I would love to lock Peggy Orenstein in a room with the authors of “Taming Your Alpha Bitch.” I picture her melting the women with the heat of her wordless disapproving stare, the female misogynists dissolving into fairy-tale-esque piles of snug-fitting skirt suits and spiked heels. She writes of mothers’ struggle to “guide their daughters to an authentic, unconflicted balance of feminism and femininity, one that will sustain rather than constrain them.” In prose that generally flows but tends to favor academic hyper-accuracy and inclusivity at the expense of readability (yes, I’m the pot, but she’s still black), she dissects the pink princess craze as a symptom of a “clearly hazardous” larger societal problem: “over-emphasizing a girl’s looks.” As girls grow, the pitfalls morph from over-consumption of plastic princess paraphernalia and internalization of its message (that good things happen to females who look pretty and wait patiently) to answering social media’s siren call of branding and marketing oneself.
I’m not sure I totally buy Orenstein’s conclusion – that identity, femininity, and sex all “become a performance, something to ‘do’ rather than to ‘experience’” which keeps girls from understanding their own needs and asserting themselves – but there’s something to it. Her feminism tiptoes right up to the line of off-putting, over-sensitive nagging, but stops just short, making fair points that resonate with me. No, I don’t interpret “The Little Mermaid” as a message that one must give up her voice to win a man (after all, Ariel was independently intrigued by the world above long before she met Prince Eric, and she made a series of calculated and brazen choices). But strangers are more likely to comment on my daughter’s looks or outfit than my son’s in making small talk, and salespeople do automatically offer her the pink balloon. When Orenstein writes that girls are taught “that sexiness confers power – unless you use it,” I simultaneously think, “well, that’s true” and cringe about the age at which the message is communicated by the two-piece leopard and hot pink toddler bathing suit I ran across at Target. I don’t swallow her theories whole, but there’s plenty of value to chew on.
On the other hand, like a kid on the chocolate train at the Hershey’s factory, I’m totally on board with Orenstein’s practical suggestions. She proposes that mothers refrain from commenting on our own appearance as much as possible. This admonition jives with advice I once heard for combating disordered eating in young girls: if a pair of pants makes your ass look big, criticize the pants as unflattering, not the ass. (Hmm, sartorial aspersion. “You call that a pant leg? More like a Chinese handcuff, you useless pair of you-know-what. You’re like seersucker, always just hanging around, waiting for a day in the sun that will never come.” I can do that.) She also recommends telling your daughter she’s beautiful, but not when she’s all gussied up and not just on the outside, suggesting phrases like “everything about you is beautiful.” As she ages, Orenstein says to “talk with her” about how films and products present girls because dialogue “in the end, is the best weapon we parents have.” While she supports limiting access to toys or media, she warns against “[g]oing all Amish on your middle school or high school daughter” so as to avoid backlash in the form of infatuation with the forbidden fruit.
Orenstein acknowledges that walking this line and finding alternatives can be hard. I know. I realized that my three year-old daughter’s costume box had become a little tutu-heavy and aimed to diversify, ordering a chef costume and pilot garb. The Melissa and Doug “role play” sets came in packaging bearing a photo array of all the outfits produced by the company. As I excitedly opened her present, she looked toward the discarded insert with ever-widening eyes, finally uttering, in an awed whisper, “Mommy, can I have that one?” My inner lioness roared in frustration when I saw her adorable mini-finger pointing to the pink and purple hair stylist costume. And yet I soldier on, aided by Orenstein’s one specific product endorsement – Hayao Miyazaki’s movies that portray girls as “neither hyperfeminine nor drearily feminist” – and her bottom line: just do what you can to counteract the message that “how you look is how you feel, as well as who you are” and help “girls to see themselves from the inside out rather than outside in.”
My only real criticism is that Orenstein ought to write more, including how we can parent our boys both to see girls from the inside out and to help girls see themselves that way, as well as updates on her daughter’s development (like Amy Chua, she writes with anecdotal evidence that would be more compelling if her daughter weren’t still battling it out in the trenches of youth).
While her dry, sparse humor and serious subject matter render Orenstein’s book ineligible for the page-turner award, I highly recommend it as a worthwhile read for all parents, not just those whose daughters dissolve in hysterics when told they may not wear tiaras to bed.