Sunday, February 06, 2011

Peggy Orenstein on the marketing of pink

From her home in north Berkeley where she lives with her filmmaker husband Steven Okazaki and seven year old daughter Daisy, Peggy Orenstein has been opining for years about the world of girls and feminism for the New York Times magazine. Last week, her latest book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, was published and it is getting big play in both legacy and on-line media. It is both an expose of and meditation about the corporate push to market princesses and pink and early sexuality to young girls.

Orenstein just escaped the snows of Chicago (she got on the last plane leaving O’Hare on Tuesday) and is about to embark on the West Coast portion of her book tour. (She will be speaking Feb. 7 at St. John’s Church in Berkeley and Feb. 17 at A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland) Ghost Word caught up with her to ask a few questions.

Do you wear pink?

Of course I wear pink. I’m not a crazy person. But it’s such a tiny slice of the rainbow and although in one way it seems to celebrate girlhood, it also repeatedly and firmly fuses girls’ identity to appearance then it presents that connection not only as innocent but as evidence of innocence. And that innocent pink pretty quickly turns into something else, a kind of diva, self-absorbed pink and ultimately a sexualized pink.

What is Daisy’s position on the color now?
Truthfully, she was actually never that into pink, which is part of why I became so aware of it.  It was never her favorite color, but people were constantly pressing it on her. I remember being in a drug store and the very nice clerk offered her a balloon, then asked what color she wanted and before she could answer, (I think she was going to say purple) said, “I bet I know,” and handed her the pink one. Daisy looked at me kind of confused, like she wasn’t sure if she was supposed to say thank you or no thank you. And I thought, really? When did THIS happen? I think last time I asked her, her favorite color was “rainbow.” That’s all right by me.

What’s the big deal about little girls being obsessed with princesses? Hasn’t that always been the case?
Comparing the way girls do Princess today to the way we played is like comparing a five-channel TV to a satellite dish. There are 26,000 Disney Princess products alone—considering they can’t slap them on cars, liquor, cigarettes anti-depressants or tampons, that means they’re on EVERYTHING. And it becomes this mandate, the only game in town. I remember going to Daisy’s preschool and they were doing a project where they were making a book, each one filling in the sentence “if I were a [blank] I’d [blank] to the store.” So if I were a ball I’d roll to the store. And the boys had filled the sentence in all kinds of ways. Yes, some said Lightening McQueen but they said puppies, bugs, raisins, all sorts of things. The girls said exactly four things: Princess, Ballerina, Butterfly and Fairy. One especially ambitious girl said “Princess, butterfly fairy Ballerina.” It’s too narrow. The teacher was really surprised—she’d been around a long time and this was really when the princess juggernaut was truly taking off. She had tried to get the girls to broaden their imaginations but said they just wouldn’t.

No question it’s cute. And it can feel empowering
because you think, well, girls are freer to express their femininity and their sexuality and we're not tamping that down or denying it anymore. But it’s part of this flume ride that defines girlhood as makeovers and spa birthday parties and princesses and Bratz dolls and being the fairest and ultimately the hottest of them all, that encourages them to define themselves from the outside in instead of from the inside out.  It pretty quickly slides from playing pretty, to playing “sassy” to playing sexy, which does the opposite of what people might think in terms of girls’ emotional and psychological health. Being objectified—judging yourself by the way you think others see you--actually disconnects them from their sexuality and makes for decreased sexual health as they get older. One of the most sobering conversations I had was with Deborah Tolman, who does research on girls and desire. She told me that by the time girls are teenagers, when she asks them questions about how arousal or desire felt they respond by how they think they looked. She has to tell them looking good is not a feeling. As parents of daughters—and for those of us who are women ourselves—I think we understand that potential, that vulnerability, and it’s the last thing we want for our girls. So it’s the magnitude, the dominance and what, in the commercial culture, it’s channeling girls into that’s disturbing.