Don’t Call Me Princess: Essays on Girls, Women, Sex, and Life


“Don’t Call Me Princess” is Peggy Orenstein’s best hits album, and like “Michael Jackson Number Ones,” the content justifies its own compilation. Few pop stars can identify important topics, compose poetry about them, and deliver it with perfect pitch; most do one or two, but not all three. It’s similarly rare for a journalist to write critically on subjects that don’t seem salient until she dubs them so and with diction that sings (e.g., “April is a distraction, as would be any student who cannot catch up but will not drop out”). Plus, I learned cool stuff.

The following excerpts showcase Orenstein’s insightfulness, in the form of introspection and empathy, detail and synthesis:

Looking back on her career, [Nobel prize-winning scientist Elizabeth Blackburn] believes she was subject to plenty of bias; like many successful women in nontraditional fields, she was just particularly adept at denying it. “I was oblivious for a long time,” she recalls, “and that’s the way I coped. It was very much a defense. If I had stopped and thought about it, I would’ve felt so vulnerable to it.”


It isn’t easy to watch a daughter’s incipient forays into romance and sexuality. If Miranda [Cosgrove, Nickelodeon’s “iCarly”] embodies the wish that girls could engage in the former without the latter, Chris was acting out a parent’s desire to ensure it. Most of us don’t (and can’t) chaperone our daughters at school, at concerts, at public appearances. Most of us accept, if with some ambivalence, that our daughters have to navigate the turbulence of romantic life on their own. Most of us have no choice but to let our daughters go.


In its zeal to find them, science has outpaced the medical, psychological, and ethical implications of its discoveries.


For years I had thought of myself as a Weeble, one of those roly-poly children’s toys that “wobble but they don’t fall down.” I had, after all, survived breast cancer in my thirties, an age when it tends to be especially deadly; after three miscarriages and six years of infertility, I got pregnant in my forties with my daughter. There were other crises, too, of the heart and the head as well as the body—how could there not be after five decades of living?—but they didn’t define me. I’ve always popped up fine. Yet lately, incrementally, I had begun to feel defective, emotionally diminished rather than strengthened by trauma, in danger of becoming the sum of my pain. Had that happened after this latest bout of cancer or before? I couldn’t say. But I felt cleaved, a word that also means its opposite: cleaved to this body, whether I liked it or not, and from it by its many betrayals.


During the “Mommy Wars” of the early 2000s, women who stayed home with children were pitted in the media against mothers who worked for pay and neither side emerged a winner. Womens’ insecurities were ripe for exploitation: after all, in what I would come to call a “half-changed world,” others’ choices can feel like a rebuke.


Whether or not they worked outside the home, the vast majority of women had made concessions to parenthood in a way that men, for the most part, still do not. That’s why words like “balance,” “trade-off,” and “work-family conflict” have become as feminine as pink tulle.


Women complained to me that their husbands didn’t pull their domestic weight, but time after time, I heard them let men off the hook. A thirty-eight year-old technical writer I interviewed in San Francisco was typical: “You know,” she mused after running down a litany of frustrations, “my husband is really involved compared with his own father.” I pushed, pointing out that this sets the bar too low. Shouldn’t we be comparing men’s involvement with that of their wives instead? “Well,” said another mom, “you can’t really expect that.” I tried putting it another way: “It seems to me that women, whatever their arrangements, feel like lesser mothers than those of the previous generation. Meanwhile men, even with minimal participation at home, feel like better fathers.”


[T]here are no studies proving that playing princess directly damages girls’ self-esteem or dampens other aspirations. On the other hand, there is evidence that young women who hold the most conventionally feminine beliefs—who avoid conflict and think they should be perpetually nice and pretty—are more likely to be depressed than others and less likely to use contraception…. [And] school-age girls overwhelmingly reported a paralyzing pressure to be “perfect”: not only to get straight A’s and be the student-body president, editor of the newspaper, and captain of the swim team but also to be “kind and caring,” “please everyone, be very thin and dress right.” Give those girls a pumpkin and a glass slipper and they’d be in business…. It doesn’t seem to be “having it all” that’s getting to them; it’s the pressure to be it all. In telling our girls they can be anything, we have inadvertently demanded that they be everything. To everyone. All the time.


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