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Martha Burk's picture

Been out shopping in the past couple of weeks? If the answer is yes, you know consumers are mobbing stores to snap up mountains of plastic soon-to-be-junk from toy stores and big boxes.

Do kids really need more stuff? And what's the message we're sending? Like it or not, toys and make-believe do send messages, and they're not all good. While boys and girls are equally subjected to gender apartheid when it comes to toys, the girls may be getting the short end of the stick. No -- make that the short end of the magic wand.

Our daughters are awash in princesses and pink. Is this pinkification and princess obsession harming our girls? Is being a princess a career? I put these questions to Peggy Orenstein, New York Times best-selling author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture on my radio show Equal Time With Martha Burk.

MB: You decided to write about the "princess culture" when you had a daughter.

PO: I remembered growing up with Disney characters like Snow White, but I didn't remember this mandate that 24/7, 365 days a year you were supposed to not only play princess, but believe yourself to be a princess. I wondered about the impact on girls.

MB: You say in your book there was a seismic shift in marketing to little girls since Cinderella and Snow White. You've called it the "princess industrial complex."

PO: It used to be that those movies would come out, and there would be a little merchandising, and then it would disappear until the next movie. 2012-06-12-yourvoicesmallest2.JPGBut in 2000 Disney had the idea to market princesses separately. At a time when little girls are exploring friendships and how to make connections [this marketing] is all about disconnection and "I'm the special one."

MB: It was all about merchandise?

PO: The first year they did $300 million. By 2010 it was a $4 billion dollar a year industry with over 26,000 products. When Disney has that kind of success, everybody emulates it. So suddenly girls are completely surrounded by a culture of pink and poufy and pretty. A little bit of that -- for girls and for boys -- is fine. But when it becomes the only game in town it's problematic with its emphasis on appearance and consumerism.

MB: This sex role stereotyping in toys could also be harmful to boys. You write that boys will play with toys aimed at girls - as long as they know no one will find out.

PO: Particularly their fathers. There's still a lot of policing of boys who skew towards things that are thought of as girlie. That's because we still see things associated with boys and men as a step up, and that which we associate with girls and women as being a step down.

MB: Does this hyper-marketing of princess images play into the sexualization of young girls?

PO: The next step is a kind of hotter pink and the sexualization of girls, which is just rampant. Girl power was about promoting the idea that what girls do is more important than how they look. Girlz power with a "z" promotes the idea that how you look is a source of empowerment. It sells the idea that self-absorption is the same as self-confidence. They're selling narcissism.

MB: These images are now available to kids 24/7 with technology. How's that for imprinting sex role stereotyping?

PO: There is research that shows the more mainstream media girls consume, the more vulnerable they are to negative body image, more eating disorders, and stereotypical ideas about girls and women. Parents should be aware of that.

MB: How would you answer parents who would say "Boys will be boys, girls will be girls, and everybody knows princess is not a career, so lighten up. They'll outgrow it."

PO: I would say look at what they want to go to next. Disney wants them to go to the live flesh and blood princesses like Miley Cyrus. She started out wholesome, wearing clothes mom would approve of. Three months later she was in Vanity Fair half naked. A year after that she was in a cage in a bustier. It's sexualization and self-objectification.

MB: It's extremely harmful to the boys as well.

PO: Absolutely. How are they learning to see girls? How they are going to treat girls and what they expect girls to be?

MB: What's your advice for people who need to buy kid's gifts but want to avoid the hypermarketing and genderized toys?

PO: Go to and click on "Fight Fun With Fun." There are whole lists of toys, books, movies, other things. If you're in a store, head to the art supply section. Or if it's a child you live near and know and love, give them a gift certificate for an experience.

Listen to Peggy Orenstein's full interview here:

This blog cross-posted on Huffington Post.

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