Peggy Orenstein on the difference between sexuality and sexualization

Last week, I went to a reading by Peggy Orenstein from her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, now out in paperback. I’m such a huge Orenstein fan and I’ve written so much about her on this blog, that I wondered if after I saw her read, I would have anything left to blog about.

Guess what? I do!

Mostly, I’ve written about Orenstein’s research on the princess culture and how it affects little girls. But at the reading, Orenstein spoke a lot about older girls and also the potential, deep, long-term effects of relentlessly teaching girls through play and media to focus on their appearance.

I blog a lot about how girls get trained early (through toys about dressing dolls, roles in movies and TV, incessant compliments for their dresses, shoes, hair etc) that they get attention for and an actual identity from how they look. Orenstein spoke about how this emphasis can set girls in a pattern that puts them at risk. For what? Eating disorders, depression, low self-esteem, and sexual dysfunction.

Cinderella Ate My Daughter traces how the real life Disney stars/ girl princesses (i.e. Lindsay Lohan, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, 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.

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 that 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? In CAMD, Orenstein quotes Stephen Hinshaw from his book The Triple Bind:

“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.

In short: sexualization is performance; it’s all about being desirable to others. Sexuality is understanding and connecting to your own desire.

At the reading, Orenstein shared this passage from Cinderella Ate My Daughter:

Let me be clear here: I object– strenuously– to the sexualization of girls but not necessarily to girls having sex. I expect and want my daughter to have a healthy, joyous erotic life before marriage. Long, long, long before marriage. I do, however, want her to understand why she’s doing it: not for someone else’s enjoyment, not to keep a boyfriend from leaving, not because everyone else is. I want her to explore and understand her body’s responses, her own pleasure, her own desire. I want her to be able to express her needs in a relationship, to say no when she needs to, to value reciprocity, and to experience true intimacy. The virgin/ whore cycle of the pop princesses, like so much of the girlie girl culture, pushes in the opposite direction, encouraging girls to view self-objectification as a feminist rite of passage.

This distinction between sexuality and sexualization is not made often enough. If you’re against the sexualization of girls, it’s often concluded that you’re somehow anti-sex, on the same team with Phyllis Schlafly or a fan of “traditional family values.”  The political agenda to promote healthy sexuality is actually the opposite and must include access to contraception for all women, sex education in schools, and full reproductive rights.

The sexualization of girls has nothing to do with real sexuality.

The MPAA won’t allow teens to see educational film on bullying

Ok, this is it. The MPAA is so messed up. This group’s values are totally off. Yet, one tiny band of people has a huge effect not only on what our kids are allowed to see but what America considers acceptable for children.

So the MPAA has decided that “Bully,” a documentary about the epidemic of bullying in America, a film that the Weinstein company was planning to show to middle and high schools kids in America, will have an R rating, meaning those kids won’t be able to see it. Why? The bullies in the film use use coarse language.

Are you kidding me?

The MPAA couldn’t be more out of touch about what is beneficial and what is dangerous for kids.

You know what’s not so great for kids? The slew of animated films where female characters are consistently stereotyped, relegated to sidekick roles, or have gone missing all together. See stats from the Geena Davis Institute and Reel Girl’s Gallery of Girls Gone Missing From Kids Movies in 2011 to get an idea of how prevalent gender stereotyping is in animated films.

At the very least, parents should be warned before they take their kids to yet another movie where the few female characters are going to be sexualized or mocked for being ugly or fat. Yet, to the contrary: the MPAA seems to think that cartoon sexist stereotypes are totally cool. Just one example: Animated characters in G movies are as likely to wear revealing clothing as female characters in R movies.

I wonder if the MPAA even notices that when one of the only females in “Pirates! Band of Misfits” is ogled and hooted at, it’s not funny. What do they think kids are getting out of that scene? Or if the MPAA understands that when kids go to the movies where males always star and females never do, both genders learn that boys are more important than girls. Hey, MPAA: that’s a really bad lesson for kids. This kind of bizarre disconnect about values, what is okay and what isn’t, is the whole reason why I started my blog, Reel Girl: to call out Hollywood when it relentlessly perpetuates damaging stereotypes “for kids”

Katy Butler was twelve years old when she was bullied in school. Last year, when the Michigan legislature was considering a problematic bill to address bullying, Katy and another Michigan teen started a petition asking the legislators to improve the bill. Now Butler has another petition going: she wants kids to be able to see “Bully.” Please tell the MPAA to get its values right, give “Bully” a PG-13 rating so kids can learn from this film, and sign Butler’s petition

Preventing eating disorders by teaching little kids intuitive eating

This is yet another post inspired by Melissa Wardy of Pigtail Pals. Here’s what she wrote on Facebook:

This week is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. Guess what? I can’t find a single link or post with information geared towards young kids and Eating Disorders. This concerns me when diagnosis of ED’s in kids under 12yo is on the rise, 25% of 7yo have tried dieting, and 42% of 1-3rd graders want to be thinner.
I firmly believe healthy body image has to be taught in early childhood, as fundamental as ABC’s and 123’s. What are your concerns about body image, Eating Disorders, and your children?

I’ve been really successful with my kids by teaching them how to listen to their own bodies about what to eat. I tell them I’m not the boss, whoever put the food on their plate is not the boss, her own tummy is the boss. She alone knows how much to eat. I never tell my kids when to stop eating or how much they should eat. I don’t give them “treats” or “dessert” as a separate category from other food. I never get mad at them for wasting food.

They all have foodshelves where they have all the food they like, easily accessible. They have shelves in a cupboard and in the refrigerator. They get to pick what they want on their foodshelves and there is an abundance of food there, more than they could eat, enough to share without getting worried.

We have a sit down dinner and breakfast every day withe lots of healthy options but they don’t have to eat their dad or I make. If they don’t like the hot meal, they can go to their foodshelves and get something they do like.

My kids are incredibly healthy eaters. We hardly ever fight over food. They like to try new foods. My kid who is the pickiest eater is the only one whose intake I restricted and was by far the most anxious around as far as her food. My middle daughter has an egg allergy and I was really freaked out about it early on and was constantly checking her food for eggs, telling her to be careful about eating, and controlling her eating. Now, she is the most shy about trying new foods. She grew out of the allergy for the most part (its very mild now, pure eggs, custard) by the time she was three, but her menu is the most limited by her own choice now. (She’s still a pretty adventurous eater– last night she had middle eastern food: chick peas and rice, hummus and pita, and mousakka.) I really think the best thing for parents to do is to be calm around food and about food and moms, if you have an eating disorder, make it a priority to get yourself better. Eating disorders are contagious.

If my kids make it through the turmoil of adolescence and into adulthood still knowing how to eat intuitively, it’ll be a huge accomplishment. I seriously hope it keeps working and serves them for a lifetime.

All the techniques I use I got from an excellent book called Preventing Childhood Eating Problems. Please read my many posts on the book, how I feed my kids, and how I recovered fully from an eating disorder myself many years ago, starting here.

Does an internet addicted mom create internet addicted kids?

Over the winter holidays this year, my household bumped up to the next level with technology. By January I had my first smart phone ever (an iphone) an ipad (I am in love) our first flat screen TV and a new computer (our former one was seven years old.) The upgrade was a long time coming, and I don’t regret it. But I have been seriously challenged trying to stay away from my new toys. The new technology combined with my passion for blogging and my whole community of cool, amazing women on Facebook means I can literally spend hours on various screens.

So here are the problems:

(1) I’m writing a book. Writing books is hard. Especially when there are kids around. I’ll take any opportunity to stop writing (“I need to RSVP to that kid’s party right now!”) and then I get STUCK by some email, lured onto Facebook, lured onto my blog. Then I don’t write. I feel shitty. Like an addict, seriously.

(2) My kids want screen time. The more time I spend on the screen, the more time my kids want on the screen. More and more as a mom, I am realizing what I say means close to nothing. What I do, that’s a whole different thing. My kids really pay attention to what I do, and if I am obsessed with something, they are as well. Screen time is now the biggest thing we fight over in my house.  My kids want to look up things on the internet, they want to buy apps for my iphone. This includes my two year old, because she sees her sisters begging and repeats what they say. Talking to my kids, yelling at my kids, giving my kids consequences did not change their behavior. You know what did? I stopped using the computer around them. I stopped taking out my iphone and checking my email. They stopped asking. This weekend we hung out in the backyard and made fairyhouses and looked for bugs. We practiced bik eriding. We read a lot. My kids did tons of fantasy play with each other.

Normally, I hop on the computer when I don’t think they’re looking. When they’re really engaged in something else so I don’t think they’ll notice. But they do notice. And when I’m on, I’m always only half present to them, and when they want my attention, I often feel annoyed. I don’t at all think I need to available to my kids in all my free weekend moments. But for now, I’m trying reading a book or doing chores when they’re around and I think they’re occupied. It’s really for my own sake. I’m sick of the arguments about screens. So far, the whole family is much happier. It’s been four days…

Must see video from Women and Hollywood

Got this email and video from Melissa Silverstein, founder and editor of one of my favorites blogs, Women and Hollywood:

It’s that time of year, The Academy Awards, the “Super Bowl for Women.”  It’s the night where we all get catty about whose dress doesn’t work, who has a new boyfriend or girlfriend, and who looks like they haven’t eaten all month.

Because the world is paying attention to Hollywood in a bigger way this week there is an opportunity to raise awareness about gross inequities in the business.  So we here at Women and Hollywood are taking this opportunity to say that THERE NEEDS TO BE MORE WOMEN CONSIDERED FOR BEST DIRECTOR.

Here is a short video (it’s only a little over a minute) highlighting some of the women directed films from this past year that were passed over.  We’re not trying to say that all of them should have been nominated (though we think a couple of them should have), what we are trying to say is that we have to find a way to get women directors into these conversations.

Please feel free to use this video:
Post on Women and Hollywood: To the Academy: Consider the Women

Just to being home the point a little bit more, here are the stats:

  • In 2011, only 5% of the top grossing films in Hollywood were directed by Women.  The number has decreased since 1998.
  • In 84 years only 4 women — Lina Wertmuller, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow — have been nominated for best director.  One 1 has won.

Please feel free to send this video out far and wide, and on Sunday, remember that women directors voices and visions are missing from this very large cultural conversation.   Telling people this is a cultural problem and not just a gender equity problem is a first step.

Thank you

Reel Girl’s book recs of the week

Reel Girl recs this week feature super passionate heroines. All three Reel Girl rates ***GGG*** Triple Girlpower. Make sure you read these to your sons as well as your daughters!

Knuffle Bunny is one of my all time, absolute favorite books for kids. How do I love thee, let me count the ways…

First, the book begins with my total as yet unrealized fantasy: Father and child do the laundry (they go off to a launrdomat in Brooklyn) while the mom sits on the steps, a book you know she’s about to crack open held lovingly on her lap.

Next amazing thing about this book? Our main character, who I think is younger than two,  sports no bow or curly eyelashes (just like the female Red Wolf of Reel Girl’s last recs.) With her overalls, Trixie wears a pink T shirt, but it’s no big deal. I’m not against pink for God’s sake, just Pink World Domination.

One of my favorite illustrations is in the laundromat when Trixie puts pants on her head and waves a bra in the air, her dad watching and smiling at her. Maybe I’m reading too much into this picture, but I think it’s a lovely commentary on adulthood and the various costumes we all wear.

Next is the best part of the book: When Trixie and her dad walk home and she realizes that she’s lost Knuffle Bunny, her big eyed, terrified expression is priceless. This picture communicates terror better than Munch’s Scream. Trixie tries desperately to communicate the disappearance to her to her dad (“Aggle flaggle klabble!”) but he’s oblivious.

At this point in the reading, I have never seen a kid not be totally wrapped up in the story, relating to what it’s like to lose a favorite animal and to have your parents not understand what’s going on. Both parent and child become increasingly frustrated which leads to my favorite sentence in the book (that my husband and I have used ever since to describe a tantruming child) “She went boneless.”

I won’t tell you how this story ends, but I have no doubt Knuffle Bunny will be one of your kid’s favorites.

Mary Had a Little Lamp is a funny book about a heroine who follows her heart and couldn’t care less what anyone else thinks of her.

This is a great book to read to your kid if she feels uncomfortable around her peers for liking a toy or outfit or anything that the rest of them aren’t into. Kids will also relate to this book because, like Knuffle Bunny, it’s about an attachment object. It’s impossible to read this without a huge grin on your face at the end.

The Old Woman Who Named Things is about another passionate female, but this one starts out afraid of her strong feelings.

She’s elderly so doesn’t want to get attached to something that might die or fall apart, including old furniture or cars. She only wants to get attached to objects she can trust will be there forever. But when a stray puppy befriends her, she can’t help but care for it. (The genderless puppy is either called “it” or “shy brown dog” which I like.) The old woman refuses to name the puppy to try to control her attachment to the animal, but when the dog disappears, she finally starts to take some risks that help to make her feel more alive.

Now that LA Times found Oscar voters are white and male, what about MPAA?

LA Times published an investigative report on the super secret Oscar voters. Here are the stats that they found:

94% Caucasian

77% male

14% less than 50 years old, median age 62

2% African-American

Less that 2 % Latino

So these are the guys who create our standards of what is “the best.” Which directors we celebrate and honor above all. Do you think the Oscar voters and the fact that only one female director has ever won Best Director is a crazy coincidence?

Here’s one idea to celebrate females: Get rid of the phallic, naked man gold statuette. How about this one? Read more about the new Oscar statuette and how it will defy the Oscar Curse for women here.

Another idea for the LA Times? Please investigate the MPAA, the group that rates all the movies, deciding which ones are appropriate for children. These guys I have no doubt are all male, white, and old. They have NO idea what is offensive and what isn’t and their standards are so screwed up, it’s part of the reason I started Reel Girl. For example: Snow White, The Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty are rated by me ***SSS*** Triple Stereotype, NOT suitable for your kids. See the categories on the left side of this blog for more Triple S and Triple G (Girlpower) movies. I’d rather my kids here the word “shit” than see another blonde, blue-eyed princess in a wedding dress any day.

Book inspires my 5 yr old daughter to ride big girl bike

Ever since her fifth birthday last July, I’ve been trying to get my daughter, Alice, to ride a big girl bike.

She wouldn’t do it. She wanted to stay with the training wheels. Alice is often reticent to try things, from sharing a new idea to exploring physical activities. If I can convince her to attempt something different (soccer, monkey bars) she usually ends up loving it and excelling as well, but the first push is often hard.

When I pushed with the bike, she just resisted. She was scared. She’d seen her sister fall and scrape her knees. I think healthy risk-taking builds real self-esteem, and I want my kids to learn how to take risks. And that you can fall and get up again and all that. But I didn’t want to push too hard, making her resist even more. Every time I asked her if she wanted the training wheels off, she’d yell “NO!”

Then last Saturday night, I read her one of a pile of new books I’d collected with female protagonists to read to my kids and review on Reel Girl: Sally Jean the Bicycle Queen. Sally Jean starts out as a baby in a seat on the back of her mama’s bike, progresses to a tricycle, training wheels, a two-wheeler, and by the end of the book can build her own bike. This kid is supercool.

So on Monday, the President’s Day holiday, as we were all heading to the park, Alice asked her dad to take her training wheels off. No prompting from us. We tried to remain calm. I resisted my urge to leap up and down, clapping. Instead, I went ahead to the park with her two older sisters so they wouldn’t rush her. Alice showed up about ten minutes later on a real two wheeler, her dad holding her seat to help her balance. For the next hour, he and I took turns practicing with her until our backs couldn’t take it anymore. She looked so happy and proud afterwards, I wanted to cry.

So coincidence or heroine-influenced?

This event seriously convinced me– as if I wasn’t convinced enough already– how important it is for kids to see girls being brave and taking risks in books, movies, and toys. If you can’t see it, you can’t do it or be it. Or maybe you can, but it’s much harder. You can talk to your kid until you’re blue in the face, but if you show her, she can learn so much quicker. She sees a “peer’ doing what she wants to do, not her mom babbling on about another thing.

Thank you Cari Best for writing Sally Jean the Bicycle Queen. You influenced my daughter’s life. Reel Girl rates Sally Jean the Bicycle Queen ***GGG*** Buy this book for your sons and daughters, especially if they need a push trying out a big kid bike.

Here’s happy Alice with her happy dad.

Porno or pirate movie?

Here’s a picture of Cutlass Liz complete with beach ball breasts, bared belly-button, tight pants and phallic cannon. Voiced by Salma Hayek, she’s one of the very few female characters to make it into the movie “Pirates! Band of Misfits” coming out next month from Sony Pictures Animation. It’s a movie for your kids.

Here’s the poster:

See that bird? She’s one of the other female characters. In the preview there’s a joke about whether or not she’s fat or just big boned. (If you see the movie, it turns out she’s a dodo, but before that she’s just fat ha ha ha.) That’s not the only sexist joke in the three minute preview either.

An all male group presents itself with this hilarious intro: “No one here but us Girl Scouts.” (You can watch the preview for yourself here.)  The “we’re not scary or powerful, we’re only girls” gag isn’t uncommon in animation. In a preview for “Madgascar 3,” while an all male group of penguins is pillow fighting, one of them says: “You fight like a bunch of little girls.” Isn’t the intended audience for these movies, in part, little girls? How will these kids feel when they see jokes about how harmless they are? How will they feel when the audience laughs? Do you think boys and girls will learn to laugh at these jokes too?

When you consistently have an all male group of characters, it’s actually pretty challenging not to make sexist jokes. That’s why we need diversity, right? But unfortunately, female characters have gone missing from animated films made for kids. Look at Reel Girl’s Gallery of Girl’s Gone Missing from movie posters in 2011.

There’s no reason why at least half of this “band of misfits” can’t be female. How are girls going to feel when they see this movie and their representation is a sexualized pirate and a bird mocked for being fat? One of the few female characters in the upcoming “The Lorax” movie is also mocked for being fat. Coincidence? You can watch that preview here. Mind you, all these sexist jokes I’ve gotten from three minute previews. I haven’t even seen the whole movies yet.

There’s another female character in “Pirates” played by Ashley Jensen. Her name? Oh, she doesn’t have one. She’s called “Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate.”

Sexism in movies made for kids is so perpetual and accepted, that, ironically, it’s become invisible. In contrast, when “the leprosy community” and the World Health Organization complained about a leprosy joke in “Pirates,” Aardman Animation modified it. This from Wikipedia:

In January 2012, it was reported that the latest trailer of The Pirates! caused some very negative reactions from the leprosy community. In the trailer that was released in December, The Pirate Captain lands on a ship demanding gold, but is told by a crew member, “Afraid we don’t have any gold old man, this is a leper boat. See,” when his arm falls off.[10] Lepra Health in Action and some officials from the World Health Organization, expressed that the joke shows the illness in a derogatory manner, and it “reinforces the misconceptions which leads to stigma and discrimination that prevents people from coming forward for treatment.” They demanded an apology and asking that the offending scene be cut before the film is released.[11] Several days later, Aardman announced that they will modify the scene, “After reviewing the matter, we decided to change the scene out of respect and sensitivity for those who suffer from leprosy.

Leprosy joke, not OK. Protest and removal. Sexist joke(s )when half of the audience is probably girls: totally cool. Are they even noticed? Will anyone make a peep?

Parents, if you’re at a movie made for children, and you see a sexist joke, either in the movie you’re watching or in a preview for another, please call out: “Not funny! Sexist!” Do this for your kids. It’s unfair to relentlessly show females in this way.

When our daughters want to dress up as a pirate for Halloween, is Cutlass Liz the character they’ll want to emulate? What do they think a “girl pirate” is? Where are the other “girl” pirates?

Why is the animated world so sexist? Why does it have to be sexist at all? If we can’t get gender equality in our imaginations, how can we get it in reality?

Read my full review of “Pirates!”

Kids media and slut-shaming

To the various commenters upset about previous “slut-shaming” in my critiques of kids’ media, I think adults should express their sexuality how they please. (I have written more about the what I think about the issue of short skirts and their empowering potential here.)

As far as media or toys geared towards little kids, I am totally against any of it including sexualized females. I think it’s horrible that one of the few female characters in the new animated movie for kids, “The Pirates: band of Misfits,” is a “sexy” pirate. I don’t think that’s just in bad taste. I think it’s dangerous. Sexualized females are so predominant in kids movies, TV, ads, and toys that boundaries blur, contributing to the epidemic of sexual abuse of kids and also widespread child pornography. And it is all widespread.

When a girl sees Salma Hayek’ character dressed as a “sexy” pirate in a movie, is that the costume she’d going to pick if she wants to be a pirate for Halloween? Do we want little girls dressing up as sexy pirates?

Can you tell the difference between a picture of Ariel smiling coyly in her bikini top and an ad for a strip show? I can’t.

Peggy Orenstein wrote in Cinderella Ate My Daughter that when girls learn about sexuality this way, they learn sexuality as performance, instead of being agents seeking their own desire/ pleasure. Sexualizing girls does not lead to healthy, self-expressive sexuality. It leads to numbness; it helps to separate minds from bodies.

One of the best books I have ever read about grown up sexuality: Can Love Last: The Fate of Romance Over Time, Stephen Mitchell writes this:

One of the things good parents provide for their children is a partially illusory, elaborately constructed atmosphere of  safety, to allow for the establishment of “secure attachment.” Good-enough parents, to use D. W. Winnicott’s term, do not talk with young children about their own terrors, worries, and doubts. They construct a sense of buffered permanence, in which the child can discover and explore without any impinging vigilance, her own mind, her creativity, her joy in living. The terrible destructiveness of child abuse lies not just in trauma of what happens but also the tragic loss of what is not provided– protected space for psychological growth.

It is crucial that the child does not become aware of how labor intensive that protracted space is, of the enormous amount of parental activity going on behind the scenes. But as adults, we gradually learn how managed was that cocoon-like space our caregivers were able to provide. Thus the kind of certainty and control inherent in the secure attachment that children feel for there parents is partially an illusion, and it is crucial that that spell not be suddenly broken.

Protect your kids imagination. Fight for that.