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How Disney Invaded American Childhood to Shill Worthless Crap to Our Kids

Disney is a major source of the potentially harmful gender and race myths proffered to girls today.

From the outside, Peggy Orenstein epitomizes feminist success. She’s an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in such distinguished publications as the New Yorker, Elle, Vogue, Discover, Mother Jones, and O: The Oprah Magazine. But her work itself is dedicated to asserting the ways in which “having it all” -- or trying to -- in a world built to the measure of men can have profound effects on women and girls.

Orenstein’s first book, the 1994 study Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap, explored the adolescent roots and gendered nature of the crippling self-doubt that plagues so many adult women. Her second, 2000’s Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids, & Life in a Half-Changed World, examined the systemic biases and roadblocks women face in creating lives that balance personal and professional demands. And in 2007, Orenstein published a memoir, Waiting for Daisy, which recounted the challenges -- infertility, cancer, and many more -- she faced in becoming a mother.

Throughout her career, Orenstein has observed at close range how the media and popular culture have colluded to serve up distorted visions of womanhood to girls. And given everything she’s seen, she’d be the first to say that being female in what’s still a “half-changed world” is no fairy tale. So perhaps it’s fitting that Orenstein’s new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, takes on the Disneyfication of American girlhood, and the princess narratives sold hand over fist to girls like her own 7-year-old, Daisy Tomoko.

Disney princess narratives have long been a staple of modern girlhood. But Cinderella Ate My Daughter emphasizes that princess culture is a 21st-century phenomenon, the result of marketing executives seeking some consumer magic to boost the corporation’s limp product sales. In 2001, the revenue generated by such Disney-branded princess paraphernalia as dolls, costumes, and room decor was about $300 million. Eight years later, that number had risen to a whopping $4 billion. Little girls are no longer consumers of Disneyfied fairy tales; in the new millennium, they have become the consumed.

And predatory marketing is only one of the problems inherent in princess culture, which Orenstein also believes is a major source -- if not the major source -- of the potentially harmful gender and race myths proffered to girls today. Even more insidiously, Disney princesses also prepare young girls to become consumers of a whole host of cultural products -- from Bratz dolls to Miley Cyrus to toddler beauty pageants -- that promote, and ultimately normalize, manipulatively sexualized girlhoods.

Orenstein’s passion for her work as a “girl advocate” is evident not only in her writing, but also in how she talks about girlhood issues. She spoke to Bitch at length about what it means to be in the trenches of the commercial battle to capture the hearts and minds of young girls -- and the dollars of those who care for and about them.

How did the writing of Cinderella Ate My Daughter confirm or alter any of the ideas you had about “princess culture”?

When I went into it, I approached it in an exploratory way. We live in a time when girls are doing really well in a lot of realms. They’re doing really well in school, they’re going to college at a higher rate than boys, they’re doing great on the sports field, they’re in leadership roles. Yet, at the same time there’s a resurgence -- [or] more like just a “surgence” -- of pink and pretty. Is this a positive thing that shows that we can now indulge girls in that without any kind of repercussions? Or is [it] an indication that girls are still being defined by how they look and urged to get their sense of self through external validation? I came out feeling that the latter was true. And it starts pretty much in infancy.

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