Peggy Orenstein counts girls

Peggy Orenstein blogged about the typical response she gets when she points out kids’ movies are mostly all about boys. People argue there’s gender equality, pointing out token ‘strong girls:’ what about Jesse in Toy Story? Dory in Finding Nemo? That girl chef in Ratatouille?

Here’s the problem: The girl is not the star of the movie! The movie is not her story, her experience. Hermione is a great character, smart and strong, but the series belongs to Harry. It’s all about Harry’s quest. It’s Harry’s adventure.

The reason this is so important is because its literal programming, training girls that no matter how brilliant they may be, they will be limited to supporting roles.

Orenstein does a great count of boy versus girl characters in Pixar films. Read her blog here.

New study finds ‘huge gender imbalance’ in kidlit

The Guardian reports on a new, extensive study on gender in children’s books by Florida State University Professor Janice McCabe that found male characters far outnumber girl characters. This lack results in “a symbolic annihilation of women and girls” in the real world.

The gender disparity sends the message that “women and girls occupy a less important role in society than men or boys.” Here’s just one stat: “Male animals are central characters in 23% of books per year, the study found, while female animals star in only 7.5%.”

The Guardian reports:

The authors of the study said that even gender-neutral animal characters are frequently labeled as male by mothers reading to their children, which only “exaggerates the pattern of female under-representation”. “These characters could be particularly powerful, and potentially overlooked, conduits for gendered messages,” they said. “The persistent pattern of disparity among animal characters may reveal a subtle kind of symbolic annihilation of women disguised through animal imagery…”

“I guess the challenge is to write books for boys that have female characters in, that the boys will relate to. It’s a sad fact that books written for boys do tend to fall rapidly into the old stereotypes, and the action figures, baddies etc are generally male, and very straightforward males as well. I try to get away from that. It’s a been a while since I wrote an action-type book, but I am working on one now and it does involve four young people – two girls, two boys – and I always try to make my girls really stand out.”

But it’s not only an absence of female central characters which is a problem in children’s books, believes former children’s laureate Anne Fine: it’s how the women are represented when they do appear. “Publishers rightly take care to put in positive images of a mix of races, but seem not to even notice when they use stereotypical and way out-of-date images of women,” she said”…

The notion, meanwhile, that boys only read books by and about males does “become a self-fulfilling prophecy”, Fine said. “More worryingly, in these new lists of recommended books for boys, there’s a heap of fantasy and violence, very little humour (except for the poo and bum sort), and almost no family novels at all. If you offer boys such a narrow view of the world, and don’t offer them novels that show them dealing with normal family feelings, they will begin to think this sort of stuff is not for them.”

Fine believes that “women should be giving a much beadier eye to the books they share with children … It’s important to balance much loved old-fashioned classics with stuff that evens things up a bit and reflects women’s current role in the world,” she said.

What about dads reading to kids? But otherwise, great points. These stats are sad, but still, I’m happy to see that the gender disparity in the imaginary world is getting more and more attention, because its so obvious, yet so accepted, it’s paradoxically invisible. Back in 2007, I wrote about the sexism in the blockbuster movie Ratatouille for the San Jose Mercury News after I went to see it with my four year old daughter. You can read the full piece here, but here’s an excerpt:

After I saw “The Lion King,” I wanted to know: Why couldn’t the lionesses have attacked weak, old Scar? Why did they have to wait around for Simba to come back to Pride Rock to help them? I was told: that’s how it is in nature – lionesses need a male to lead the pride. So a lion can be best friends with a warthog and a meerkat without gobbling them up, but a lioness heading a pride? That could never happen in the animal kingdom!…

The hyper-concern for gender accuracy in the fantasy world extends to things like plush toys – when I refer to my kid’s animals as “she,” adults invariably do a double take, checking for manes or tusks: even female toys must stay in their place.

If you watch classic Tom and Jerry now on a DVD , there’s a note on the screen before the cartoon begins recognizing the racial stereotypes and explaining about the era it was created. There’s no mention about gender whatsoever. There are hardly any females in Tom and Jerry at all. Unless there’s a love interest, then she’s got bright red lips and bats her eyelashes constantly as Tom and Jerry compete over her. I guess she’s just part of our 2011 era.

More invisble women

Women’s Media Center just posted a great, short video on YouTube called “WMC at Sundance Film festival 2011” that gets across how invisible women and women’s stories are in the media. See the video here

As a potential mirror of our dreams and our realities, the media is seriously warped. Women are 53% of our population. How different would the world be if the media reflected women’s imaginations and points of view with the same attention it does men’s? Can you even picture it? Sometimes I think men have no idea what it’s like to exist in a world created by male fantasy. The problem isn’t that men are bad or that men are sexist; it’s that women need to be able to be the ones to tell their own stories.

Stats from the video:

72% of G-rated film characters are male. I just blogged about this yesterday

4 women have received best director nods, 1 woman has won

77% of film critics are male

86% of films had no female writers

5x more skin shown by women than men from G to R rated films

7% of top films in 2009 were directed by women (same stat as back in 1987)

24% of people interviewed in news are women

13% of guests on Sunday news shows are women

16% of news stories focus on women

67% of guests on major cable networks are men

26% of sources on NPR are women.

Academy unveils new Oscar statuette

Today, just after announcing the nominations for the 83rd Academy Awards, Academy president Tom Sherak said that this year’s Oscars will feature a brand new statuette. Sherak said, “Our hope is that the new model will lift the Oscar curse once and for all.”

New Oscar statuette for 83rd Academy Awards

The Oscar curse– the phenomenon that after actresses get the award, their marriages break up– has been a PR problem for the Academy. Past victims include Julia Roberts, Reese Witherspoon, and Kate Winslet, but the last straw was last year’s winner, Sandra Bullock.

In 2010, just after Bullock won the award, she discovered her scumbag biker husband, Jesse James, was having an affair with tatoo artist Michelle ‘Bombshell’ McGee and probably other women as well. Bullock and James had just adopted a new baby.

Sandra Bullock wins Best Actress Oscar in 2010

Concerned that Natalie Portman, this year’s favorite to win, is not only newly engaged but about to become a mother as well, the Academy decided something had to be done to protect Hollywood marriages and the children involved, along with the Academy’s reputation.

Sherak said,”When women win, men are left in the audience clapping and smiling like First Ladies! Not only that, but their wives are publicly recognized for being successful and beautiful. Hollywood has worked hard to assure men they never have to worry about being sexually attracted to a powerful woman. And if all that humiliation isn’t enough, we award these women a giant, gold phallic symbol. It’s just too much.”

Sherak then unveiled the new model, saying, “Our hope is that this statuette will protect both Hollywood marriages and actresses careers.”

When past winner Reese Witherspoon heard the news, she said, “I wish this statuette had been around when I won! Sure, Ryan and I had problems, but seeing me kiss my new Oscar just pushed him over the edge.”

Although Nicole Kidman’s career soared after her breakup with Tom Cruise, she disagreed that the statue caused jealousy, saying it kept her close to her ex-husband.”Tom used to come over just to hold it,” she said.

American kids in ‘creativity crisis’

For the first time American children’s scores are going down on creativity scales, Newsweek reports.

How do we know this is happening? The ‘gold standard’ of creativity is measured by a series of tests created in the 50s by psychologist E. Paul Torrance. The tests study ‘divergent thinking’ which means coming up with varied solutions to questions like ‘how many ways can you use a spoon?’

Newsweek reports: “Those who came up with more good ideas on Torrance’s tasks grew up to be entrepreneurs, inventors, college presidents, authors, doctors, diplomats, and software developers.”

But recently, Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William & Mary analyzed almost 300,000 ‘Torrance scores’ of children and adults, discovering that for the first time, creativity in American kids is declining. Kim is quoted in Newsweek: “It’s very clear, and the decrease is very significant…the scores of younger children in America-from kindergarten through sixth grade-for whom the decline is “most serious.”

Why is this downturn happening?

Newsweek reports it’s too early to tell but that “one likely culprit is the number of hours kids now spend in front of the TV and playing videogames rather than engaging in creative activities.”

Peggy Orenstein supports that theory in her new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Orenstein writes that right at the stage when our kids’ brains should be growing by engaging in fantasy play and having varied experiences, instead children are thrust into a monochromatic world, relentlessly bombarded by images and products from corporations like Disney. In her book, Orenstein interviews neuroscientists and educators, showing how the princess culture could be affecting brain development.

In a Mother Jones interview, Orenstein says she was surprised to discover that one of her biggest jobs as a parent was protecting her daughter’s imagination, trying to make sure it isn’t “colonized by these prescribed scripts.”

Yet another good reason to let your daughters skip the ball.

Female desire and the princess culture

Thank you Peggy Orenstein for writing the brilliant book Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Every parent should read this new, excellent analysis of the ubiquitous princess kid-culture and its various mutations in the world of grown-up women.


Orenstein, a NY Times journalist, mom, and writer takes on and deconstructs two (so annoying!) messages every parent hears if she dares to challenge the monarchy of these frothy creatures.

Myth number one: we’re just giving girls what they want!

Orenstein responds with a brief history of marketing and information on child brain development– some major points paraphrased here:

Pink Children were not color-coded until early twentieth century. Before that, babies wore all white, because to get clothing clean, it had to be boiled. Boys and girls also used to all wear dresses. When nursery colors were introduced, pink was more masculine, a pastel version of the red, which was associated with strength. Blue was like the Virgin Mary and symbolized innocence, thus the girl color. When the color switched is vague. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Alice in Wonderland all wear blue. Sleeping Beauty’s gown was switched to pink to differentiate her from Cinderella.

Baby doll In an 1898 survey, less than 25% of girls said dolls were their favorite toy. “President Theodore Roosevelt… obsessed with declining birth rates among white, Anglo-Saxon women, began waging a campaign against ‘race-suicide.’ When women ‘feared motherhood,” he warned, our nation trembled on the ‘brink of doom.’ Baby dolls were seen as a way to revive the flagging maternal instinct of girls, to remind them of their patriotic duty to conceive; within a few years, dolls were ubiquitous, synonymous with girlhood itself. Miniature brooms, dustpans, and stoves tutored these same young ladies in the skills of homemaking…”

Princess When Orenstein herself was a kid, being called a Princess, specifically Jewish-American, was the worst insult a kid (and her family) could get. How had a generation transformed this word into a coveted compliment?

Disney Princesses as a group brand did not exist until 2000. Disney hired Andy Mooney from Nike. He went to a Disney on Ice show and saw little girls in homemade princess costumes. Disney had never marketed characters outside of a movie release and never princesses from different movies together. Roy Disney was against it, and that’s why, still, even on pull-ups, you won’t see the princesses looking at each other. (How’s that for a model for girls in groups or female friendships?) Princesses are now marketed to girls ages 2 – 6. Mooney began the campaign by envisioning a girl’s room and thinking about a princess fantasy: what kind of clock would a princess have? What type of bedding? Dora and Mattel followed suit with Dora and Barbie princess versions and then along came everyone else.

Toddler Clothing manufacturers in the 1930s counseled department stores that in order to increase sales they should create a ‘third stepping stone’ between infant wear and older kids clothing

Tween Coined in the mid-1980s as a marketing contrivance (originally included kids 8 – 15)

More on tweens, toddlers, girls and boys: if there is micro-segmentation of products by age and gender, people buy more stuff. If kids need a pink bat and a blue bat, you double your sales. Orenstein writes: “Splitting kids and adults, or for that matter, penguins, into ever tinier categories has proved a surefire way to boost profits. So where there was once a big group called kids we now have toddlers, pre-schoolers, tweens, young-adolescents and older adolescents, each with their own developmental and marketing profile…One of the easiest ways to segment the market is to magnify gender differences or invent them where they did not previously exist.”

SeoWoo and Her Pink Things by JeongMee Yoon SeoWoo and Her Pink Things by JeongMee Yoon 

One major fallout of gendering every plaything? “Segregated toys discourage cross-sex friendships.” Boys and girls stop playing together. Orenstein writes about the long-term effects: “This is a public health issue. It becomes detrimental to relationships, to psychological health and well-being, when boys and girls don’t learn how to talk to one another…Part of the reason we have the divorce rates we do, domestic violence, dating violence, stalking behaviors, sexual harassment is because the lack of ability to communicate between men and women.”

Orenstein argues: “Eliminating divorce or domestic violence may be an ambitious mandate for a pre-school curriculum, but its not without basis: young children who have friends of the opposite sex have a more positive transition into dating as teenagers and sustain their romantic relationships better.”

Myth #2: that princess stuff is just a phase– she’ll grow out of it!

Princesses are marketed to girls 2 – 6 years old; there’s something very creepy and dangerous about making these kids victims of billion dollar industries. Kids brains are literally being formed, they’re malleable. So this little phase is helping to create a brain that lasts forever.

Scientists have pretty much moved on from the anachronistic, simplistic debate of nature versus nurture. It’s now understood that nature and nurture form and create each other in an endless loop. Your experiences influence your wiring.

For example, small kids can make all kinds of sounds to learn languages. Lise Eliot, author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain is quoted by Orenstein: “Babies are born ready to absorb the sounds, grammar, and intonation of any language, but then the brain wires it up only to perceive and produce a specific language. After puberty, its possible to learn another language but far more difficult. I think of gender differences similarly. The ones that exist become amplified by the two different cultures that boys and girls are immersed in from birth. This contributes to the way their emotional and cognitive circuits get wired.”

“It’s not that pink is intrinsically bad, it is such a tiny slice of the rainbow,” Orenstein writes. To grow brains, kids need more, varied experiences, not fewer.

Phases don’t vanish, they mutate.

Orenstein’s book traces how the real life Disney stars/ girl princesses (i.e. Lindsay Lohan, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Hilary Duff, Miley Cyrus etc) attempt to make their transitions from girl-princesses into adult ones; or more crassly, from virgin to whore. Orenstein writes it’s impossible to commodify one end of the spectrum and not the other, and there are so few models of healthy female sexuality out there. She writes, “Our daughters may not be faced with the decision of whether to strip for Maxim, but they will have to figure out how to become sexual beings without being objectified or stigmatized.” All that early training for girls to focus incessantly on their appearance lasts a lifetime. What happens when these girls try to grow up? Orenstein writes girls learn, “Look sexy, but don’t feel sexual, to provoke desire in others without experiencing it themselves.”

How does this emphasis on dressing up and attention for appearance affect kids as they grow? Stephen Hinshaw, quoted from his book The Triple Bind, explains, “Girls pushed to be sexy too soon can’t really understand what they’re doing…they may never learn to connect their performance to erotic feelings or intimacy. They learn how to act desirable, but not to desire, undermining, rather than promoting, healthy sexuality.”

The basic message I got from this book: the issue is not pink or princesses, but to give your kid more experiences not less. Remember– many colors in the rainbow!

(1) Encourage and reinforce cross-gender play. If your daughter is playing with a boy, acknowledge it, reinforce what they’re doing. You are the biggest influence in your kid’s life, you’re not ‘just another person.’ Talk to your kids pre-school teachers and administrators about encouraging cross-gender play. There is lots in this book about how teachers are not trained in this area at all and miss opportunities to help brains grow.

(2) Remember, your kid is not a small adult. She has a different brain. Help that brain grow! If your son picks up a My Little Pony, buy it for him instead of yet another car. It won’t make him gay! It will make him smart!

(3) Your kids are watching you! Again, they are not just little people with fully formed minds. If you criticize your appearance (or another woman’s), how you treat your partner, how you eat, she takes note.

Join the Rumplestiltskin Campaign! sEXISTs EXIST

At first, it sounds empowering, it’s a woman to woman CEO winning relay. How often does that happen? Well, Never! reports:

Anne Mulcahy, who last decade turned Xerox around and last year turned over the CEO reins, today gave up the chairman title to Ursula Burns, her CEO successor. It’s all quite historic since Burns is the Fortune 500’s first black female CEO. Theirs was the first-ever woman-to-woman CEO hand-off in the ranks of America’s largest corporations. 

The bummer is, of course, the female CEO switcheroo keeps the gender CEO stats of Fortune 500 companies in their exact same pathetic state at 3% female. Robin Marty reports on

Women CEOs lead in only 15 of the 500 companies, or 3 percent. Even worse, there was no gain in female leadership since last year; for every woman who entered the list, another was lost.

Here are some facts about American women, who make up 52% of citizens in the country of the free and the brave and 46.5% of our labor force.

Women hold 15.2% of seats on the boards of Fortune 500 companies.

Women are 19% of partners in law firms.

Women represent 17% of the United States Congress.

Throughout our history only three women have held the office of Supreme Court Justice.

There are only seven female governors.

Women make up 14% of all guest appearances on the influential Sunday television talk shows; among repeat guests, only 7% are women.

Only 15% of the authors on the The New York Times best seller list for nonfiction are women.

Only about 20% of op-eds in America’s newspapers are by women.

In Hollywood, women make up:

8% of all writers

17% of all executive producers

23% of all producers

18% of all editors

2% of all cinematographers

I’m so tired of people acting as if we live in some postfeminist era, as if we’ve achieved equality, and everything is groovy now.

Sadly, people take sexism even less seriously than racism, often attributing gender crimes to cultural beliefs instead of the political practices they are. When I was in college and everyone was protesting aparthied in South Africa in the quad, in my sociology class next door I was learning that female gender mutilation was just fine because that’s “their culture.” Not only that but “women do it to each other” so it can’t really be sexist. It took me years to undo the relative ethics dogma I learned in my college education in early the nineties.

When I was producing talk radio programs later in that same decade, I wanted the liberal talk show host I worked with to discuss the Taliban. I’d tell him: “It’s gender aparthieid. The laws are completely different for women and men and nobody seems to care at all.”

At that time, one of the only vocal, public figures in America even speaking about the Taliban was Mavis Leno, Jay Leno’s wife. I’m serious. Mavis Leno. That’s how I found out about about the slavery of women across the world, not through my president, other politicians, the New York Times, campus protests or liberal talk show hosts like the one I worked for. When I insisted to the host the Taliban mattered, that you can’t isolate those kinds of sick beliefs, he said, “Come on, how does the Taliban affect people in the Bay Area?”

Too often, sexism today is invisible to us, whether it’s too geographically distant or we’ve just become immune to witnessing women treated like objects instead of like humans. In 2010, just naming the enemy, calling it out, seems to be half the battle.

Rumplestiltskin CampaignMargot Magowan 

Rumplestiltskin Campaign

In her new book Committed, Elizabeth Gilbert’s used a Rumpelstiltskin simile which is totally applicable here. Rumpelstiltskin is, of course, the story about a girl forced into slavery, spinning straw into gold. She will only be freed when she can name one of her captors. When she discovers his name and calls it out, he loses his power and sets her free. Gilbert wrote, “Some fears can be vanquished, Rumpelstiltskin-like, only by uncovering their hidden, secret names.”

So today, I’m launching The Rumpelstiltskin campaign: sEXISTs EXIST. Post it where you see it on ReelGirl. Photos welcome. Stickers and signs are here. Logo needed. It won’t end sexism but at least it’s a step towards setting us free.

Geena Davis’ new study on gender bias in kids’ media

Variety reports:

The L.A.-based Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media is set to release this summer the findings of a lengthy study on gender roles in movies and TV shows aimed at viewers 11 and under. The org is also planning a daylong conference in L.A. this fall. The institute has a programming unit dubbed See Jane that aims to work with execs, creatives and other industry orgs to encourage the inclusion of a wider range of femme characters in kid-oriented programming.

Geena Davis

Academy Award winning actress Geena Davis says, “Kids need to see entertainment where females are valued as much as males.”

Here is her institute’s mission:

While watching children’s television programs and videos with her then 2-year old daughter, Academy Award winner Geena Davis noticed a remarkable imbalance in the ratio of male to female characters. From that small starting point, Davis went on to raise funds for the largest research project ever undertaken on gender in children’s entertainment.

The research showed that in the top-grossing G-rated films from 1990-2005, there were three male characters for every one female – a statistic that did not improve over time.

The concern was clear: What message does this send to young children?

I can’t wait for this new study. Thank you to Geena Davis for recognizing the gender bias in kids movies and doing something to change it. Go Thelma!

Jezebel responds to my post on Auntie Briagde

Anna S. writes on Jezebel after reading my post on the “Auntie Brigade” (inspired by Elizabeth Gilberts new book Committed) that she agrees childless women should be more valued in society, not necessarily for taking care of or inspiring others but also for their own accomplishments. Commenters tell Jezebel stories of important aunts in their lives.

Anna S. writes:

I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, I grew up really close to a childless aunt. She introduced me to the Archie McPhee catalog, let me stay up late while she told embarrassing stories about my mom, and taught me why they don’t send donkeys to college (nobody likes a smart ass). She’s been a pretty huge influence on my sense of humor and on my cultural tastes (though her tendency to remember only the one funny line from an otherwise shitty movie means I no longer go with her to Blockbuster), and she had a big enough hand in my brother’s and my upbringing that my mom used her to explain the concept of an allomother. That’s an animal who provides some care for other animals’ young, which seems to be sort of how Magowan understands aunts.

But: my aunt has also spent much of her life not caring for anybody’s young. She works, she plays with her dogs, she has a big network of friends and cousins she often travels to see. Helping raise us has certainly been part of her history, but she has many other identities besides “aunt,” and she deserves recognition as a person in her own right, not just as a contributor to my family. As Magowan points out, childless men are often “admired, or even envied, as the self-sufficient bachelors they are.” Childless women deserve to be admired for themselves too — not just for what they can do for others.