Peggy Orenstein, the author of one of my all-time favourite articles is now the author of a book on the same theme, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the frontlines of new girlie-girl culture. And this excerpt from a review of her book really nails some important points:
In the case of child beauty pageants, Orenstein offers a shrewd critique of why media exposés of the phenomenon are so perennially popular. They “give viewers license, under the pretext of disapproval, to be titillated by the spectacle, to indulge in guilty-pleasure voyeurism,” she observes. “They also reassure parents of their own comparative superiority by smugly ignoring the harder questions: even if you agree that pageant moms are over the line in their sexualization of little girls — way over the line — where, exactly, is that line, and who draws it and how?” Orenstein allows us to watch her struggle with these questions, and when she arrives at a few answers, they feel well earned…
.. Orenstein finds one such enlightening explanation in developmental psychology research showing that until as late as age 7, children are convinced that external signs — clothing, hairstyle, favorite color, choice of toys — determine one’s sex. “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,” she writes. “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.” For a preschool girl, a Cinderella dress is nothing less than an existential insurance policy, a crinolined bulwark to fortify a still-shaky sense of identity.
Orenstein is especially sharp-eyed on the subject of what comes after the princess phase, for in the micro-segmented world of marketing to children, there is of course a whole new array of products aimed at girls who begin to tire of their magic wands. These include lines of dolls with names like Moxie Girlz and Bratz: “With their sultry expressions, thickly shadowed eyes and collagen-puffed moues, Bratz were tailor-made for the girl itching to distance herself from all things rose petal pink, Princess-y, or Barbie-ish,” Orenstein notes. “Their hottie-pink ‘passion for fashion’ conveyed ‘attitude’ and ‘sassiness,’ which, anyone will tell you, is little-girl marketing-speak for ‘sexy.’ ”
(I have written on this topic a lot previously – see the archives here for more of my thoughts).