‘Not a single onesie in all of humankind had a little girl and an airplane on it’

After JCPenney’s  “I’m too pretty to do my homework so my brother had to do it for me,” shirt for girls incited a protest that went viral, Pigtail Pals, a site that creates clothing empowering to girls, put out a best-selling shirt that reads “Pretty’s got nothing to do with it.”

Now Reel Girl talks to Pigtail Pals’ awesome founder, Melissa Wardy:

Why did you create Pigtail Pals?

I created Pigtail Pals in honor of my daughter, Amelia, named after Amelia Earhart, when I was looking for a cute outfit for her as an infant and could find only pink and princess. Not a single onesie in all of humankind had a little girl and an airplane on it. I thought girls deserved more empowering and diverse messages than just sparkles and tiaras.

What are your best-sellers?

This fall the best sellers have been my “Pretty’s Got Nothing To Do With It” and “Full of Awesome” designs that I just released in September. Traditional favorites are the astronaut, pilot, carpenter, doctor, military, and scientist designs. And the entire Whimsy Bee line is a hit with its colorful and imaginative designs.

It’s smart of Pigtail Pals to be a for profit instead of a nonprofit! The more successful your company is, the more you can help girls. You call yourself a “mompreneur.” What is that? Who were you inspired by?

Exactly, I want to show other businesses that this is the message parents and girls want, and that a business can be successful doing this. I want to change the way the marketplace looks for young girls. And since Dora has gone the way of the ballerina princess, there is room for the smart and adventurous Pigtail Pals designs to take over. Pigtail Pals has, since the very beginning, made donations to organizations that support girls, and we will continue to do so as our success grows.

A mompreneur is a mother who sees a hole in the marketplace for children, and creates her own product to fill that void. At the time I created Pigtail Pals, there were no other apparel lines on the market that showed girls doing smart, daring, and adventurous things. There were a couple of lines that had empowering phrases, but my preschooler can’t read, so that didn’t mean anything to her. I wanted something in pictures that would really speak to little girls. Girl empowerment is something our daughters need to be raised with, not just something they are introduced to once they are finally old enough to be a Girl Scout or participate in some of the other national programs that only focus on older girls. My girl can’t wait, she needs these messages now.

What do you teach in your workshops? What kind of excercises do you do? Can you see the change before and after or is it more gradual? Do you find parents, teachers, or kids more willing or more resistant?

I teach media literacy in my workshops – a tangible way for parents to digest and parent through all the crap that is out there. I teach how to specifically deal with the highly inappropriate birthday gift, or mother-in-law that bestows makeup and tiny high heels with every visit, or the song that just played on the radio talking about casual or violent sex. Our culture is saturated with this stuff. I find most folks are eager to learn about this, and I see those light bulb moments flash across everyone’s face about 15mintues into every workshop.

The exercises I use are just common sense stuff. For example – I take a box of crayons, and dump it out, but it is full of only pink and purple crayons. I ask the parents, if they had purchased this as a school supply, would they find something wrong with it? Would they return it to the store? I ask them what is missing, and then I ask them to close their eyes and picture their daughter’s closet and toy box. I see little sheepish smiles creep across their face. And they get it – they get how incredibly limiting choices are for girls, and that they bought into it. There is nothing wrong with pink, or purple, but when a girl’s world is full of that and only that, we need to think about what messages that sends. Childhood should be a time full of vibrant, amazing color and learning experiences.

What are your future plans for the company?

In the near future, I’m going to release a line of tee designs that show boys and girls playing together, having great adventures. Also, I’m going to build out the new line of Full of Awesome products. That blog post was such a runaway hit, it is really inspiring to me.

Eventually I want to move into toys and room décor, and I would love to open really special retail spaces.

How do you protect your daughter’s imagination?

We tell stories all the time in the car while driving around town. We create some story to act out while we play outside. My home looks like a preschool with all of the art supplies and learning toys in this place. We take lots of family adventures to educational places like children’s museums and fairs and performances. We read and read and read.

Are there books, TV shows, clothing lines or products you recommend for girls?

There is a lot of good stuff out there, you just have to know where to find it. My daughter is 5 years old, so right now we are really into the Ramona and Judy Moody books. This winter we’re going to start reading the Little House on the Prairie series. Amelia has checked out every single whale and dolphin book our public library offers.  For TV, she loves Animal Planet, SciGirls (PBS), National Geographic, Diego, Wild Kratts (they have two female sci/tech assistants that rock the show), Word World, Peppa Pig, and Scooby Doo.

For other clothing lines, I really like Be A Girl Today (http://www.beagirlblog.com/) for awesome girls sports tees. And the Girl Scouts offer great tees, too.
For other products, a few other mompreneur small businesses I love to promote are Cutie Patutus for dress up clothes, Sophie & Lili for wonderful cloth dolls, and Go! Go! Sports Girls for sports-themed dolls. Every girl should have a doctor kit, a tool box, a wooden train, giant floor puzzles, and Legos by the bucket.

On my blog Reel Girl, which is all about  imagining gender equality in the fantasy world, people sometimes complain that issues I care about don’t matter because the characters I write about are imaginary. Or that I am limiting imagination by imposing PC dogma on artists. How do you respond to comments like that?

“You can’t be what you can’t see.” –Marie Wilson, the White House Project. Sexualization is an enormous problem, most specifically in the media. The stats on the representation of girls in the media in a non-sexualized manner are so miniscule, I would argue this isn’t ‘PC dogma’, it is a matter of civil rights. Girls get a seat at the table.

In the past year or so, various sites and movements have cropped up to help defend girls from sexist media or at the very least, educate parents about the negative influences out there, so ubiquitous they are ironically invisible. There was Peggy Orenstein’s best seller  Cinderella Ate My Daughter, The Geena Davis Institute has been doing studies and releasing statistics about the lack of girl characters in animation, author Lyn Mikel Brown and other founded SPARK and advocated for more girl balloons in the Macy Day Parade. And its great news that parents and advocates got so upset about the JCPenney T shirt and got it off the shelves. At the same time, Disney announced its not doing anymore princess movies which translates to even fewer movies starring girls since girls are mostly only allowed to star if they are princesses. Disney also announced this year that is shifting its tween programming to boy based animated cartoons. Do you see the media and more awareness about the media going in a positive or negative direction? Are there other sites or movements that you know of that support girls and girl media?

I think parents and girls need to be very aware that the media is a long ways off from them content that is fair to girls. Like I said, there is good stuff out there, but in reality it is few and far between. Disney is the very last place I would look for positive girl media. As parents become more aware and more savvy, they will start to demand products and media that reflect that. So Pixar is making “Brave”, and that is tremendous, and that will only fill our appetite for so long. They will need to give us more if they want us to keep consuming.

You mentioned SPARK Summit and the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in the Media. I love the work they do. I also really admire my colleagues Amy Jussel of Shaping Youth, Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker of Operation Transformation, and New Moon Girls is doing awesome work right now with their Girl Caught program. Other favorites are Princess Free Zone and Hardy Girls Healthy Women. In the UK I love Pink Stinks, and over in Australia Collective Shout and the Butterfly Effect do amazing work.

One under-reported issue is that when girls go missing in kids films, and the toys, clothing, and other products based on and derived from those films, both genders learn that girls are less important than boys. This is a problem with sites and orgs that focus on girls, in some ways, that continue this polarized segregation. Parents are a huge force here– they should be reading their kids stories about girls, taking them to movies with strong girl parts (if they can find any) and encouraging cross gender friendships. What do you think about this issue? Are there sites, movements, blogs that you know of or like that help educate boys also?

I have a three year old son, so this is an equally important issue for me. My colleague Crystal Smith of Achilles Effect (and author of a great book with same name) is awesome. The work of Jackson Katz is like no other when it comes to boys and media. The blog The Mamafesto writes about her son and his adventures through boyhood.

My work focuses on girls, because the crush for them with sexism and sexualization is immense, and it comes at them as soon as they are born. I don’t necessarily think it is easier for boys, but it is different. I think we need to get back to some common sense childhood. Let’s allow our kids the space to play and explore without limitations based on gender. Pigtail Pals also offers a line for young boys called Curious Crickets, meant to honor the creativity and wonder in boyhood.

Both of my children enjoy and thrive in cross gender friendships. These are crucial for the socialization with the opposite sex in their tween/teen years and beyond. We try to find positive media that equally respects boys and girls. My kids will see my husband wash dishes and fold laundry, and they will see me wrestle with the dogs and use tools and run my business. It is all about balance.

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.

Peggy Orenstein’s Yes List

Cinderella Ate My Daughter author Peggy Orenstein put together her list of  best books and products for girls. And boys! She writes, reminding us boys benefit from hearing stories about girls too. Duh! But as a mom of three daughters, sometimes I forget. Great to have this resource, and I for one, am happy PO clarified about Roald Dahl. I, too, LOVE this man as a writer but something in his story-telling doesn’t quite sit right with girl empowerment.

Why are kids the gender police?

Lots of comments on my last post about Peggy Orenstein’s new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, and that no matter how no matter how hard parents try, girls and boys adamantly refuse to be nudged out of their prescribed (marketed!) gender roles.

 

Orenstein elaborates on this challenge in her book: right around ages 2 -3, kids begin to understand that there’s something called a ‘boy’ and something thing called a ‘girl ‘and that something important differentiates between them. The problem is, they’re not sure what that is. Orenstein writes, “The whole penis-vagina thing does not hold quite the same cachet among the wee ones as it does among us.”

Orenstein recounts a story about a kid, Jeremy, who wore his favorite barrettes to school and was taunted by another kid who said, “You’re a girl!”

Jeremy denied it, arguing that he had a penis and testicles. The classmate replied, “Everyone has a penis, only girls wear barrettes.”

Orenstein asks: “If toting the standard equipment is not what makes you male or female, exactly what does? Well, duh, barrettes.”

Making things evermore complicated, kids at this age also don’t understand that identity is fixed, a girl might grow up to be a dad or a mom. All this ‘slippery stuff’ can make a kid nervous– if she cuts her hair too short, she could turn into a boy!

Orenstein quotes the neuroscientist, Lise Eliot, author ofPink Brain, Blue Brain: “The prefrontal cortex of the brain is what looks to the future, and that’s the slowest part to develop. Another example would be death: young children have a very hard time understanding that a pet or a person who has died is gone forever. They may listen to what you say and seem to get it, but secretly, they believe it can change.”

(Note: I feel the same way about death– eek!)

Orenstein says kids’ solution at this stage is often to “cling rigidly to the rules and hope for the best.” Lucky for them– the Disney Princess marketing machine is here to help! Orenstein writes, “Developmentally speaking, they were genius, dovetailing with the precise moment that girls need to prove they’re girls.”

There’s no simple solution here, but plenty to think about, the main question being, when your child is looking for an identity, do you want the Disney executives to be the ones suggesting it to her?

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 Yoonhttp://www.jeongmeeyoon.com/aw_pinkblue.htm 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.