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Princess politics

New pink, sparkly girl culture, promoted by corporations and media, focuses on looks and erodes empowerment

By Kate Tuttle
Globe Correspondent / January 23, 2011

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For Peggy Orenstein, the pink thing reached its ridiculous apex during a dental exam, where the dentist asked Orenstein’s daughter, Daisy, to “sit in my special princess throne so I can sparkle your teeth.’’ When, Orenstein asks, “did every little girl become a princess?’’

It’s a question lots of other mothers are asking these days. Especially for those of us who grew up during the flourishing of second-wave feminism, today’s balkanized gender landscape is often baffling and even horrifying. We were raised to believe equality was our birthright, and now we’re watching our daughters face a commercial and cultural tsunami of pink princess shoes, sparkling fairy wands, and makeup for 5-year-olds. Perhaps, Orenstein muses, a princess is just a princess — but more likely, her book convincingly argues, princess culture nudges girls toward a dangerously limited set of aspirations and a self-image built on beauty and pleasantness, not strength, intelligence, or competence.

Orenstein, author of “Waiting for Daisy’’ and “Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap,’’ is an excellent guide through the sparkly territory young girls increasingly inhabit. She begins her journey at the epicenter, talking with a Disney executive who was inspired to create a “Princess’’ product line after seeing a “Disney on Ice’’ show whose audience was full of little girls wearing homemade princess costumes — clearly, as Orenstein points out, “a massive branding opportunity.’’

Today the company’s Princess brand encompasses some 26,000 items that brought in $4 billion in sales in 2009. “We simply gave girls what they wanted,’’ the executive tells Orenstein, but as she points out, “it’s a little hard to tell where ‘want’ ends and ‘coercion’ begins.’’ Just how much the trend is driven by parents is hard to gauge, but what’s clear is that there’s something in the princess culture that appeals to moms and dads — that $4 billion speaks less of piggy banks and more of parental credit cards. So what’s in it for parents? Orenstein posits that the Disney princesses make mothers feel comfortable, even nostalgic (two of the most popular, still, are Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, from the 1950s), and describes the adult pleasure in giving a child such a toy: “Children’s wide-eyed excitement over the products we buy them pierces through our own boredom as consumers and as adults, reconnecting us to our childhoods; it makes us feel again.’’

For many parents, the idea of their little girls being princesses is preferable to the other dominant female images in our pop culture — better a princess than a tramp. And yet, as Orenstein points out, the illusion of wholesomeness masks a deep, single-minded preoccupation with looks that is just the baby version of the very sexualization that parents are trying to avoid.

In one particularly scathing chapter, she chronicles the descent from squeaky clean to scarily sexy followed by flesh-and-blood Disney stars from Britney Spears to Lindsay Lohan to Miley Cyrus. When they first became famous, both Spears and Cyrus, like this year’s Disney starlet, Selena Gomez, vocally proclaimed their chastity — a marketing point that quickly morphed into its opposite. “I suspect that you cannot commodify a girl’s virginity without, eventually, commodifying what comes after,’’ Orenstein says. A teenager’s precocious vampiness may seem different from a preschooler’s innocent pink high heels and tiara, but Orenstein argues that both reflect a disturbing trend of self-objectification, a desire for beauty as defined by others, driven by a media and marketing machine that “tells girls that how you look is more important than how you feel.’’

At this point someone invariably throws up her hands and says, “Well, girls just seem to like that stuff!’’ Claims about hard-wired gender differences in behavior have been examined and debunked by a spate of recent books, and Orenstein talks with one of their authors about why the pink-blue divide is so popular in popular culture, when it’s scientifically nonsense (in fact, pink wasn’t even associated with little girls until the middle of the last century).

Lise Eliot, whose “Pink Brain, Blue Brain’’ argued the current vogue for sketchy gender science harms boys as well as girls, provides the book’s most powerful reason to look skeptically at the whole princess phase — it only matters that girls and boys are offered such limited options, she says, if “you see a value in bringing out the full spectrum of emotional and cognitive abilities in any individual.’’

In “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,’’ Orenstein wrestles with her own ambivalence about the princess culture, admitting that while she hates its focus on attractiveness she is grateful for her daughter’s beauty. And that’s part of the book’s considerable charm. Her forays into the mysteries of child beauty pageants and toy design are often hilarious, sometimes troubling, always real. At times her voice, always warm and intimate, edges into a slightly too comedic tone; the book is strongest when Orenstein lets us see how smart she is. Like the girls whose world she’s trying to understand, she’s at her best when she’s less pleasant and more pointed.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.

CINDERELLA ATE MY DAUGHTER: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture By Peggy Orenstein

Harper, 244 pp., $25.99