Skewering Cinderella with Peggy Orenstein

The Berkeley author takes girlie-girl culture to task.

Wal-Mart introduced a new cosmetics line this month. Its lipsticks come in pretty shades — and it’s made for eight-year-old girls. Kiddie makeup kits, tiny rhinestoned tiaras, and T-shirts proudly proclaiming “SPOILED BRAT” are part of a $4 billion-a-year industry that Peggy Orenstein investigates in her passionate New York Times bestseller, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontline of the New Girlie-Girl Culture.

“At an unprecedentedly early age, girls are being encouraged to define themselves through sexiness and ‘sassiness,’ which is a play-word for sexiness,” Orenstein said. “At five years old, they’re being hypergenderized, presexualized, primed, and pressured into a performative sexuality that is defined not from within but from without. … That is a really dangerous thing.”

Princess-ism took Orenstein by surprise. “I was raising my daughter in my Berkeley fashion, never wanting her to think that there was anything she couldn’t do just because she’s a girl. To my surprise, she came home from preschool having memorized the names and gown colors of every Disney princess,” Orenstein marveled. “Suddenly I saw it everywhere: the difficulty of buying clothes that weren’t pink and sparkly and this incessant insistence that she was a princess, from the tattooed waitress saying, ‘Here are your princess pancakes’ to the dentist saying, ‘Get into the princess chair and I’ll sparkle your teeth.’ I wanted to ask, ‘Do you have a princess drill?'”

Although many Disney films over the years have featured princesses, “they were not made as princess movies. They were just movies,” Orenstein said. But in 2000, Disney insiders “got the idea to take the princesses out and make them the whole point.” An industry was born. Today, 26,000 Disney princess products crowd stores, and princess products for infant girls are the next frontier.

“Personally, I find that just a little bit predatory,” said the award-winning journalist, who will be at A Great Good Place for Books (6120 La Salle Ave., Oakland) on Thursday, February 17. Research for the book included visits to Disneyland, American Girl Place, the American International Toy Fair, a children’s beauty pageant, and a Miley Cyrus concert. 

“Sexual entitlement is the latest performance for girls. They have learned to fake it and perform it for men. Real sexuality is about authentic confidence and agency. It’s about being in touch with your own feelings,” but a confusing, relentless, synthetic, ever-more-sexualized flood of media and merchandise “is denying girls access to those feelings,” Orenstein said. “I want to let girls be girls. But this is making them into little Sesame Streetwalkers.”

What if kiddie makeup kits really catch on? “At first, it will be shocking. Then more kids will do it and it will become normal,” she said. “Then you’ll have third-graders saying that they can’t go to school without their makeup on. How depressing is that?

“I don’t want my eight-year-old worrying about wearing the right shade of lipstick at recess.” 7 p.m., free.


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