I don’t think I really recognized how much stuff I’ve avoided dealing with by only having boys until I read _Cinderella Ate My Daughter_ by Peggy Orenstein. You see, despite the fact that I joke about living in the testosterone house, or being the only female in a house of guys (until C. and K. recently returned to their family, there were 8 males and me – now we’re down to a mellow six males), my boys are growing up in a household without much in the way of rigid gender roles, or their toys. Given the combination of no girls and no tv, I am only vaguely aware of phenomena like Miley Cyrus or Disney Princesses. I had no idea that the Princess dresses were color coded, or that Princesses were a thing in and of themselves. I do have nieces, but I’m insulated from the day-to-day girl thing.

Still, sooner or later, taking big sibling groups, I’m bound to get a girl or two, and the few I’ve had have provided an education of sorts. Three year old K. came with a “Barbie’ (actually one of those pouty Bratz knock offs), and didn’t understand why I have no Barbies – it was a big deal, she was having a REALLY BAD DAY when she came to me, and dammit, she needed to play some Barbies. I don’t love Barbie, but when a child arrives with belt marks and hysterical fear that you too will beat her, Barbies are the least of my worries – in fact, if a Disney Princess or a Barbie can make a child feel that this is a pleasant and safe place to be, heck, I’m for it.

Since then, I’ve actually been keeping an eye out for used Barbie dolls, especially non-white ones (will barter books for your old ones, btw, please drop me a line), because while I don’t love Barbie, I don’t feel that addressing gender stereotypes is my first priority with foster kids – usually we have to deal with food, safety, trauma and other things first. There’s time enough later on for me to talk about the limited merits of bazongas the size of Tahiti. So I am slowingly accumulating nice dolls and clothes for them, Barbies and glittery dress up clothes – things in short supply previously at my home (I will barter books for any of these items if you have old ones in good shape that you’d like to get rid of – I am particularly interested in non-white dolls).

Because I have no actual daughters, and the kids who come to me are pretty traumatized, I have a sort of peripheral relationship to the question of princessiness – by the time they get to me, life is so hard for them that I don’t actually care very much about what subtle messages about body image and self-worth that may be sent to the kids – I’m too busy taping them back together from the big destruction of their self-worth – neglect, abuse, separation from their families. First we have to get to “you are a person who doesn’t deserve to be hurt” before we can approach “you are a person whose self-worth should not be focused on appearance.”

That does not, however, mean those issues aren’t real, or don’t have a real place in my future thoughts about daughters. In fact, kids who have been traumatized are more vulnerable to consumer culture that tells them they are valueless except what they wear/have/own. Girls who have been in foster care have demonstrably worse relationships to body image and self worth, and are prone to all the bad outcomes. But that’s for the long term, and at this point I’ve had no girls for more than 5 days, so all I can do is put band-aids on and send them home with some toys and clothes. The rest comes over time – hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to get there someday with kids who stay.

What was revealing to me about _Cinderella Ate my Daughter_ was not just how gendered and commercialized girlhood has become (I had no idea, since we almost never buy any toy new, that there were pink versions of just about every toy and game), but the degree to which, in my single-gendered household, we never worry about girl-boy markers. Even with foster children who grew up in very different family cultures than mine, there is rarely more than a quick question – for example, the bedroom that most of our kids have lived in includes a toy kitchen. Asher, C. and K. spent a lot of time preparing plastic sushi and wooden salads for me. C. did ask whether the kitchen was only for girls, but when I pointed out that there aren’t any here, he was happy to play with it. In a home where there are specific markers for boy and girl, that might have been harder to get him to do so. And that would have been a pity.

In fact, we have a lot of “girl” toys and always have. Both Isaiah and Asher went through phases of loving the color pink (for a while when I would say “Asher likes pink” Asher would correct me – he’d say “Mooooom…I don’t LIKE pink, I AM pink.” ) I loved that , and was sorry to see them age out of it. Before they did, however, we had a large collection of pink pajamas, a pink Fisher-Price castle, a pink bat and ball, a pink soccer ball, a pink-and-purple bike and a bunch of pink bedding.

We also have boys who love and collect stuffed animals (and play with them), and a son who went through a stage of addiction to the American Girl books (only the books, he was never interested in the dolls, sadly, but we own almost all the books). My oldest doesn’t care about or recognize gender difference at all due to his autism, the other three only barely do (Simon’s response when I had to explain why even though his friend pulled up his shirt, he couldn’t do the same to her, because of the differences between boy flat chests and girl flat chests…”Seriously? That’s really stupid, Mom, but ok.”) When foster children have asserted gender differences to my kids, they have generally been dismissive, (No, that’s not for girls, boys can play with anything they want) and it comes out very differently when it is kids talking to other kids, rather than an attempt by adults to lecture. The combination of homeschooling and never having any reason to say “Oh, that’s because he’s a boy” means that we’ve just managed to skip over a certain amount of gendered stuff.

Despite the pink phase, we never had princesses, and I didn’t realize how ubiquitous they were. I don’t have any princessy memories of my own childhood at all. I was a classic tomboy in many respects but I liked dolls and dresses, but I just don’t remember being obsessed with pink, with sparkling and dressing up like a princess. I honestly don’t remember identifying with princess characters in movies I saw, either. Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, yes, the heroine in _East of the Sun, West of the Moon_, sure, but princesses? It just doesn’t ring a bell. I remember not liking the color pink very much as a kid either – I liked bright green and orange (I still do), and as a preteen, black (of course), but pink?

There isn’t much that doesn’t come in pink now. I had noticed this vaguely as I built up a collection of girl clothes – I instinctively prefer colors other than pastels, and pink is not a fave, but an awful lot of the clothes I found were pink. I noticed it most when I found an occasional item in a primary color that I loved – a size four green and black shirt with bird designs, a bright red and purple sweater, a yellow and cream jacket…that is, I would notice how little color choice there was mostly when I saw something that wasn’t pink or purple. Now there might be more out there – I don’t shop new, but you couldn’t tell from my stash.

I also noticed the ummm..hootchie factor. Looking at a size six girl’s shirt and a size six boy’s shirt, there is only about half as much fabric in the former as the latter. While a lot of friends and readers who sent me clothes for my foster stash clearly had taste similar to mine, I got some truly horrifying stuff – short-shorts with the name of a store on the butt (for a four year old!), midriff cut shirts that said “bad girl,” even a set of girl’s winter boots for a six year old that had high heels. When receiving bags of outgrown clothing I’ve always had a “over my dead body” bag, but for the most part it was limited to a few commercial tie ins, NASCAR and militaristic stuff for my boys. With girl stuff the bag got full fast and the language go stronger “over my dead and rotting corpse” was more like it. Some kids in foster care have been sexually abused and the last thing they need to deal with is a lack of bodily privacy and commodification at too young an age. Sometimes as much stuff went as came in – no matter how badly I might need clothes, I have my limits.

Peggy Orenstein documents how everything is pink, talks about the messages all that princessy stuff and the adjuncts send, etc…and the problem of consumer culture and its pinkization of everything. It is a brilliant marketing scheme, because, of course, a family that has a daughter and buys a pink baseball bat will inevitably buy a regular one when they have a son – if girls have to have everything pink, you can sell twice as much. She does a laudable job showing how even the better options, in that they are less sexualized, (American Girl, for example) really create a commodified girlhood in which mothers and daughters don’t so much do together as buy together.

Where I think Orenstein doesn’t quite go far enough is in her fundamental critique of consumer culture, although she does go a fair ways, back and forth, always with analysis and self-doubt. Women are the primary drivers of American consumer culture, influencing or directly making almost 80% of all purchases. Orenstein gets that consumer culture is a big part of the problem, but she doesn’t see it as a soluble problem – the answer is to make better stuff for girls that isn’t so sexist or sexualized – to make a truly less frou-frou legos like this (from 1981):

Image RemovedUltimately I’m not convinced you can have any kind of functional relationship with consumer culture – even though, of course, I have one. I live in large measure off the waste of industrial society, a waste that will probably dry up some day. Orenstein quotes a an industry exec at a toy marketing conference as saying, to her question “Do you have to have all this pink?”: “Only if you want to make money.” She points out that the constant fragmentation of children into ever-smaller groups that require different clothes, toys, etc… is part unlikely to stop – she observes that “toddlerhood” was not initially a psychological concept, but a marketing one to get people to buy gendered clothing earlier. Psychologists took it up, but it was based on marketing – a similar phenomenon to the emergence of “tweens” and (ugh) “pre-tweens.” The more you divide, the more you buy. The more different boys and girls and boys and girls of different ages are markered out to be, the more you sell.

I have a theory about the pinkization myself. Femininity used to be commodified by giving children the cultural markers of feminine WORK – little girls got toy kitchens, baby dolls, toy brooms, toy houses. Domestic labor was what marked out womanhood. This definitely sucked in some ways, if instead of the erector set you got a toy wash basin, and you really wanted the erector set, but the cool thing about it was that you told little girls that in some measure they were being defined by their competence. Yes, it was a limited sphere. No, the “you can’t have an erector set because you are a girl” is wrong. But in trying to end the “the only work you can do is girl work” we replaced it with “girls don’t do anything different, so you have to define yourself in other measures – by how you look and what color you wear.”

Now it is color, certain categories of uber-femme stuff (glitter, dresses, fairy wings, etc…). As Orenstein rightly points out, there are periods in girlhood when gender is an extremely rigid concept for children, because they are just emerging from an idea that it might be fluid, that they might actually change gender by trying out other-gendered stuff. But because we have so systematically devalued women’s work of all kinds, and domestic labor, categorizing it as largely worthless, we’ve had to invent a new category of “female” – she’s pretty in pink. That’s how you tell you are a female.

Now as we all know, I think domestic labor should be shared across genders – and I live that conviction, as does my husband and sons. But I also think traditional women’s work has tremendous cultural value and impact – that the externalization and loss of domestic labor has been an economic and ecological disaster for the planet. While domestic work shouldn’t only be feminine, if you ask me whether I’d rather my daughter have a shirt that says “little hottie” on it and a makeover birthday party at 7. or a toy kitchen and a baby doll to rock, well, I don’t find that too tough a question. When we threw out and devalued domestic labor, we set the stage for the uber-pink world in which a girl’s cuteness is all.

That’s why I so loathe the category of children’s book that begins “Our heroine Fuffynooners is a spirited girl who despite growing up in the Colonial/Medieval/whatever era, hates to sew and knit, but really likes to rescue slaves on horseback from the underground railroad.” Besides the unbelievable picture of history they paint, I find it repulsive that in a culture where not knowing how to sew a seam is the norm, sewing is still being used as a metaphor for “oppression.” Female domestic labor could be and often was liberating for women – a way of expressing themselves, a place they could succeed. While it sucks to be tied to a thimble only at the cost of education, and it is worth teaching children about that history, do we really need to convince young women that being spunky and spirited mostly means being cute and refusing to learn to take care of domestic life?

In the end, we devalued and sexualized girls to make money. We also devalued and erased domestic labor to make money – that is, it is much more profitable for the larger economy to have you eat out than to cook, to have you throw out those ripped jeans than repair them, and to buy a pink and a blue scrabble set. By tying domestic labor, rather than social attitudes to gender repression, and making one the marker of the other, we made sure that plenty of money would be made both on girls who have no real work, no valuable skills to attach to their identity as girls (other than making themselves pretty), and that their mothers too would be set free to earn the money in the formal economy to buy them their tiaras.

The irony of this is that I still am looking for non-white Barbie dolls, I still need a couple of glittery tiaras, and I am keeping an eye on Craigslist for used American girl dolls. If I gave birth to a girl (not bloody gonna happen), I might have a chance of avoiding the princess thing entirely, but the kids who come to me have pasts, and as I said, Barbie is way down on the list of things to worry about. But to my mind, what kids need is not the absence of that pink stuff, but something affirmative that they can do that identifies them as girls – that doesn’t mean it has to be the exclusive territory of girls, but even historical categories of women’s work give kids something to do, rather than buy. Making doll clothes for tarty 9 inch fashion dolls was my earliest sewing project, recognizing that as Orenstein notes, Princesses don’t really DO anything, but women, well, not only do we do all sorts of non-gendered things, but there are cool historical categories like fiber arts and home cooking, that while not exclusively female, were pioneered by women and that can mark you as the inheritor of a kind of important femininity.

As we all know, the planet cannot support a world where every kid has to have their own colored toys, and four billion of them. All frou-frou is not bad (I’m not an especially frou-frou person, but even I like it sometimes) but no kid needs an all pink and glitter world. More importantly, the things we threw out in redefining girlhood and womanhood are things we’re going to need – and scramble to get back.

How will this actually play out? Who knows, and if they keep sending me more boys, well, I may never know. I’ll keep you all updated.