Interview: Peggy Orenstein, Cinderella Ate My Daughter

Bob chats with Peggy about Disney's appetite for little girls

Peggy Orenstein is a best-selling author but more importantly she's a mom with a daughter beset on all sides by dubious, potentially dangerous corporate influences - in particular, Disney, and even more in particular, Disney's marketing of its princesses as an ultimately unachievable feminine ideal.

Orenstein's new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, is her exploration of the damage implicit in the message that one's appearance matters more than one's achievements and abilities.

But can pink really be so poisonous? Do princesses really bear hidden perils?

The arguments in Orenstein's book are complex but compelling. What comes through most clearly, though, is the author's legitimate concern about the voracious appetite of 'Cinderella' for her daughter and for your daughter, too.

I was fortunate to catch up with Peggy Orenstein recently for a brief discussion about her book and about her beliefs. Here it is:

In your book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, you argue that Disney harms impressionable young girls through its marketing of an unattainable 'princess ideal'. For my daughter Allie, though, the Disney princess 'trap' was a phase through which she passed without noticeable damage. She moved on to Disney fairies, another phase, and now prefers outdoor sports. Why is the Disney princess phase so much more harmful than the many other phases that children pass through?

PEGGY: I'm a mom, so I first came to this from that perspective - feeling surprised and curious about why my pre-school daughter suddenly knew all the gown colors and names of all the Disney Princesses when I had never even heard of the concept. And it would be ridiculous to say that a+b=c, that if you wave a magic wand you will suddenly need a prince to save you. Anyone who is saying that sort of thing clearly hasn't read the book. But what I am exploring is the unprecedented marketing to girls at ever-earlier ages that encourages them to define themselves through appearance and play sexiness. And the ways that they learn to see their femininity, sexuality, and identity from the outside in rather from the inside out. How the Princesses are currently marketed plays into that flume ride.
You know, if it was just a movie, just a dress, whatever - goodness knows I availed myself of my mom's cast-off tiara now and again. But what I see are not only the Disney Princess accessories (the 21-piece mega cosmetic sets, the $180 Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique makeovers) but the other things: the T-shirts that have a crown and say "Give me the credit card and no one gets hurt" or the make-your-own-messenger bag kit that my daughter got for her birthday that included iron-on transfers with phrases like "Spoiled" "Brat" and "Pampered Princess". It's the whole culture that is putting girls in this pink box that defines girlhood as makeovers and spa birthday parties at age 4, and princesses and being the fairest (and ultimately the hottest) of them all. Are Disney Princesses the cause of that, responsible for that? That would be simplistic. But are they part of selling that culture to our daughters? Unfortunately, as they are marketed now, the answer to that, from my perspective, is yes.
My book is about so much more than Disney and the Princesses. I hope even if your readers disagree with that aspect of it (which is their prerogative, obviously) that they give the rest of the book a chance. I think the conversation I'm trying to start about the culture in which we raise our girls and being intentional about our parenting is a valuable one, and I appreciate your open-mindedness about it.

Do you think the Disney fairies (which have become nearly as important to the company as the princesses) represent a healthier role model for girls?

PEGGY: Honestly, I don't have such strong opinions on Disney Fairies. They haven't been very popular among my daughter, her friends, or my nieces. I'll be interested to see where they take the line.
I don't hate Disney or anything - I think I make that clear in the book. In fact, just before answering your email, Daisy and I were watching the 3 Little Pigs Silly Symphony on YouTube.

Disney recently announced that, after 'Tangled', it would not make another traditional princess movie. And it also recently announced that its expansion of Fantasyland would feature fewer princess activities than originally planned. Why do you suppose Disney is cutting back on its princesses now? And is it doing so for the 'right' reasons?

PEGGY: I didn't know that about the Fantasyland change. That's interesting. I thought they were doing a whole princess pavillion. I liked 'Tangled', but my understanding from the LA Times was that after the relative box office failure of Princess and the Frog they ripped up the movie that was 'Rapunzel', added the male lead, and retitled it because they felt that by making a 'princess' movie they would scare away the male audience. Which was interesting because before Princess and the Frog there were no 'official' Princess movies. The concept didn't exist. So Cinderella, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, Little Mermaid - none of those was considered a Princess movie when it came out. They were family movies, as was Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, Mary Poppins, etc. Just movies we all saw. So by creating this Princess brand and then watching it age down to the youngest girls, in a way Disney painted itself into a (pink!) corner. Now those movies appear to be for a very narrow slice of the audience instead of for all of us. So what was good for consumer products turned out to be less good for the production arm.
So, that said, the 'right' reasons? The right reason to me would be that they are going to explore a greater range of female characters, especially female leads. Because if you look at the stats (USC did a study on this) females comprise fewer than 30% of the speaking roles in family movies. That hasn't changed in decades. And in crowd scenes the number is lower. Look at, say, the female characters in 'Ice Age' (or maybe it was 'Ice Age 2') - they're sort of seductive animals in a hot tub with tons of makeup going after the, I can't remember what that animal is, the main character animal, but it was sort of shocking to me. That was it. My daughter loved that movie. But it was deeply disturbing. (I'm sorry, I don't have those movies right here or I'd be more specific about it.)
Anyway, if that were the case I'd be thrilled - that is, if they were cutting back on traditional princess movies to make movies about all kinds of female characters. But I fear it is not. Time will tell, I guess.

What 'tweaks' could Disney make to lessen the negative effects you say princesses they have on young girls? My daughter, for instance, left the princesses behind partly because there wasn't one who looked like her. Is lack of physical diversity the real problem here?

PEGGY: That's interesting to hear and makes me a little sad. I would hope your daughter could find images and playthings and ideas that celebrate her as a girl. My daughter is biracial (my husband is Japanese-American) so Mulan was extremely popular in our house. But Mulan wasn't hyper-marketed. There are no Mulan makeup kits. In fact, she's pretty invisible in the princess line, and that was fine by me. We had a Mulan doll that I got on eBay, though she did come in the kimono that she hated (the one in the match-making scene) rather than her warrior garb. Still, it was nice to have that physical reflection in a strong, fun, exciting female character.
So that would be part of it. But I guess... I don't know. It's hard to imagine how they could change. I was really disappointed in the marketing of 'Tangled'. Rapunzel - while, yeah, blonde, skinny, pretty all that - had a lot to recommend her. But I hate to see those lights in the movie that represent her destiny and her transformation and her personal agency become... the twinkling lights of the Rapnuzel vanity mirror.

Thanks very much, Peggy!

Peggy's views are definitely a hot-button issue with Disney fans. Although I don't share them entirely, I understand her arguments and believe they have some merit. Will anything really change? No. Well, yes - if girls stop asking their parents for princess toys.

But girls have wanted to be princesses since they swung down out of the trees and learned to walk upright - with a swagger. You can't go wrong, as a parent, by giving in sometimes to what your kids want, provided you counter-balance with things that, in the long run, will be good for them.

Read about it in my new book: Maleficent Ruined My Runt. Just kidding...

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