenue. And by 2009, it was $4 billion a year.
WERTHEIMER: One of the psychological points that you uncovered, in looking through this, was that gender is not something that little kids get right away, and that when they're very small, they may actually feel that they could change from girl to boy or boy to girl - and that maybe that's one of the reasons why princess-ness is so appealing, because it's so girly that maybe little girls feel if they dress up like a princess, it will stick.
Ms. ORENSTEIN: Yeah. I'm so glad that you asked about that because I really think you have to confront the ideas about nature and nurture head-on - which I do, in the book - and talk about how on one hand, when kids are at that, you know, 2, 3, 4, 5 age, they don't understand the whole anatomy thing. So to them, you're a girl if you wear barrettes. And you're a boy if you, you know, don't - or you wear pants. And that's why, when your daughter turns 3, you suddenly can't wrestle her into pants without her throwing a tantrum, 'cause she needs and wants to assert that she's a girl.
So in that way, the princess thing is genius because it hits them right at a time when they're going to gravitate towards whatever is the most extreme in the culture that will have them represent their sex. So like, when I was a little girl, it was more like, baby dolls. Now, it's putting on your 21-piece Disney cosmetics kit.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. ORENSTEIN: But - yeah, I know. But what's important to also recognize about that is that it's also when little kids' brains are the most flexible and the most malleable. So I talked to a lot of neuroscientists about this, and neuropsychologists, and they said that it's also the time when those little differences that are innate to boys and girls, if they're allowed to flourish by having kids grow up in separate cultures - become big gaps.
WERTHEIMER: Now, I wonder if at this end of it, this far along the path, if you think that this girly girl thing is dangerous, or if you think it's just something that little girls pass through, and that they could very well come out the other side as a, you know, an astrophysicist, maybe, with a pink scarf or something.
Ms. ORENSTEIN: Absolutely, they could. There's no question about that. But at the same time, there's a kind of flume ride in the culture that is, girls are marketed to an ever earlier age, and encouraged at an ever earlier age, to define themselves through beauty and play sexiness. You know, there is this constant drumbeat that is telling girls who to be and how to be.
And I just think parents - what I hope, is to start this conversation that'll help parents be more intentional in their choices so that their girls can truly have a broad array of choices - not only of, you know, what to be when they grow up, but how to be female, and how to be feminine and have that be a positive thing in their lives.
WERTHEIMER: Peggy Orenstein's new book is called "Cinderella Ate My Daughter."
Thank you very much.
Ms. ORENSTEIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.