If you have a daughter, you should know about Peggy Orenstein. The author and New York Times Magazine writer may not be able to keep marketers from reaching your daughter and teaching her to believe all sorts of twisted things about femininity and sexuality, but she can and does call them out on it.
Last night Orenstein spoke on a panel at New York City’s 92nd Street Y Tribeca sponsored by Slate‘s women’s section, Double X. Joining Orenstein were Virginia Heffernan, the Times Magazine‘s media critic; former Nickelodian executive Tom Ascheim; and Slate editor Mike Agger, who moderated. The topic was, naturally, how marketers target both girls and boys in negative, often gendered ways.
The four panelists, at least three of them parents (I’m not sure whether Agger has kids), covered a lot of ground in the hour-long discussion, from the rise of the Disney Princess revenue machine to whether or not Sesame Street is just a giant merchandising play, and lots in between. (Anyone remember the vibrating Harry Potter broom? A brilliant moment in the history of toys, no?)
The princesses especially bother Orenstein for a lot of reasons, but one beef she discussed last night was the way all of the princess paraphernalia advertised to little girls fostsers a desire for an abundance of cheap, sparkly stuff. She argued that this is a perfect way to train girls to grow into narcisstic, materialistic, even monstrous Real Housewives of Fill-in-the-blank. One thing that didn’t get clarified as much as it might have is how princess culture translates into the early sexualization of girls — perhaps Orenstein was giving the audience another reason to read her latest book, the excellent Cinderella Ate My Daughter, where she argues that point very well.
This discussion was about boys, too. Heffernan brought up the way Disney’s new princess-themed hotel rooms are just another version of the pirate-themed rooms some of its hotels already offer. Ascheim and Heffernan both expressed discomfort with sports television, and how we don’t seem to have nearly as much trouble with kids watching that as, say, anything else with commericals. Heffernan also wanted to know why it wasn’t national news when Halloween costume manufacturers came out with superhero costumes padded to give toddlers adult male musculature. Would we let a little girl wear a costume padded with breasts? she asked.
The audience Q & A brought some fun moments, including the discussion of Sesame Street that prompted Orenstein to quip,”Elmo was the Miley Cyrus of Sesame Street — except for the pole part.” It was also an opportunity for Orenstein to offer advice to parents who want to shield their kids from, in her words, “becoming marketer’s land grab[s]” but “don’t plan on being Amish.”
Truthfully, said Orenstein, “I think [parenting is] about hypocrisy and contradiction.” Inevitably you let your kids do things, watch things, buy things you always swore you wouldn’t. Her advice, and Ascheim’s, was to decide what you can live with because you can’t always tell your child no. Sometimes you have to settle for the not-as-terrible. It’s a testament to the power and scope of kid-targeted marketing that even experts like Orenstein, Heffernan, and Ascheim, who have devoted so much thought to how advertisers get to kids, arrive at the same not-quite-satisfying conclusion so many other parents resign themselves to.
-Margaret Wheeler Johnson