Web Video: What does it mean to be a girl? How parents can help daughters decide for themselves

Sep. 03, 2014 AT 12:16 p.m. EDT

In the last few decades, a multi-billion dollar industry has evolved around princess stories and toys. But in contrast to this pink and purple “girlie” world are alternatives emphasizing more diverse interests and portraying different kinds of heroines. Gwen Ifill talks to author Peggy Orenstein and Angelica Perez of the Ella Institute about the influence of modern marketers and media on girls.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

GWEN IFILL: Now we return to our weeklong series on the challenges of bringing up baby. We call it Parenting Now.

Tonight, we look at how we raise girls in what has become a princess culture.

CHILD: I found it. Mommy, I found it.

GWEN IFILL: For parents, the scene is all too familiar, children wishing and begging for toys to take home. On one side of the toy department aisle are the trucks, superheroes and “Star Wars,” on the other, a profusion of pink, purple and princesses.

GIRL: Lambie. I like Lambie.

GWEN IFILL: Market research confirms what most parents already know: Boys and girls often have very different tastes. But, for girls, princesses have become a multibillion-dollar industry.

GIRL: Look at this one.

WOMAN: Who’s that?

GIRL: Ariel with a — and a prince. I like her tiara. It’s so nice.

GWEN IFILL: In a little more than a decade, Disney’s princess franchise alone has gone from $300 million in sales a year to $3 billion. They’re even giving the iconic Barbie a run for her money. Her sales declined 6 percent last year.

CARLOS RAMIREZ: My daughter loves princess. Her favorite doll is Cinderella. She likes also — what’s her name?

GIRL: Aurora.

CARLOS RAMIREZ: “Tangled” and Aurora.

She has the castles, so we paint her room in pink and purple.

GWEN IFILL: Carlos Ramirez of Washington, D.C., says his daughter Jamie is in her princess phase, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

CARLOS RAMIREZ: She always dreamed to be a — like dressing like a — as a princess, behave as a princess. I think this is just like a dream that they have to become a princess. It doesn’t reflect in the reality, but this is just a dream for them, for the girls.

JUDY LEMKE: My little Esther is all princess.

GWEN IFILL: Judy Lemke from Green Bay, Wisconsin, has two daughters. One is 35-years old. The other is 5-year-old Esther who she and her husband adopted. Lemke says she tries to work around the princess culture.

JUDY LEMKE: It’s getting her involved in a lot of different things, having her understand, again, sports people, academics, and a wide variety of things that she can get exposed to, beyond wanting everything pink and frilly and — and princessy.


GWEN IFILL: Girls’ toys have become even more girlie over time. This was Strawberry Shortcake 30 years ago. Remember her? This is Strawberry Shortcake now. This was the 1970s Holly Hobbie. Here she is today.

This was what the board game “Candy Land” looked like in the 1960s. This is it now. But toys aren’t the real problem, says Kendra Pope of Burtonsville, Maryland.

KENDRA POPE: I think it’s all about how you raise them to think about themselves. I think that’s where that comes from. You have to install in your child — you have to install in them the things that they want to be, you know? You have to raise them to be independent, to be a leader, and things like that.

GWEN IFILL: Advertising has changed too. Parents used to be the target audience. Now companies use the ads to reach children.

JUDY LEMKE: I don’t know how it can help but influence that, because if that’s what you’re exposed to at those very formative years, it’s going to have some impression. I think it has — it falls much more then on the parents, the schools, and the other influences to counterbalance that, because, like I said, it’s not all bad. But it’s concentrated and saturated into a persona that is not as holistic, I think, as 30 years ago or 35 years ago.

GWEN IFILL: It’s not all pink and purple. New alternatives include books which emphasize different goals for girls, particularly in engineering and science.

ACTOR: Make sure they remember you.

GWEN IFILL: Movies with tougher heroines.

GIRLS (singing): More than pink, pink, pink. We want to think.

GWEN IFILL: And some toy manufacturers have hopped on board as well. One company called GoldieBlox has gained attention for ads where little girls gather up their pink toys, build a rocket, and launch them into space.

So, how do we raise daughters in a time of mixed messages, conflicted cultural cues, as well as unprecedented opportunity?

We explore those questions with two women who have been pondering them, Peggy Orenstein, author of “Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture,” and Angelica Perez, founder of the ELLA Institute, a professional development group for Latinas. She’s also CEO of the New Latina, an online publication focused on women’s leadership.

Peggy Orenstein, why — let’s start with the color pink. Why is that a defining and powerful color for girls?

PEGGY ORENSTEIN, Author, “Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture”: Well, I think the thing that concerns me about pink, if that’s what you’re asking, is the way that it narrows the idea of what it means to be a girl and puts it in this little box of pink and pretty.

So, for example, when my daughter was little, I remember — you know how you hear your best stuff when you’re driving in the car and the kids are in the back seat? I remember driving with my daughter in the back seat and her little friends. And I was taking them to go scootering.

And my daughter’s helmet had a fire-breathing dragon on it. It was green with flames on it. And the other little girl looked at her helmet and said, that’s not a girl’s helmet. It’s not pink. And my daughter looked down at it and she says, well, I think it’s for a girl or a boy. And the other girl looked very dubious.

And I had this — just felt that there was a lot in that little interchange of what we expect of girls, the potential to be excluded if you don’t toe the line, and just this ever-narrowing pink box that defines femininity through — from the outside in, through appearance.

GWEN IFILL: Angelica Perez, how much of this little pink box is defined by consumerism, how much of it is defined by social forces or defined by us?

ANGELICA PEREZ, The New Latina: Actually, I think it’s defined by all of us.

I think we’re all involved in this phenomenon. Obviously, big brands have a lot to gain from pushing the pink brand and the princess brand. And parents actually have a responsibility to monitor, communicate, educate their children about what it means to be a strong girl, a strong woman when they grow up.

And, of course, the media is constantly pushing images and messages that pink is pretty, pink is beautiful, pink is soft. So I think we all have something to do with this at this point. We’re all contributing in all different ways.

GWEN IFILL: Peggy Orenstein, it seems that we’re also pushing mixed messages. If you pick up the cover of “TIME” magazine, you see Beyonce on the cover as one of 100 most important people. You see Miley Cyrus as one of — who is selling out concerts around the country, yet both of them are very sexual and powerful in the message they send.

What are girls to think about that, and what are parents to do with that?

PEGGY ORENSTEIN: Well, I think what concerns us is that that idea is being sold to girls at an ever-earlier age, the idea of pink, pretty, hot, and sexy.

So, for instance, when I was a little girl, maybe when you were a little girl, Gwen, you got your first Lip Smackers, Bonne Bell Lip Smackers, when you were about 12. Girls have a whole collection of those now by the time they’re 4.

So there’s this way that all of this marketing and all of the sexualization of girlhood is getting younger and younger and younger. I call it the Kardashianization of girlhood. And I think that that’s the nub of our concern as parents. And that’s what we have to think about as we watch this marketing towards our girls.

GWEN IFILL: Angelica, let me ask you this. What if you want your girl just to be a girl? What if you want her to be a girlie girl? What’s wrong with that?

ANGELICA PEREZ: Well, nothing is wrong with that.

I think that the problem is when things become extreme and excessive, and girls only see themselves to be that pink color, or the behaviors that are expected are of girlie princesses. So there’s really nothing wrong with having a pink room, or having a pink house, as long as it’s balanced with the other things that the child does every day, with the way that the child sees herself, the other toys that you buy your child.

Again, I think balance is the most important part here. And I don’t see that happening as often as I would like it to, to — as often as I would like to see it, both as a parent and as a psychologist.

GWEN IFILL: If I’m a stay-at-home mom somewhere, Peggy Orenstein, and I’m listening to a message that tells me my daughter should be powerful and should be thinking about being a CEO or president of the United States, what if I take that as a slam on my mothering?

PEGGY ORENSTEIN: Well, I don’t think that that’s the only image we have of girls, but I think the concern is that girls are being told simultaneously to be powerful, and to be hot and sexy, and that that’s giving — and that’s putting them in conflict.

So, you see things like there was a study that came out of Princeton in 2012, a survey that was looking at why there were fewer girls going out for leadership position at that school. And one of the things that they found was that girls were saying that they felt they had to do everything, they had to do everything well, and they had to look great when they were doing it.

So there was this intense pressure on girls that was causing them to pull back. And I think all of us, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, girl advocates, we want our kids to have the most potential possible. We want them to have the most potential individually. We want it for both genders, and we want them to also to be able to work together.

And that becomes very difficult when girls and boys are raised in their own little ghettos of pink and blue.

GWEN IFILL: If you are a parent and you have every day-to-day issues to deal with, which fight do you want to pick? Do you really want to tell your little girl she can’t wear a tutu to kindergarten, or do you just want to move on to something else, Angelica?

ANGELICA PEREZ: You know, I don’t see it as a battle that I’m picking. I see it as an education.

So, I am constantly educating my children about everything that happens in the house and when we go to stores. So, for example, if we have $10 to spend on a toy, and the child wants a particular — it doesn’t matter which kind of toy — I actually like to teach them about marketing and consumerism.

And I will say to them, are you really interested in spending these $10 and giving it to Wal-Mart, who already has a lot of money? And so the conversation about pink and dolls and all that goes into that conversation. It’s embedded in that conversation.

So I don’t see — I see it as a much more — a bigger conversation, not just about the pink and the girlie stuff. I see it as making good decisions for themselves, empowering them to be good consumers, and becoming entrepreneurs, because, as I always tell my kids, you may want that American Girl doll, but I would like you to be the owner of that American Girl company. And I think that kind of conversation is very empowering to children…

GWEN IFILL: We are going to have…

ANGELICA PEREZ: … as early as possible.

GWEN IFILL: Pardon me.

We’re going to have other conversations this week, including about how to raise boys. But here’s my final question for the two of you, which is, if the dilemma for boys is that they’re exposed to violent video games, say, and the dilemma for girls is that they’re being sexualized by pink girlie dolls and tiaras, which is the bigger problem, Peggy Orenstein?

PEGGY ORENSTEIN: Oh, I don’t think it’s a zero sum game at all.

I think that girls and boys each have their own issues and that one doesn’t negate the other. I think, for all our kids, we have to think outside of the marketing box. And we have to just try to limit what we can and, meanwhile, broaden, broaden, broaden their image of being female or being male. And what I would say is, you have to fight fun with fun.

You have to find not just the things you want to say no to, but the things that you can say yes to as well.

GWEN IFILL: Angelica Perez, final word?

ANGELICA PEREZ: I think that raising a feminist girl or a strong, confident girl is really a full-time job for parents. And as we become more busy, more distracted, our lives are just full, it just becomes even more challenging, but it is an important challenge to take — to take over.

GWEN IFILL: Angelica Perez, CEO and publisher of New Latina, and Peggy Orenstein, author of “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,” thank you both so much.


PEGGY ORENSTEIN: Thank you so much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just to note, Gwen did that interview yesterday.


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