Ten Questions With Peggy Orenstein

We were very excited to talk to Peggy Orenstein, author of the new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From The Frontlines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, because we've been faithful readers of her writing in the NY Times, which, if you haven't read her yet, you can start now (the archives are free).

Orenstein is also the author of the New York Times bestseller Waiting for Daisy … and Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap. She has also been published in, among others, USA TodayVogueParentingO, The Oprah MagazineSalon; and The New Yorker. She lives in Northern California with her husband and their daughter, Daisy. You can follow her on Twitter at: @peggyorenstein

1. Tell us a bit about the Disney Princesses…

When my own daughter came home from pre-school all of a sudden having memorized the gown colors and the names of the Disney princesses, as if by osmosis. I didn’t know what she was talking about. I had no idea what a Disney Princess was. So, I did some snooping and it turns out, the Disney princess, as a concept, began around 2000. Before that, they had Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty or Mulan, but there wasn’t this idea of the Disney Princesses. The movies would come out of “the vault,” they’d play in the theaters or be release on VHS and then they’d go back into the vault. There would be a little bit of merchandising, but then they’d go back in the vault. But, eleven years ago, this idea of taking all these characters and grouping them together under one and calling it “Disney Princess” and marketing them separate from any movie release is a ten-year-old concept and they did it and the first year it was a 300 million dollar success and now it’s a four billion dollar business and there are upwards of 26,000 Disney Princess products.


2. What impact do you think this has on girls today?

It’s hard to connect your sweet, little daughter in her princess dress with her little heels and her wand to a 14-year-old who is putting naked pictures of herself on Facebook, but it’s all part of a cultural continuum that tells girls, from the time they’re (increasingly) young that what’s important to be pretty and ultimately, sexy, to be the “fairest one of all” and to be the hottest one of all. It’s this constant barrage that’s telling girls to define themselves from the outside in rather than the inside out is really problematic. It’s Disney Princesses, Lip Smackers, Bratz Dolls, and Monster High Dolls, America’s Top Model when they’re eight and Keeping Up With the Kardashianswhen they’re ten, you know we just don’t want our daughters to measure themselves by the yardstick of whether or not they have the right outfit and the right makeup.


3. What advice can you give to parents that would help bring them alternative heros/heroines in their daughter’s life?

Part of the reason I gave the book an over-the-top title is because I wanted to indicate I believe in fighting fun with fun. Because, this stuff is really fun! I mean who doesn’t like glitter? But you cannot avoid the whole pretty and sexualized stuff in girlhood. It’s every time you walk into Target. Every time you walk into Walmart, in the drug and grocery stores. You have to contend with it (whether you try to embrace it, ban it, or navigate through it, which is what I advocate). But you cannot convince your daughter you are offering her more choices of how to be in this world by constantly saying no to her. You have to give her something else that will help her celebrate and assert her girlhood in a way that reflects your values. For us, that was a whole lot of stuff. Instead of Cinderella on loop, we watched Kiki’s Delivery Service, instead of the licensed princess products head-to-toe, we got a whole set of figurines of knights and princesses and Maid Marion and Robin Hood and we had a Jane Austen action figure, but it was hard to convince her of the value of that one just yet.


4. Is there an answer on how to handle to all of this?

Like I say in the book, I’m not acting as this expert-on-high. I am a fellow traveler; I am a parent. I am inconsistent, hypocritical, and contradictory, and that is me, doing my best and that is what we do as parents. Sometimes, do I give my daughter mixed messages? Absolutely! Instead of Barbie, we did Wonder Woman Barbie. Is that good? I don’t know, but I have to find things to say yes to. We read a lot of Greek myths about Athena and lots of other Greek myths that have really complex and interesting female characters that girls will love – and plenty of them are also brought down to the level of a small child. We read a lot of different fairy tales, Miriam from the bible was big for a while, Pirate Girl, which is a picture book. We do have some stereotypical stuff, be we also offset it with gender neutral stuff and other things that give her a sense of female identity that’s not about beauty, consumerism or narcissism.


5. What advice do you have for moms with daughters who are in the post-princess phase? Perhaps having moved onto the “handsome price” (aka Justin Bieber) phase?

When they get older, you have to really get into dialogue with them. But going back for a second, the choices you make with them when they’re younger can really have a lasting impact. It lays the groundwork so you’re already in a bit of a conversation with them already by what you give them. But if you didn’t start early, now’s the time. You have to start listening and ask her what she’s seeing, what she’s liking, what might be troubling? What does she think about what that girl’s expressing in a pose. You have to consume media with them. That’s the weapon we have, awareness. Because there’s an unprecedented amount of media getting thrown at kids and I never anticipated when I had a child, how much of my role is to filter all of that stuff and discuss with my child. It sounds kind of lame to talk about dialogue, but that’s what really works.


6. You had written a piece back in 2009, called Wonder Girl about girls not having super heroes? Since then, have you noticed any progression on super heroes for girls?

No. We like Wonder Girl, but that’s not really the same thing as Superman. We sort of just created them. I remember my daughter drew Super Girl when she was four years old and she drew her with her mid-drift showing. But female superheroes that do exist are mainly for adult men. You do your best with what is there. We ended up YouTubing a lot of 80s stuff for girls, like She-Ra, and watching that. When you look at all the girls products today, it’s all about fame. Wanting it having it, getting it.


7. There seems to be more of a trend towards older girls, teens and up, embracing their femininity (like domestic roles, etc) as sort of a retro thing. What do you think of this whole trend?

I certainly believe boys and girls should be more domestically competent when they grow up. I don’t understand why more parents don’t make their kids do chores anymore. I don’t think girls would glamorize it if they actually had to do it. Nothing glamorous about having to clean a toilet!

I think of it as “Girlz” and the freedom to define themselves by traditional roles. But that line gets crossed really easily and is really blurry. You have to be careful.


8. What do you hope moms and dads will takeaway from reading yor book?

A better awareness of what’s going on in the culture and some ideas of how to help their daughters and themselves navigate it so we can raise our daughters to have their real “Happily Ever Afters.”


9. What are some companies, books, movies that use the image of girls and females in a positive way?

The book, Pirate Girl, is great. There’s a series on PBS called Word Girl. Another book called Princess Knight.There’s also a great company called Pigtail Pals.


10. Lastly, if you could tell your younger self one thing you know now, what would it be?

For me, it would be have more fun, relax. I was way too worried and anxious when I was young. I needed to be way too in control of everything. I tend to look at my progression of myself through my public writing and I think, for instance, I think between my first book and now, I was worried no one would take me seriously, so I had to be very, very serious. But now I feel like I can be myself in print. And myself is a much funnier, looser, and somewhat amused (if not amusing) person. And I think that that works better and is more me. So I would have told myself: Allow yourself to be yourself.

Also, to eat. Eat, Peggy, eat!


*Author photo by Reenie Raschke


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