Growing up, I was not allowed to have Barbies. The blond, long-legged, impossibly-proportioned, tip-toed plastic plaything was explicitly contraband for reasons I couldn’t really discern. I think I pouted about this for approximately five minutes–I gravitated more towards crayons and Legos anyway. And I had a friend who LOVED Barbies–and I HATED when she made me play them with her. It was boring. Intensely so. The pink sportscar was cool, but Ken seemed like kind of a tool. And I’m sure the hot tub was fun for them — but I would have rather walked down to the neighborhood pool and taken a dip myself.
The only times I felt a pang of Barbolust were when commercials interrupted whatever shenanigans the Smurfs were currently embroiled in, or when one of my parents (now, I can only assume, whichever one had lost the bet) allowed me a trip to the Hell on Earth that is Toys’R'Us. In other words, when I was reduced to a target of what Peggy Orenstein might call “the princess industrial complex.”
In her new book “Cinderella Ate My Daughter” (points for epic title), Orenstein investigates the “princess phase,” in all its pink and sparkly glory. From the origins of Disney’s “Princess” market to a toy fair at the Javits Center in New York, the callous marketing–and sexualizing–of young girls Orenstein reveals will indeed make you long for something pink: Pepto.
As Annie Murphy Paul writes in this weekend’s NYT review of the book,
The toy fair is one of many field trips undertaken by Orenstein in her effort to stem the frothy pink tide of princess products threatening to engulf her young daughter. The author of “Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self Esteem, and the Confidence Gap,” among other books, Orenstein is flummoxed by the intensity of the marketing blitz aimed at girls barely old enough to read the label on their Bonne Bell Lip Smackers. ‘I had read stacks of books devoted to girls’ adolescence,’ she writes, ‘but where was I to turn to understand the new culture of little girls, from toddler to ‘tween,’ to help decipher the potential impact–if any–of the images and ideas they were absorbing about who they should be, what they should buy, what made them girls?’
And that’s the thing. I outgrew this phase years ago, when VCRs were hot new technology. But today, we are literally saturated in media. And not just little girls.
I was having a conversation with a friend a couple of weeks ago, and we were talking about our uniforms. Not like employer-mandated uniforms, but the uniforms of our own making. Despite the fact that I write a fashion column, I can more often than not be found in jeans, boots, and an embellished white top of one sort or another. It’s kind of pathetic, but whatever. (Frankly, while writing the book, it was a miracle I ever bothered to get dressed at all.) Anyway, we were laughing about how the only time you feel the need to purchase something else is when you’re shopping, which inspired a Hanibal Lector impression. (Forgive me–I adore Silence of the Lambs and am thrilled whenever I have an excuse.) When he’s trying to help Clarice realize Buffalo Bill’s identity–the next door neighbor of his first victim–he asks her: What do we covet? She fumbles around, and he gets pissy: No! he says, We covet what we see!
Is that to say that princesses aren’t born, but made? Orenstein might think so. I might agree–but I also don’t think it’s too hard to imagine that a little girl raised in a vacuum might be as likely to pick up a doll as a crayon. (Although actually, the littlest of kids I know tend to go for the box the doll or the crayons came in until they’re old enough to know better.)
But I really wonder about the other question here: the one that has to do with how we define ourselves–and how intently our culture directs us to do it with what’s on the outside. Citing developmental psychology research, Orenstein says that until age 7, kids are convinced that external signs–hair cut, clothes, toys–determine whether they’re boys or girls.
It makes sense, then, that to ensure you will stay the sex you were born you’d adhere rigidly to the rules as you see them and hope for the best… That’s why 4 year-olds, who are in what is called ‘the inflexible stage’ become the self-appointed chiefs of the gender police. Suddenly the magnetic lure of the Disney Princesses became more clear to me: developmentally speaking, they were genius, dovetailing with the precise moment that girls need to prove they are girls, when they will latch on to the most exaggerated images their culture offers in order to stridently shore up their femininity.
…And then what happens? What other images do we buy into? The back to nature earth mama, the cultural sophisticate, the savvy city slicker, the competent professional? Like the little girls in the throes of an identity crisis who insist on wearing their princess get-up to school, when we’re threatened with tough decisions of the Who-Are-You variety, are we lured back into a one-dimensional picture of ourselves–and do we then behave accordingly? And surround ourselves with people and places and jobs and things that shore up that identity?
Breaking out of a mold can be as difficult as busting a brand-new Barbie free of her overzealous packaging, and, you know, shortcuts are easy–that’s the appeal. But when we define ourselves using shortcuts, are we really just selling ourselves short?