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.

[The] insistence on defining girls and women by how we look and how we relate sexually is not only a way to keep [us] in our place, but a way we keep ourselves there. Obsessing over our appearance is the way we assure ourselves and others around us that even if we’re really successful, we’re not really threatening. [T]he pressures on women to look good from womb to tomb have become more intense and confusing [in part] because we have made so much progress. And the consequences for girls of being prematurely sexualized can be precisely the things we’re trying to avoid, such as negative body image, eating disorders, or depression. One of the things [I found] that surprised me was the relationship between sexualization and disconnection from authentic sexuality: Girls who are sexualized early are more likely to see sexuality as a performance, not as something that they feel internally.

So it’s like from the time girls are very young, they’re always on stage somehow, whether culturally or socially.

When girls play dolls today, the fantasy that’s offered them is that they should grow up to be a rock star or movie star. That was absolutely not true when we were girls. And even the beloved Dora the Explorer -- they split Dora into two because they wanted to keep the audience, and the audience was aging out younger and younger. So they made a tween Dora. [Original] Dora is very sturdy and just neutral: She has short hair, a straight-cut shirt, a backpack, and a map. [Tween Dora] got flirty clothes and pretty hair, and the map and backpack are gone. Her fantasies are about being a rock star performing a benefit concert.

So much of what girls are presented with is essentially about performance. [And] here’s Dora, in this new incarnation, giving a soft-pedaled version of the same lesson. If it were in isolation, that might be one thing. But it’s just constant. That’s what girls are told [to aspire to] -- high-school student by day, rock star by night. It’s about the importance of this surface self.

It’s a constructionist view of identity, taken to an extreme degree.

I’ve been thinking a lot more about the way girl power has been contorted into pro-narcissism. My daughter, Daisy, got a make-your-own messenger bag kit for her seventh birthday -- [it’s] a messenger bag that you decorate with iron-on transfers. [Most of] the transfers were pink and orange and purple, hearts and flowers and stars and all the stuff that you would typically expect. But that was not what we noticed. One of the transfers said “spoiled,” another one said “pampered princess,” and a third one said “brat.” And [Daisy] looked at them and said, “Mom, why do they want you to put that on your purse? Isn’t that kind of braggy?” -- which is the worst thing you can say if you’re seven. And I said, “Yeah, I think you’re right. It is kind of braggy.” Somehow the idea of creating a strong sense of self in girls has been distorted by the culture into announcing you’re a spoiled, narcissistic brat -- like that is what signifies confidence. But it’s that sexualized, manipulative femininity.

If you asked what we want for our daughters, we’d want very wonderful, positive, thoughtful things: strong internal sense of self, self-direction and compassion and potential and all of that. And then [we] undercut that with what they’re playing with. The two don’t add up.

From what you say, it seems that well-meaning parents unwittingly cause split-identity problems in girls.

And that well-meaning part is really key. I mean, when you walk into Pottery Barn Kids, it’s like apartheid in there. For girls, it’s hearts and flowers and hula girls -- and the boys have sailboats, trucks, sports. I know somebody who was writing the [Pottery Barn] catalog, who said, “We’ve tried to make more gender-neutral items. And they just don’t sell.” We ended up with sea-creature sheets. So that was sort of neutral. [B]ut eventually your daughter may go, “Uh-uh. I don’t want this.” And if you keep disallowing it, giving her things from the boys’ side of the store, she’ll think you believe the stuff for girls is bad -- and maybe even that being a girl is bad. And that’s a problem, too.

Could it be that there’s just a cultural fear of exploring what it could be like to be female outside the bounds of narcissism?

There was some interesting research that I put in Cinderella Ate My Daughter, finding that the more egalitarian a society is, the more they believe that certain traits in men and women are innate -- stereotypical traits, obviously. In the chapter “Pinked,” I cite a study by a college professor who’s been polling students on gender-related traits since the 1970s. And interestingly, over that time, the association of women with certain stereotypical traits -- such as being talkative or friendly or indecisive -- has increased. You could say that, “Well, now that we’re more equal, we can see what’s innate.” Or you could say, “The closer we get to an egalitarian society, the more we fear we won’t be different enough and won’t be attractive to each other.” Whatever the reason, it does seem that the more opportunities women get, the more simplistic we become in our thinking about each other’s psychological makeup.

There’s also the issue that if everyone skews more toward gender neutrality, or even if we allow for greater variation in each sex, you risk having boys who might seem “feminine,” and everybody freaks out at that thought. It’s that baseline homophobia. So that, I think, always keeps us in check.

You can’t win, it seems.

Well, I’m not ready to say that. I do think there needs to be more discussion of context, and more assumption that we -- as parents or girl advocates or whatever -- have control over some of this, that we have a say in it. There’s a real incentive, of course, on the part of the people who are creating the culture to make us feel like we don’t have control. That you really don’t have a choice. But you do.

I really do believe that change can be made on a micro level. You can think about it and make decisions about what you buy, what you expose your child to, how you talk about it -- all that stuff. I think it makes a big difference. I mean, I know it does. My daughter was Athena on Halloween this year. That’s a long way from Little Mermaid. One of the ways we countered the princess thing was to read a lot of Greek myths. She needs models of femininity and she needs to act out fantasies that affirm her as a girl. She hooked into Athena -- that’s a lot better than the alternatives.

So where do you think trends are moving now?

I don’t have a crystal ball. Who could have ever guessed what we would be contending with in terms of mass culture, like the Internet and social media? I mean, five years ago, you wouldn’t have been able to predict all this, and we still don’t know the impact of it. I wouldn’t even venture to guess what the next generation will be dealing with.

M. M. Adjarian is a Dallas-based freelance writer. Her articles have appeared in, the Dallas Voice, and Arts + Culture DFW.