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Parenting

How Do I Protect My Girls From Princess-and-Porn Star Culture?

Andy Hinds talks to Peggy Orenstein, the author of ‘Cinderella Ate My Daughter,’ about finding alternative messages to the mainstream pressure for girls to progress from pretty to sexy.

As a mostly stay-at-home dad of twin 4-year-old girls, I try not to get too far ahead of myself, especially when it comes to worrying. Right now, I’m concerned about how the kids are socializing in preschool, what movies and TV shows they should be allowed to watch, and how to minimize their reliance on potty talk as a source of humor. I’ve tried to be conscious of the gender-norming pressures on my girls, and to counteract them when necessary and possible. So far, this has mostly consisted of offering them alternatives to princess culture and exposing them to toys, books, shows, and games that don’t seem designed to reinforce or cash in on gender stereotypes. This has been relatively easy, since my wife and I still have almost total control over the kids’ pop-culture consumption. I try not to dwell too much on the bigger struggles coming down the pike, but at the same time, I don’t want to be absolutely unprepared when they’re 11 and idolizing 2020’s version of Miley Cyrus.

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter and Waiting for Daisy, about her work, children and gender, and what we both have to look forward to as parents of girls.

Although she didn’t reveal many details about the project she’s working on, Orenstein told me she was researching older girls and young women, and their attitudes about their own sexual identities in the context of a culture that starts sexualizing them from the time they are in grade school, if not sooner. I agreed that it was hard to know, as a parent, how to help them navigate the seemingly treacherous cultural landscape that, as Orenstein argues in Cinderella Ate My Daughter, grooms them first—with tropes like the Disney princess—to strive to be cute and pretty, and quickly thereafter to believe that being sexually desirable is their most important role.

Apparently, I wasn’t the first parent of girls to ask her what she, as an established feminist thinker, has come up with regarding these issues.

“Well, frankly,” Orenstein said, “I wish that parents of boys would ever express any concern about it.” We compared stories wherein parents of boys have told us how glad they were that they didn’t have daughters of their own, so they wouldn’t “have to deal with this stuff.” Orenstein finds it “stunning and disheartening” that “as atypical as it is for parents of girls to go beyond talking about danger and mechanics when discussing sex, it’s even less typical for parents of sons to talk about sexual ethics with their boys.” The boys generally want to “do right,” she said, but no one is teaching them what that means, so they take their cues from pop culture and the wilderness of the Internet.

Since Orenstein’s daughter is 10, and mine are 4, I asked her how the continuing slog of resisting cultural and commercial pressure on her daughter was working out for her. Was being perceived as a crank and a killjoy (as I often am when imposing progressive values on my guileless little kids) worth it? She joked that she spends so much time with her daughter deconstructing gendered messages in movies and products that the kid will probably start rebelling against her by wearing “Porn Star” T-shirts.

If nothing else, making unpopular decisions—like limiting princess play—for your daughters at an early age is good practice for what’s to come.

If nothing else, she said, making unpopular decisions—like limiting princess play—for your daughters at an early age is good practice for what’s to come: “The princess stuff is girls’ first step into the mainstream culture, and it shows them what the culture has to offer them. The job doesn’t get easier, but more complicated, and the decisions get murkier. We’re learning on the fly here, and it’s important to have practice in explaining that some things conflict with your family values. Even at an early age, we need to establish those limits. Otherwise, you’re suddenly dealing with Monster High [a very popular collection of sexy teenaged ghoul dolls] and you’re totally unprepared.”

Orenstein explained to me how she sees the progression that is laid out by our culture for girls as they get older. First, animated princesses are the default role models; and then the flesh and blood Disney princesses take over, for better or worse. Young stars like Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez, Orenstein said, typically start out being presented as “wholesome” and “virginal.” “Both Selena and Miley wore promise rings,” she said. But at some point, they started doing sexy photo spreads and becoming the objects of salacious gossip. “So at first their virginity was commodified,” Orenstein said, “and then their sexuality was commodified.”

Orenstein worries that it’s easy in this environment for girls to conflate being desirable with desire itself. “It’s the difference,” she said, “between sexualization and sexuality.” That’s why she is talking to young women about how they connect with their own motivations, as well as their own romantic and sexual desires.

We talked about how difficult it is to find alternatives to the mainstream messages about what sexuality means for girls. “We send our girls out without the tools to make decisions about sex,” Orenstein said. “They need a framework, and they just don’t have it. They’re getting plenty of crass and dehumanizing messages, but the sexually empowering ones are harder to find. In my day, we poured over Our Bodies, Ourselves; but I don’t know if there’s an equivalent today. Maybe Dan Savage or Scarleteen?”

I pointed out to Orenstein that, during our conversation, we both had expressed the kind of shock and disappointment at the highly sexualized aspects of pop culture directed toward girls that might get us branded as prudes by a lot of people, including sex-positive feminists. “That stuff is great in theory,” she said; “but then you’ve got the 6-year old in a ‘Porn Star’ T-shirt.” She said that she doesn’t have the answers to questions like whether self-objectification can be a free choice, and even an empowering one, but those are the kinds of issues she’s discussing with older girls and young women in her current research. And those girls and young women are challenging her constantly, which she loves. She recalled a conversation with a girl she interviewed who wondered why it was considered “empowering” when Lena Dunham appears naked on TV, but it would be “not empowering” for Beyoncé to walk around nude.

“I want to know what girls’ perceptions are regarding those questions, and how they are making decisions about sex and sexuality,” Orenstein said. “And I question how free your choices are when you grow up in a culture that sexualizes you from birth, and that objectifies you from birth, and that tells you that, whatever else you are, the most important thing you must be is pretty/hot/thin.” She mentioned recent research that suggests 6-year-old girls prefer images of girls that are “sexy” over those that are “trendy and cute”:

“The girls knew, at the age of 6, that the one who they wanted to be was the one that was hotter. So what are the implications to a girl’s self-worth, and relationships, and mental health and well-being, of objectifying herself at 6? And can we say, when someone has been objectifying themselves at age 6, that they are really making a free choice at age 20? I just don’t know.”

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