The Sunday Conversation: Peggy Orenstein

Peggy Orenstein, who writes and lectures on issues surrounding girls and women, examines the latest wave of cultural pressures confronting young girls in “Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture,” which hit bookstores last week. The author, 49, lives in Berkeley with her husband, filmmaker Steven Okazaki, and their 7-year-old daughter, Daisy.

Let’s start with your daughter, Daisy. How young was she when her princess fixation started to emerge?

After a week of preschool it kicked in. She had as if by osmosis learned all the names and gown colors of Disney princesses, and that is all she could talk about. That’s what set me ticking. When suddenly everywhere I turned I saw princesses, princesses, princesses, which I didn’t recall experiencing in my girlhood, it triggered the what-is-it-about response and sent me on this journey that ended up with this book.

You write about the rise of the Disney princess phenomenon. What’s that about?


People always say, I played princess when I was a kid. That’s kind of like the difference between having four TV channels when you were a kid and having a satellite dish now. These Disney characters had never been marketed outside of their films. Then they got this idea to take their nine female characters and put them under this one royal rubric called Disney Princesses and market them separately from the movies. It was the first time Disney ever did that, and they started that 10 years ago. The first year it was a $300-million business, and now it’s a $4-billion business. And when I wrote the original article on it, which sparked the book, there were 26,000 Disney princess products coming at your daughter.

Could they have swapped princesses for amazons and made amazon products to market? What’s behind the craze?

Why do little girls love princesses? Little girls and little boys need to assert their gender very powerfully, because they don’t get the whole penis-vagina concept very well. So in order to stay the same sex you are, you need to really go to the most extreme thing the culture offers that signifies that sex. So it’s not your anatomy that makes you a girl, it’s the fact that you wear barrettes or a dress. That’s why girls, when they’re 3 years old, have a fit if you try to wrestle them into pants. They’re trying to establish themselves as girls. So what Disney says in response to me is that they’re developmentally appropriate, and they are. But that doesn’t mean they’re good for girls, just because they take advantage of the developmental stage that they’re at.

Do you also connect the dots between Disney’s massive princess operation and statistics you cited showing that more girls fret over their looks and weight and are more depressed?


It would be ridiculous to say every girl who plays princess is going to have an eating disorder, but it is true that girls are getting more obsessed with their appearance. There’s lots of research that shows that the obsession with appearance has gone up since 2000, that 40% of 6-year-old girls regularly wear lip gloss or lipstick, that the percentage of girls 8 to 12 who wear mascara has doubled since 2008. I would not pin that on the Disney princesses, but I can pin it on a culture that encourages girls in an unprecedented way at increasingly young ages to emphasize beauty and play sexiness. If you and I were talking about this 10 or 15 years ago, we’d be talking about provocative clothing on teenagers. We would not be talking about 3-year-olds.

You posed the question whether Cinderella shields them from early sexualization or primes them for it.

I think in the end it primes them. What shows the progression really well are the other Disney princesses, the flesh-and-blood ones — Miley and Selena and Lindsay. When they first come, they wear the true-love-waits rings. Selena just took hers off, now that she’s dating Justin Bieber. They actively put themselves out there as role models and then three months later, whammo, they’re dancing on the stripper pole or smoking a bong online. And I think that you really can’t make wholesomeness a marketing gimmick without making what comes after a marketing gimmick too.

One thing you ponder is why adult women have let this happen to their daughters. What did you conclude?


Because we’re women too. I’m really clear about my own hypocrisy, inconsistency in the book. I’m also telling my daughter that looks are not important while I’m looking in the mirror. Our culture prizes youth and beauty in women. I joke that kids are getting older younger, but adults are staying younger older. We’re trying to be 21, they’re trying to be 21, maybe we’ll all be 21 forever.