Escaping the gender trap

Peggy Orenstein talks about ways parents can help their kids think outside society's pink/blue divide

Topics: The Browser,

Escaping the gender trap (Credit: blessings via Shutterstock)
This interview first appeared in The Browser, as part of the FiveBooks series. Previous contributors include Paul Krugman, Woody Allen and Ian McEwan. For a daily selection of new article suggestions and FiveBooks interviews, check out The Browser or follow @TheBrowser on Twitter.

From an early age, girls learn to be pretty in pink while boys are marketed a prepackaged masculinity. Peggy Orenstein, author of “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,” explains how parents can give their children a broader, more imaginative outlook.

The BrowserBy the time my daughter turned two I accepted that we couldn’t protect her from the princess industry unless we cloistered her in a tower like Rapunzel. In “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,” you describe how and why the United States has evolved into a country where girls learn the names of Disney princesses before they learn the alphabet. Please encapsulate how this came to be.

As a journalist, I wrote a lot about older girls. I didn’t really think about what was going on in the culture of younger girls until I had a daughter. Girls at younger and younger ages are encouraged to define themselves through appearance – from the outside in rather than from the inside out. In ”Cinderella Ate My Daughter,” I look at what girls are watching, reading and playing with. I examine images of women and girls – from toddler to tween – to see what is affecting their body image, their sense of femininity, their sexual development and their future relationships.

What is the value to humanity of treating boys and girls as similarly as biology permits?

Children from about three onward naturally tend to play with their own gender. But when we reinforce gender segregation we hinder the development of both girls and boys. In preschool and early elementary school, kids are at their most plastic. Everything that they do when they’re little strengthens some neurons at the expense of others.

When children are hyper-segregated they only develop the aptitudes that are attributed to their sex. One study of 5,000 three-year-olds really illustrated this. It showed that three-year-old girls with older brothers had stronger spatial skills than girls with older sisters and boys with older sisters. The girls benefited, on a neurological level, from exposure to older children of the opposite sex.



In this day and age we want our children to be able to learn together and work together or for one another. Most of our children will partner with somebody of the opposite sex and raise children with somebody of the other sex. Research shows that boys and girls who have cross-sex friendships in preschool and early elementary years have better dating relationships when they’re older. So learning to see one another as alien and different and other and only developing the aptitudes associated with their own sex is problematic for our kids’ professional, intellectual and personal potential.

Let’s begin with the raw material with which we’re born. Tell us about “Pink Brain, Blue Brain” by neuroscientist Lise Eliot.

That book was transformative for me. Lise looked through every study on gender and brain research and broke them down for the general reader. Science was not my forte but the book laid out neuroscience in such a clear way that I found it easy to understand and even entertaining to read.

It makes two key points. First, there are small differences between boys and girls at birth that are real. But, second, if we allow or encourage hyper gender differentiation those small differences become big gaps as kids develop. Those gaps include spatial skills, reading ability and ways of dealing with people.

This book really changed the way I thought about parenting. It encouraged me to encourage my daughter’s friendships with boys. We want men to be nurturing. We want girls to develop strong spatial skills. Cross-sex socialization at an early age helps ingrain those attributes.

Eliot doesn’t deny that there are differences between boys and girls, but argues that we overemphasize them and that over time gender differences become more pronounced because of cultural influences and the way brains work. Please brief us on the biology behind neuroplasticity.

As Lise emphasizes, because of neuroplasticity nurture becomes nature. Consider language: We’re born able to make any sound but we lose the ability to make the sounds needed to speak other languages. In English-speaking culture, for instance, a lot of adults can’t roll their Rs. We were born with the ability to do so but that drops away. It’s not nature vs. nurture – it’s how nurture becomes nature.

When humans cry, fall, learn to walk and learn to talk, we’re strengthening some neurons at the expense of others – the younger the child, the greater the effect. So when we steer our daughters towards pink princess dresses and playing with make-up and away from playing rough and tumble with boys, that has a lasting impact on the brain.

But little girls seem to be drawn to princess and fairy toys, books and clothes, like bees to honey. Is that all because of cultural cues?

When kids are little they don’t understand that, for most of us, gender is permanent. They think that you might inadvertently turn into the other sex if, for instance, you wear pink when you’re a boy or cut your hair short when you’re a girl. That’s why little kids become the chiefs of the gender police and your little girl may cry if you try to put her into trousers. It’s really important for them at an early age to say, “I’m a girl, I’m a girl, I’m a girl.”

So the appearance-oriented girl culture is exploiting a developmental phase, it’s not supporting a developmental phase. Once you understand that you can start thinking about how to help your daughter assert her femininity in a way that doesn’t undermine her long-term psychological health or personal potential. You can consider how to give her a different image of what it means to be feminine that’s stronger and more internal.

Parents seem to delight in and no doubt reinforce the differences between their kids. And sex is the most obvious distinction. Are parents the primary culprits in ingraining gender differences?

I think of the flip side. By controlling what comes into the house, parents can limit the exploitation of girls and broaden the definition of girlhood. For instance, when my daughter was four we were reading about Greek myths so she went trick-or-treating dressed as Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom. It was really feminine – she got to wear a toga and a crown – but it was a different image of femininity than Cinderella.

In “Packaging Girlhood,” psychologists Lyn Mikel Brown and Sharon Lamb consider how our culture influences kids from three to 18. What do they find?

“Packaging Girlhood” looks at the way girlhood is marketed from infancy on. They did in-depth research into what girls wear, what they read, what they watch and what they play with. And they boil down psychological research about girls into digestible form.

It was really influential for me. Brown and Lamb offer a lot of different ideas that I talk about in ”Cinderella Ate My Daughter.” One idea that really stuck with me is that girls are presented with two options by the culture that surrounds them: Being for the boys or being one of the boys. They suggest scripts for parents, to give ideas for how to talk to your daughter in a way that is respectful and helps her decode the cultural messages she’s getting without lecturing her.

In your book, you do a brilliant job of making clear how marketing has reshaped childhood.

Whenever you group people into smaller categories, you sell more. One of the best ways to do that is by age. So they keep slicing smaller and smaller segments of childhood. Toddler was a marketing category before it became a developmental one.

The other way to segment a market is by sex. Baby clothing was white until modern markets realized they could increase sales by assigning different colors to different genders. Pink was initially assigned to boys because it was seen as a shade of red, which was associated with masculinity. Blue was assigned to girls because it was associated with the virtue of the Virgin Mary. It’s not clear when that switched.

But I can say that in the mid-1980s business began to refocus on market segmentation and that since then there’s been a magnification of gender differences. For instance, Fisher-Price made their brightly colored telephone with wheels, which everybody had when they were little, in pink. They made a pink version of a popcorn popper, a pink version of the classic Little People Bus. At the Toy Fair in New York the Fisher-Price exhibit was broken into two rooms. The girls’ room had a pink banner over it that said, “Pretty, Colorful, Beautiful.” The boys’ room banner said “Power, Energy, Heroes.” So there you had stark segmentation and the creation of differences where they didn’t need to exist.

There’s a real profit motive for heavily marketing gender difference. The idea is if you have a baby boy first you buy him a multicolored set of toys and then when you have a daughter you buy everything again in pink or vice versa. Either way, you double your sales.

For girls, market segmentation intensifies the focus on appearance. You get spa parties for preschoolers, make-up lines for eight-year-olds and the Kardashianization of adolescents. All of that stems from marketers telling girls that, whatever their stage of life, there is a particular way that they’re supposed to look and define themselves. It’s very narrow, it’s generally unattainable but you can try to buy it for a price.

In your next selection, ”Packaging Boyhood,” Lamb, Brown and a third author, Mark Tappan, argue that boys’ natural instincts are overtaken by the media and marketing images that engulf them. Please make their case for them.

Boys are marketed a prepackaged vision of masculinity just as girls are marketed hyper femininity. But publishers are less interested in books about how boys are sold on masculinity because fewer parents see this as problematic. It puts boys in a more powerful position and homophobia often prevents people from questioning masculinity.

This book talks a lot about how the images marketed to boys may be unhealthy for our sons and for our kids’ relationships. When I speak and am asked about the cultural constraints on boys, I direct people to “Packaging Boyhood.”

What are the archetypes that come to dominate what boys watch, wear and read?

The subtitle of the book is ”Saving Our Sons From Superheroes, Slackers and Other Media Stereotypes.” So those are the archetypes. When we’re talking about these issues in parenting I don’t want to leave boys out. I think it’s very important to include them. But this isn’t my area of expertise – that’s why I suggest the book as a resource for others.

Let’s get to “Odd Girl Out.” Rhodes scholar Rachael Simmons’s book about adolescent girls is based on her observations at 30 schools and interviews with more than 300 girls. What is this book about?

“Odd Girl Out” looks at relational aggression with girls, which is bullying, basically. It breaks down how adolescent girls relate to one another and why it matters – the mean girl stuff that gets dismissed. Simmons takes seriously the issues that girls have with one another. She doesn’t just expose the problem. Simmons helps parents, educators and kids see how to build respective, supportive communities. The new edition includes a whole lot on how to navigate social media. It’s a great resource.

Simmons faults the cultural taboo against girls overtly expressing aggression. How do you see gender norms influencing the emotional lives of adolescents?

There are few cultural outlets for girls to be overtly aggressive so they tend to talk behind backs and that sort of thing instead. Simmons talks about why that happens and what to do about it both in and out of school. There can be difficult dynamics in relationships among girls. If you have a daughter who’s older than three you’ve probably run into these issues. I don’t know a parent who doesn’t need help with how to advise their child.

How can parents help?

What we can do is help girls identify feelings. A lot of times girls don’t identify their feelings. They believe they’re supposed to be nice, polite and pleasant so they end up angry, anxious or unhappy. Just allowing a girl to express the normal range of human emotions helps. Allowing a girl to not be so nice can help release the frustration that leads to relational aggression or depression. Girls need help navigating through anger and disappointment and they need to know that their parents can help.

Your final selection is a delightfully illustrated children’s book. Please tell us about “Horace and Morris but Mostly Dolores” by James Howe and Amy Walrod, starting with a précis of the plot.

It’s so great. One day at the library my daughter said, “Oh Mom, I want to see if they have this book that I read at school – you’re going to love it.” I had heard of it but assumed it was really spinachy, and I hate spinachy children’s books. Books that bear the weight of an agenda often are short on story and character development. But “Horace and Morris but Mostly Dolores” didn’t set up stereotypes just to knock them down.

It’s a really engaging story about three mice – two boys and a girl. They’re friends who experience peer pressure to stop being friends. For a while the boys go play in a boys’ clubhouse and Dolores goes to the girls’ clubhouse where she does all the things that girls are supposed to do, like having tea. So the friends are segregated into gender ghettos, as so often happens among kids. Dolores is unhappy and she wants to go do something else, like build a fort. But the girl mice say, “No, no, no.” So she breaks away to re-engage with Horace and Morris, bringing one other girl with her. Dolores convinces Horace and Morris to come play with her and they bring along one other boy mouse.

“Horace and Morris but Mostly Dolores” presents gender dynamics with a little more complexity and a little more realism than a typical agenda book. So it’s about how each creature can be an individual and how kids can find common interests that aren’t defined by gender.

It seems schools should have this on their shelves. Are educators catching on to the importance of egalitarian teaching?

I can’t answer that in a broad-scale way.  I know that some educators are attuned to these issues because they write to me. The hyper-segmentation of play by gender concerns them and so does the prepackaged images of gender that surround young kids.

One mother sent me a photograph of a Thanksgiving art project in her daughter’s preschool. The kids had to decorate paper turkeys. The boys chose to dress their turkeys like all different sorts of sports players, superheroes and professions. The girls, with the exception of this woman’s daughter, all dressed their turkeys as princesses. It was a good illustration to me of the hold that these archetypes have on girls. Kids need open-ended play as they’re developing, not commercialized scripts that inhibit their individuality and flatten their imaginations.

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