Orenstein writes frequently about the cultural pressures on young girls and their parents. In the first part of our interview, we talked about her book and the reaction to it. The second portion of the interview, below, focuses on the larger issues of how certain gender stereotypes are seeping into the way children play and see themselves and how, as parents, we might be able to — if we wish — offer alternatives.
Your piece in the New York Times a few weeks ago on gender-specific toys suggested that culturally we’re embracing ever-more gender-specification. Has the cultural landscape changed at all since your book first came out last year?
I think about it sort of like the food movement. You had these books that started a conversation — “Fast Food Nation,” (by Eric Schlosser) and “Omnivore’s Dilemma.” (by Michael Pollan). And that conversation created enormous awareness and change. Not for everyone and not everywhere, but significant change. I think there is the same opportunity and even activism on this front.
So, yeah, on one hand, every month brings a new egregious example of sexualization or gender hyper-segmentation. There was the Abercrombie & Fitch bikini with the push-up bra for 7 year olds; the Walmart makeup line for 8 year olds; the J.C. Penney t-shirt that said, “I’m too pretty to do HOMEWORK so my brother has to do it for me”; the apparent plans to make a Kim Kardashian Barbie; the rise of Monster High dolls, which are kind of like undead street walkers. There is LEGO’s new Friends line for girls with the tag line “Building is Beautiful” and its build-a-beauty-salon and café kits. All that is out there.
But there are also parents putting their collective foot down and saying “oh no you don’t.” So Abercrombie and J.C. Penney had to pull those clothing items because parents protested. Thirty-five thousand people have signed a petition to ask LEGO to rethink its Friends line. [As of this posting, the petition had garnered more than 50,000 signatures]
And companies, they’re in it to make money, so if they think they can do it with a broader spectrum, more imaginative idea of what it means to be a girl or with toys that allow more cross-sex play, well, they will. We just have to let them know.
You’ve become a sort of national spokesparent on gender neutrality. Are you comfortable in this role?
I don’t think I really promote neutrality, per se. I promote the idea that boys and girls should be encouraged, when possible, to play together because that’s how they learn to get along together over the long haul. There’s compelling research that shows that cross-sex play in the early years has cognitive value for both sexes. And that it improves relationships.
That said, I also recognized that kids will naturally play with their own sex more often than the other one. Which is fine. Also, that girls and boys in an over-arching way do play differently in the early years. But I think we have to look more at similarities and less at differences. We have to look not at nature vs. nurture but the way nurture becomes nature. Because if you see it that way, then the emphasis, magnification and creation of gender difference is problematic.
And you can say, “Well, some girls like princesses and some like something else.” Maybe so. Maybe we’d find that in a vacuum. But when you have billions and billions of dollars aimed at telling your child she should like this ONE THING and see femininity this ONE WAY it’s hard to claim she’s making some kind of free choice. If that were true, girls would have always been as obsessed with pink and princess as they are today. But if you look at your own childhood, I bet you weren’t.
So, I’d say I’m less about neutrality than about freedom for kids to explore the range of behavior, the range of potential, the range of friendships especially while their brains are at their most malleable.
Also, toys have historically communicated to children what we expect of them in their adult roles. So years ago girls played with kitchens and baby dolls. You have to wonder what the message of the current crop of toys is to girls — and to the boys with whom they’ll someday be involved.
Did family members tweak you this past holiday with piling your daughter with Barbies?
No, my daughter’s a little old for that now (she’s 8) so they want to know what she wants and don’t impose their vision on her any more. She got a paint-your-own bird feeder from one of my brothers’ family, some fabulous books from the other one (they always give books on Chanukah) … And from us and my parents she got a series of horseback riding lessons.
Over time, I’ve encouraged “experiences” as gifts over toys. So, for instance, a day of ice skating and hot chocolate with her teenage cousins means way more to her as a present then yet another Barbie or whatever. And she’ll remember it much longer.
But I think your larger question is how to deal with relatives who give gifts that subtly (or not so subtly) undermine your values. One way is through friendly education. Because they may not realize how much things have changed and what girls are barraged with. Or understand the trajectory.
My mom, for instance, really, really wanted to play beauty parlor with my daughter when Daisy was little. She did it with me when I was a pre-schooler, and I loved it. Daisy would have loved it, too. But I wasn’t okay with it. I felt like the times had changed and there were now just too many messages and products geared towards girls at the very youngest ages telling them that they are [judged on] how they look. So I asked her not to do it. My mom was so disappointed. She kept bringing it up and I got more and more annoyed. Then I realized I hadn’t fully explained to her why I felt the way I did, and when I did she was much more understanding.
I suggested they bake cookies together or have a tea party or play dolls or go on a nature walk or read books aloud or play pretend to have that grandma-granddaughter time. Because in the end, that was what my mom wanted — a bonding experience that her granddaughter would remember someday when she thought about her childhood with grandma. It didn’t HAVE to center around nail polish and hair spray.
So, trying to talk it through and find other ways to connect can help. And if that doesn’t work, try suggesting a list of what your child wants. Then you’re not saying what’s acceptable so much as what’s desired. (As in, “Isabelle has gone gaga over this Wonder Woman costume. It would be so special to get it from her grandparents!”) And then if after you’ve explained your position, offered alternatives, encouraged bonding they still give your daughter junk you don’t want her to have, well, then you’ve got some family members who aren’t respectful of you as a parent and you need to address that. Because she’s your kid, not theirs.
Also, lip gloss for 3 year olds and princess [garbage] and all of that will inevitably come in from other children, in birthday party “goody bags” etc. Sometimes I made no comment and a few days later when whatever it was had lost some of its luster it would “disappear.” Often it was never noticed (which just goes to show how disposable all of those things are). Sometimes I resorted to, “Gee, I have NO IDEA what happened to that.” Sometimes you put it on a shelf and say it’s for when she’s older.
And sometimes you just pick your battles and deal with it. Trying to have one set of hard-and-fast rules is usually pretty tough — you have to have some flexibility and a lot of humor. As with any aspect of parenting!
What are your thoughts on the cultural pressures on girls today? Have you deemed some toys and games off-limits, or do you think that’s overkill?