Peggy Orenstein is gracious and open. In this transcript of my interview with her in late January, you’ll see that she does not stand above the fray. As a parent of a young child herself, she knows the pressures that are brought to bear by commercial interests and says that she didn’t realize how much time she’s spend as a mother just defending her child’s right to a childhood. Good stuff.
For me, the interview highlights important research about the public health implications of separating the sexes early by narrowly defined definitions. It then goes deeper than the book does into what Peggy’s family is trying in order to offer narratives from Greek Mythology and their Jewish heritage as alternatives to those of the popular culture.
This is relevant for Witness for Childhood, since Peggy models the ways in which the effort to bring those alternative stories – what we’re all about here – fosters connection and joy for the child and the whole family. Enjoy – I did.
Transcript of interview with Peggy Orenstein January 26, 2011 (Parenthesis are used for clarification where there is a cut-off sentence or cross-talk)
M. R.: Thank you for taking time for this conversation this morning about Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture. I’m happy to have an early conversation with you about your book, Peggy.
This book is a very empathetic look at the struggles parents face in raising girls to be whole and healthy in today’s culture. I particularly appreciated that you were non-judgmental about other parents….
P .O.: That was very important to me. I’m a mom. I have a daughter who is now 7 and I’m working through these things just like anybody else and I felt that having someone hectoring me or telling me I was doing the wrong thing – I had enough of that in my life and didn’t want to do that to anyone else. The reason I gave the book that over-the-top title was to signal that I’m as exasperated as the next mom and also that I believe you have to fight fun with fun.
M. R.: We are on the same page about this. We do not need more guilt. As parents, it comes with the territory. We have plenty of it no matter what. I raised two daughters, now adults. They were born ten years apart, one before deregulation of children’s programming and one after, so I am in agreement that we need to be deadly serious, yet compassionate toward ourselves and others and have a sense of humor.
One thing I found very valuable was the quote from the Sanford Harmony Program about the public health implications of this very narrow gender definitions we have for girls and boys and the separation that begins in early childhood.
Could you elaborate on that?
P .O.: I’m glad you brought that up. Few people have asked me about that, which is a shame. For me, it was one of the most profound findings in the book. I spent a day with Carol Martin and Rick Faves who are among the foremost psychologists working on gender development. They are doing this program. I felt you really couldn’t talk about all these issues without addressing nature vs. nurture head on. Because, what you run up against when you’re talking about marketing and a girls and the overwhelming influence of pink is: “Girls just like that stuff, it’s encoded in their DNA.” I wanted to look at: is that true. Guess what: no. What is encoded in their DNA is a desire in that preschool age to assert their sex (male-female). Because they’re not completely on board with the whole anatomy thing yet, they don’t get it, what makes you a girl or a boy is wearing a dress or barrettes or what you play with, that sort of thing.
That’s why your daughter throws a huge fit when you’re trying to wrestle her into pants when she is three years old. So, in that way, these products that target our daughters when they’re 2-3-4 years old with these extreme images of commercialized femininity are right on target and they say they are developmentally appropriate. They are developmentally appropriate but they ‘re unhealthy. They’re exploiting the developmental stage. The other slice of it, which I didn’t realize and what the Sanford Harmony Program was about is that when the children are the most extreme, the most rigid – they are the “gender police” – their brains are the most plastic and they’re laying down the tracks for what it means to be male what it means to be female. If you think about language and how we’re born with the capacity to make all these sounds but in the first few years of life we learn which ones our language uses and those are the sounds we can make. We become unable to make the others – you can’t roll your “R’s” for example.
Similarly, when girls and boys are brought up in completely separate cultures, the differences between them, which are small, other than toy choices (one of the big ones across the life span). Cognitively, emotionally, all the sorts of differences (whether they’ll ask for directions, for instance), those differences are small but they become large when they are allowed to stay in their own boy and girl cultures and those cultures are amplified. time they have an opportunity, not in a forced way but in a natural way, to play together and that’s reinforced, it makes a difference for their intellectual development, for their psychological development and even, it has been shown, it makes a difference in terms of their relationships in the workplace and in the home. So, if we want our kids to have healthy relationships, which I think we all do, it’s really important that they not be shoved down a road where they’re in separate cultures.
M. R.: I was glad to see that here, because conversations (about the public health aspects of media) are confined to obesity or attention issues. It was refreshing to see that domestic violence, all kinds of things, come from the inability to speak to each other.
P. O.: It’s about communication.
M. R.: You expose a lot of things, expose the “dots”. Trying to connect them , for me, particularly in relation to my own work with parents and teachers of young children about the narrative that is being brought and how we can bring an alternative narrative to children – is the “aspirational” aspects. You say Disney and Mattel consider the Princesses and, by extension, the Miley Cyruses and the rest, as “aspirational.”
You do a good job of showing the seamless transition that happens between innocent naïf and red-hot pole dancer. One of the things that is important to see is the billion dollar industry that is under there. You quote Blumberg, author of The Body Project as comparing the new year’s resolutions of girls at the end of the 19th century with those of girls at the end of the 20th century. What those girls at the end of the 19th century aspired to were personal qualities. Can you elaborate on the fact that there is no accident that there was a shift to getting better contact lenses or looking better, losing weight, at a fairly young age.
P .O.: That’s my point.
M. R.: Yes, but the question I came away with was: why this acceptance of the media culture as our common culture? I don’t buy it. I feel it is because we allow it to be, but there are alternatives.
P .O.: One thing that happened last night that reinforced it for me was that a woman who ha not read the book raised her hand and said “What concerns me is my daughter’s class – her daughter is 7 – was writing their New Year’s resolutions, my daughter wrote I want to be a better girl. “When they asked what that meant, she said ‘I want to get makeup, etc.“ almost verbatim what was in my book and what Blumberg had written.
Sometimes, when you write a book, it is a very passionate experience but you’re also alone in a room and its intellectual. So, when somebody actually says the words out loud that you have written as the problem – you go “that’s weird, I wrote that exact thing about new year’s resolutions, the way they change from being about character to being about cosmetics and you remember again and again how widespread and deep this is. Our job as parents is to help our daughters navigate their way through it because it is so pervasive and you can’t avoid it and you have to react some way, whether that’s to completely remove your child from it, completely embrace it or, like most of us, try to go somewhere in between. But it is confusing. I think there are places where the lines, for many of us, are quite clear and there are many, many places where it’s intentionally mushy. When you’re living in a culture and you’re living day to day, especially as a parent. You don’t pay attention to what’s going on before you’re a parent.
It’s interesting to hear you say that your children are ten years apart, because ten years ago I didn’t know what was going on with four year olds. Why would I? I wasn’t a mom. Ten years from now, I may not be paying attention either, because my daughter will be heading off to college or something. It’s a very present-tense experience to raise a child. So, it’s easy to not connect the dots and not to realize that things have not always been this way and not to say : “Well, we had TV when we were little.” We had four channels; we didn’t have a satellite dish That’s the comparison I use with the culture (shift).
M. R.: that’s really important to point to out. I’m someone who remembers being seven years old and the television coming into the house. Some of us have institutional memory or early childhood without television, all the way through parenting, then working with parents and seeing this unbelievable shift. That shift is very well summed up by the late George Gerbner, who was head of the Annenberg School of Communication at University of Pennsylvania. He noted that for the first time in human history we have given our stories, the stories we tell our children, over to commercial interests. We have invited commercial interests into our home, instead of telling our own stories.
I watched the Today Show interview you did and was glad to see that, when asked what you bring to your daughter, you said “The Greek goddesses.” The marvelous, powerful, female stories that act as antidotes, well, not antidotes (one of those negative words), but alternatives to the (the popular culture story).
As you say, when you have a young child, it is so “present tense.” You’re so tired and trying to juggle so many things, it is difficult to remember, unless you have some education. I feel parent education when the child is born (about the impact of media and popular culture) is what is needed. By the time the child gets into school and you’re becoming more aware the horse is pretty much out of the barn. The child has already been exposed to a lot of (impressions).
I want to explore the influences that are bringing this narrative of consumerism and, as you said, being the objectified, sexualized person is a rite of passage, that it is required.
P .O.: Self-objectification is a rite of passage
M. R.: It is important to realize. This isn’t from your book, but I want to get your perspective as a parent and as someone who has (written about this). You do a great job with the Bratz dolls: showing how the perspective has shifted with the sexualization of the toys children pay with, particularly the Bratz dolls, highly sexualized dolls. Scholastic, one of the most trusted names in publishing for children, really brought the Bratz dolls materials into the schools in school fairs. It wasn’t until the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood initiated a campaign to get parents to write letters, etc., that it stopped.
P .O.: I wasn’t aware of that.
M. R.: CCFC has done a lot in terms of targeting these moments when a shift in the threshold (is taking place) and bringing action. I can still remember the smell of the Scholastic booklets that came home and choosing books. It’s a wonderful device for children to get good quality, inexpensive books. But this influence has come in even there. So, what do you see as the parent of a now seven year old child. What are parents seeing as the influences? What are they bringing as alternatives? Are they aware of Hardy Girls, Healthy Women in Maine (or New Moon Girls)?
P .O.: I live in Berkeley. We’re a little different. One would assume a greater awareness. In the school community we’ve chosen and are blessed, since we only have one child, to be able to afford, is one where the parents are like-minded. We’re raising our daughter in a community I feel great about and supported in. That being said, someone just told me that, in Berkeley there is a father-daughter ball with pre-school girls dressed in their princess garb and he fathers in tuxedos. I don’t know what’s going on there, in my town.
I wouldn’t say that it is surprising that the book has evoked the response I had hoped for is that parents really do get it and are looking for some kind of alternative and they don’t know where to look. The main thing you’re going to find if you walk into Target, Walmart or Macy’s or Toys R Us or Pottery Barn Kids, whether it is high-end or low-end on the economic spectrum , you’ll find pink, princess, diva, sexualized, kind of in that order. To try to find a sense of agency and choice in that is really hard. To me, I liken it to the food movement. Fifteen years ago, who knew what trans-fats are? Who knew where their food came from? Who cared whether your produce was in a can or whole food? Who cared about free-range? Now, we care. Not everybody cares, but a lot of people care and the Congress has been looking at this bill to re-vamp the school lunch program to make it healthier and McDonald’s has healthier choices because parents have realized this is a health issue, that their children were growing up with unhealthy nutrition. It is the same thing. Our daughters are growing up in a world that is giving them junk food for the mind and junk food for the body that can result in some – not will result, but can result in some very unhealthy choices and unhealthy syndromes like eating disorders, negative body image, depression, not using contraceptive, not understanding they can say “no,” not knowing what “yes” means. I cannot say your daughter waves a magic wand and she’s not going to use birth control. Obviously,. But, it is kind of a flume ride for girls that increasingly tells them that the way they look is not only how they feel, but who they are, defining themselves from the outside in rather than the inside out.
I feel that, if we could make McDonald’s blink, we can make Disney, Mattel and Scholastic blink.
M I use the same analogy. I say we feel like Prevention Magazine twenty-five years ago, a voice crying in the wilderness. Not so much anymore, though. There are more voices now than there used to be.
The power of these media companies is pretty extraordinary and ( in terms of legislation) a lot o legislators are not going to be up for alienating the media. So, it works to a certain extent, but we have an entrenched media culture in our political sphere, so we’ll see what happens.
(I’d like to get back to) the essential narrative that children learn. Children learn by story. The commercialized story that is brought to them is really brought with permission from the parents. I don’t want guilt but, the fact is, we have to see where our responsibility lies. If a child spends a certain number of hours a day absorbing this information, we have to look at that. That can be difficult. We’re tired….
P .O.: Yes, it can also be empowering. Parents have been feeling that they can have no power in this culture; it was inevitable. It’s just the way it goes. We have to reclaim our right to say “No!” Especially when kids are three, four, five years old, “no” is a fine word to have in your vocabulary. They use it a lot. We can use it, too. The other piece is that you can’t convince your daughter that you’re offering her more choices about how to be if you’re always saying “No!” If you’re going to say “No!” as I did – we did not have that stuff in our house – some Disney princess stuff inevitably did infiltrate. But we didn’t let her go to the princess birthday parties when people had them. We don’t let her watch Disney channel or Nick. We don’t let her watch TV at all. She watches Netflix that we choose. She doesn’t watch America’s Top Models like some of her friends do at the age of seven. You can say “No!” You can let them know your values and what you think. Sometimes, I do that properly and sometimes I just babble or I’m hypocritical or inconsistent or contradictory. I do my best.
Wonder Woman Barbie: is that a good thing or a bad thing? I’m not sure; but she has it. You have to do the work to find something that’s below that first slice of culture that’s being thrown at you. That’s why I said the Greek myths. Some of them, you have to find child-appropriate versions. Hercules slays all his children, and such, that’s not really three-year-old fare. Greek myths have great characters. We ended up doing this whole thing at Passover with the story of Miriam. I didn’t know the story of Miriam. Turns out, there wouldn’t be a Passover without Miriam. As far as Daisy is concerned, Miriam is the hero of Passover and, in a way, she’s right. When we went to Seder at my brother’s house with twenty-five people or so, none of them knew the story of Miriam. So, she didn’t want to stand up in front of everyone, she told my brother the story of Miriam and he read it verbatim in her words. It was not only wonderful for her to have heard that story, but she got to teach it to my whole family and they all got to learn about this important, strong character that had been buried by history from the six year old. What could be more wonderful?
M. R.: I do believe Miriam gets banished (for being uppity).
P .O.: We didn’t put that part in. It is temporary. She was only six years old. Miriam was a midwife at six . She helped birth the Jewish babies and helped hide the boys, protecting them from the Egyptians who were going to kill all the baby boys. She was heroic. She prophesized the birth of Moses and got her parents back together. They had gotten divorced because the father did not want to risk having a boy. They were leaders and all the Jewish men had followed suit. Miriam said: “No, you’ve got to get back together. You’re going to have a son who is going to save the people.” They did. She’s the one who brought him over to the bull rushes and gave him to the princess and got his mother to be the wet nurse. We never hear about Miriam. It was great for me. Yes, it was work. Yes, it’s another thing to add to my plate. But I can’t tell you how much I got out of learning that story. I didn’t know about that.
M. R.: This is one of the keys, I think – intentionality. Being intentional, even if you decide to let all the Princess stuff in. Whatever you decide for your family, being intentional makes all the difference in the world. The child (senses it).
P .O.: That’s actually a great way for me to put it, so I appreciate your telling me that. When I talk about it, I’m going to say that, if you don’t mind. I can’t tell you what decisions to make for your child but, whatever you do, to provide context. I wanted to start a conversation and I wanted to provide some context and information so that parents could make their choices more wisely, but I guess what that does mean is make them intentionally. If you’re going to let your daughter get the twenty-one-piece Disney Princess makeup kit, know what you’re doing. That’s fine. That’s your choice. That’s your right, but know what you’re doing.
M. R.:. I’m glad I gave you that nugget, but it would be great if you could attribute it.
P .O.: I will. I will.
M. R.: Thank you. I’d love to talk to you again, because another project I coordinate is Witness for Childhood, which is trying to bring the voices of people in communities, either religious or humanist about this issue: the questions they have the, so to speak “spiritual” formation of their children and how the commercial culture is impacting that, but also what resources they bring. One of the biggest resources is the stories: Miriam, Mary, Mary Magdalene: also, the Greeks.
For so long, any time you talked about media and religion, the religious right owned this issue. The perception was that you were from that (narrow perspective) – fine for them to articulate that belief. I am not in that camp, yet I feel strongly that this is of interest to those who invest their highest aspirations for themselves and their children in a belief system with other people in community, whatever the beliefs. The progressive voices need to come forward and look at this as an issue. That really hasn’t happened. I’d love to speak with you again about that aspect.
P .O.: You’re right. It was cool to be in Darien, Connecticut last night, a community I would not typically be in, and see how concerned the moms were. What’s great about the public speaking and the readings is that it does create a kind of electricity, a connection and a community of people who then start talking. It’s hard to do it in isolation. Insofar as we have very intentionally made choices around media an playthings and all that that come in, we do live in a community, a school community anyway, (the larger community has surprised me) of parents who are very concerned about that and encourage their children to do so many other (fun)…
I really didn’t realize when I became a mom how much of my job was going to be protecting my child’s childhood. It is different. The barrage of outside forces that are trying to raise your child for you, the marketing: the products, the media, the internet and the pressure – not exactly a girl thing – but the pressure for them to be perfect little children is so intense that you’re doing them a favor if you’re taking them to the park, for goodness sakes. So, community is vital.
M. R.: Community is vital. I don’t think it is an accident that the general population has been becoming more aware at the same time as they are also taking more action around play and putting free play back into schools. They’re connected.
P .O.: Yes. The head of (the advocacy organization) “Kaboom!” is coming out with a book soon in defense of play.
M. R.: Thanks for letting us know and thanks for your time, Peggy.
O.: See you on Twitter!
(Copyright Healthy Media Choices 2011)