Mama w/ Pen

Paying Attention to Princesses

 

The Princess Problem

The Princess Problem

As the mother of a preschooler who’s enjoying princesses while her mama tries to make sense of it all, I’m more than pleased to bring you this guest review of Rebecca Hains’ The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls through the Princess-Obsessed Years, penned by Susan Sapiro. Susan is a New York-based grant proposal writer with a background in program development in womens and girls issues.  Enjoy! – Deborah

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“That’s the problem,” said Olivia. “All the girls want to be princesses. At Pippa’s birthday party, they were all dressed in big, pink, ruffly, skirts with sparkles and little crowns and sparkly wands. Including some of the boys.” (Olivia and the Fairy Princesses)

This profound comment, spoken by the porcine heroine of Ian Falconer’s series of books (and a Nick Jr. TV series) stayed in my head as I immersed myself into feminist media and communications scholar Rebecca Hains’ new book The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls through the Princess-Obsessed Years. What is the Princess Problem? According to Hains, a children’s media culture expert and a professor of media studies at Salem State University in Massachusetts, it isn’t so much actual princesses who are the problem – many cultures have princess figures and stories. Rather, it’s the Disneyfication and branding of princesses, the large-scale marketing of Princess culture, which has become such a prevailing force in the lives of preschool girls that parents are troubled by how all-encompassing Princess culture has become in their daughters’ lives. They are concerned by how limiting its imagery of beauty, romantic relationships, and racial representation are to contemporary girls in North America. They are alarmed when their daughters who dont participate in Princess Culture are shunned or bullied in school or on the playground. And they are desperately seeking alternative images, products, and media to show the breadth and depth of real girls and women’s lives.

For her research, Hains interviewed over 50 parents psychologists, educators, media-literacy experts, girl empowerment advocates, and academics that focus on popular culture and race issues. She also did participant observation research for her study, working as a princess birthday party performer, dressing up in shiny ball gowns and blond wigs, and entrancing young girls by reading them fairy tales, painting their faces, and making them balloon animals. The money she made from these parties helped to fund her research trip to Walt Disney World where she observed “the Disney brand of princess culture in action”(xiii). Her undercover work also helped her gain an appreciation on the importance of princess culture in girls’ lives.

As Peggy Orenstein before her has made profoundly clear, the sheer vastness of princess marketing, mainly by Disney, is responsible for the seeming every-where-ness of princess culture. In 2012 Disney Princess – the brand – sold $1.52 billion US in licensed merchandise in North America, more than Star Wars and Hello Kitty! Hains explains how since Disney has created or rather, re-created the princess brand, other brands from Barbie, to Dora the Explorer, to animal characters like My Little Pony have seized on the princess premise as the holy grail of marketing to the target demographic of young girls. Yet, not only has the Princess brand been absorbed by Disney’s competitors in the toy industry, it has also oozed its way into products in every area of life, becoming a “lifestyle brand” – featured in food, clothing, home goods , making sure that today’s preschool princesses turn into lifelong loyal Disney consumers. (A search on Amazon.com for “Disney Princess” yields an astounding 64,979 items in 31 departments.)

One of Hains’ most intriguing points is that princess marketing is so effective because it takes advantage of a stage of childhood in which boys and girls start to focus on gender. The way they try to figure out what it means to be a boy or a girl is to hone in on external and stereotypical qualities – short hair for boys, long hair for girls, skirts and frills for girls, superheroes and blue for boys. Researchers cited by Hains note that many 3-4 year old girls and 5-6 year old boys develop “appearance rigidity,” which means they become, in Hains’ words, “completely obsessed with wearing stereotypical clothing – which for girls often equals pink frilly dresses.” I was amused to learn that there’s even an acronym for this in scholarly literature – PFD. This phenomenon may be familiar to readers who have or may know three-year-old girls who refused to wear pants for a certain period of time, a phase that occurred with both of my daughters. (Reading Hains’ book, I was pleased to learn this was a developmental stage, not a moral failure on my part as a feminist mother trying to push her gender-neutral views on a reluctant preschooler.) During this phase of “appearance rigidity” among preschoolers, each gender celebrates their own types and fiercely rejects the other. Disney has exploited this with its pink frilly princess marketing extravaganza to girls but still hasn’t been quite as successful in marketing cars, pirates, and superheroes to boys.

Go! Go! Sports Girls

Go! Go! Sports Girls dolls

Subsequent chapters of the book focus on various aspects of the Princess Problem. The “Pretty Princess Mandate” is harmful to young girls, who end up focusing on appearance, to the exclusion of active play. The princess narrative makes the equation that beauty = happiness and goodness, and young girls who become women spend countless hours of self-scrutiny (and judging other women), trying to live up to an unrealistic beauty ideal. Hains’ personal example of how hard it is to fit into this ideal is amusing. When she worked as a birthday party princess entertainer, she found it difficult to fit into the princess costumes she was required to wear, because the measurements were based on the company owner’s teenage daughter. Hains offers good examples of how parents can combat the Pretty Princess Mandate, including not discussing your weight or dieting and buying realistically proportioned dolls such as the Go! Go! Sports Girls dolls instead.

As has been well documented, on this blog and elsewhere, outdated gender stereotypes abound in the traditional princess narrative. In a chapter titled, “The Problem with Gender Stereotypes, “ Hains writes about how parents have noticed their daughters’ play changing from active to passive after they enter the Princess stage. One therapist she cites chronicled her attempts to recover her daughter’s spunkiness after she saw her formerly active toddler engage in a new form of play – sitting and saying, “I’m waiting for my prince.”

While a number of anti-Princess books, such as Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter and Jennifer Harstein’s Princess Recovery touch only briefly on the racial issues inherent in the Princess Problem (i.e. all of the Disney Princesses, except Tiana from the recent The Princess and Frog, are white), Hains, a self-described white academic, devotes a chapter to race and diversity issues raised by Princess Culture. Hains acknowledges her own privilege and calls for alternative models for girls of all colors. Included in the book are a critical discussion of how children learn both racial prejudice and acceptance, the history of Disney’s problem with racialized characters, and strategies for encouraging children to become increasingly conscious and respectful of racial diversity.

Bridging academic and popular realms, Hains’ response to the negative lessons taught by Princess Culture about consumerism, gender stereotypes, beauty ideals, and racial stereotypes is a method she calls “Pop Culture Coaching.” In Pop Culture Coaching, parents start by reflecting on their own values and issues relevant to girls. Then they coach their children to think critically about media – its content and the messages conveyed. Hains assures readers that this is not to show girls that princesses are negative or to “‘de-princess’” them. Instead, media literacy will help girls see the complications with princesses and realize that there is a multiplicity of ways to be a girl today.

The Princess Problem is filled with practical tips: Diversify our daughters’ media diets to show them a range of images of women and girls. Read books that offer alternatives to traditional princess fairytales (she includes a list). Teach children about how media is created and the thinking behind advertising. Her website (www.RebeccaHains.com) she includes parent-child discussion guides for all of the Disney Princess films and other types of movies. A discussion guide for the recent Disney Princess hit, Frozen, is included as an appendix in the book.

In a refreshing twist, Hains doesn’t think that there is anything wrong with princesses, sparkles, frills and pink. In her words, “Princesses are pretty, and sparkles and frills are fun! Girls have been playing princesses for generations.” What she objects to is the marketing of frilly pink princesses as the only type of girlhood available to young girls, especially as compared to a wider range of choices for boys.

Parents are right to be concerned, she notes, about what their daughters are learning from the ever-widening reach of the frilly princess culture. As the mother of two young daughters, one kindergartner still in the throes of princess-preoccupation, one third-grader now thankfully (and disdainfully) past it, I can confirm with hindsight what the scholars find: that it seems to be a developmental stage that passes. Yet, that doesn’t negate the harmful impact it can have on young girls, influencing not only what they wear, but also how they play, who they play with, what they watch, and how they think about their looks, and what they want to (or want their parents to) buy.

Even those who rail against Princess Culture can find it hard to refuse their children these sparkly indulgences. When friends offered us free tickets to Disney’s Frozen on Ice this past fall, after much internal debate, pleasure won out over principle. Earlier this winter, as I watched the graceful skaters ins Frozen on Ice with my daughters , a line from the show’s dialogue struck me as the essence of Hains’ book. In the scene, Anna is explaining to Kristoff why her sister Elsa froze the land of Arendelle:

Frozen on Ice

Frozen on Ice

Anna: Oh well, it was all my fault. I…I got engaged, but then she freaked out because I’d only just met him, you know, that day. And she said she wouldn’t bless the marriage, and…
Kristoff: Wait. You got engaged to someone you just met that day?
Anna: Yeah. Anyway, I got mad and so she got mad and then she tried to walk away, and I grabbed her glove…
Kristoff: Hang on! You mean to tell me you got engaged to someone you just met that day?!
Anna: Yes. Pay attention!

Pay attention. Pay attention to the media children are consuming. Pay attention to the problematic messages for girls in seemingly benign but ever more all-encompassing Princess Culture. That is what Hains wants readers to do.

Mama w/ Pen

The Whiplash and Dream of Raising Boy/Girl Twins

legwarmers

My twins

Raising pre-school aged boy/girl twins in a rigidly gender-bifurcated universe where attitudes sloooooowly change is one big gender bender, my friends–I swear. Some days, I get whiplash. Let me show you what I mean.

Last month, the Australian-based initiative called No-Gender December made a valiant stand against the gendered marketing of toys to our children, raising both eyebrows and awareness. I loved it. Huzzah and yay!

But with January comes announcement of the arrival of Heartlake City, a “girl” section of Legoland Florida’s hit theme park scheduled to open this summer. Look at the picture (below, right), and read this post about how the introduction of the girl section (which includes a shopping mall, a convertible where girls can take selfies) implies that all the other sections (dinosaur exploration area, fire station, city streets, pilot school, archeology-themed ride, science area, jousting, playground) are for boys. The creepy tune and lyrics of “Girl Land” from the Free to Be You and Me album come to mind (“you go in a girl, and come out a lady!”). Hiss. Boo.

Heartlake City Legoland

Heartlake City, aka (IMHO) Girl Land

I love Lego, and so do my kids, and I hate that Lego bricks themselves—that once gloriously gender-neutral toy, a Danish toy, for irony’s sake—now have gender.

But the same day I learned about Legoland’s launch of Girl Land, I came across a poster in a coffee shop located on my town’s main drag announcing that come February, About Face Theater is bringing A Kid Like Jake to the Greenhouse Theater Center, along with “weekly post-show discussions around the topics of gender development in children, contemporary parenting and discovering identity for young people.” Huzzah and yay!

Screen shot 2015-01-16 at 5.59.08 PMThis play by Daniel Pearle, an urban drama about an upscale couple annoyingly obsessed with getting their kid into prestigious private kindergarten (the kind that cost an annual $40K), is simultaneously a modern portrayal of a kid with enthusiasms for gender-variant play. The poster I saw in the coffee shop features a little boy, backed turned to the viewer, gazing longingly at a wall onto which a shadow image in the likeness of Disney’s Cinderella is projected at five times his size. “Why can’t a boy be a princess?” the caption reads. Right there on Main Street. Granted, mine’s a progressive town. But I still find cause to celebrate the fact this play, and with it its sweet and beautiful poster, is going around the nation. So I repeat: huzzah and yay!

No Gender December. Girl City. A Kid Like Jake. Yay boo, yay boo, yay.

This whiplash reminds me of a handmade book made by some kid in my elementary school (hello Greeley!) and housed in the school’s library. The book’s title was Fortunately, Unfortunately. On one page, something good would happen to the pint-sized protagonist. (“Fortunately, when I woke up today, Mom made me my favorite pancakes.”) The next page featured the reverse. (“Unfortunately, we were out of syrup, so I had to eat them plain.”) Something delicious would happen, then something annoying would happen that would take that deliciousness away.

Our preschool rocks

That’s how I feel about our culture’s one-step-forward, two-steps-back slouch toward a world in which a very young boy (like mine, pictured up top) can wear pink and purple legwarmers without bystanders batting an eye. He’s five, and who cares. And fortunately, my two five-year olds go to a remarkable preschool, where messages like this one are plastered on the walls:

Unfortunately, not everyone in our wider community may feel the same way as my preschool community does. Yet.

Fortunately, my daughter does. When my son told his twin sister he was jealous of her new legwarmers, she let him “borrow” them without missing a beat.

Unfortunately, he came home without them on. (Not sure what happened at school – highly likely he just got hot.)

And for one final moment of whiplash, while walking down a main street in town the other day returning to my office, I passed by the new French bakery, with a sign on its door that read “Nous sommes Charlie.”

"Nous Sommes Charlie"

“Nous Sommes Charlie”

It broke my heart. And then my spirits rose again.

Because right next door, at an indoor playspace for babies and tots, I saw this:

“Raise courageous people”

“Raise courageous people,” the rainbow-colored sign in the window reads. There’s a second sign above the first, with a quote from Matisse: “Creativity takes courage.”

I have a dream, that my two little children–and all our little children–will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by their anatomy, and what they like to play with, and what they like to wear, but by the content of their character.

Raise courageous people. Raise courage, people.

Though I may have whiplash, I, too, have a dream today.

 

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @girlmeetsvoice, join my Facebook community, and subscribe to my quarterly newsletter to keep posted on coaching, writings, and talks.

Mama w/ Pen

In Search of Belugas at Soldier Field (Or, Notes for a Panel on Monday!)

Screen shot 2014-11-16 at 10.55.11 PMHere I sit contemplating equality, the topic of a panel I’m on tomorrow, surrounded by jubilant Bears fans streaming out from Soldier Field. My partner and twins are busy visiting penguins, dolphins, and whales, while I’m illegally parked, waiting in my car. Who else but a non-jock family (and recent Midwest transplants) would head for the Shedd Aquarium on a day when the Bears were playing on home turf next door? For my New York friends, this is equivalent to shopping at Macy’s during the Thanksgiving Day Parade, hoping for a place to park.photo

Pondering the question, “Is what you do about equality, liberation, or both?” in such an atmosphere feels a bit like being teleported to the 50 yard line and declaring to the crowd, “Which way to the fish?”

And in truth, that’s also what it feels like to be concerned about women’s “equal” or even “equitable” representation on the page, in the media, or online at a moment when the media conversation about women is focused on whether Lena Dunham is a child molester, whether Kim Kardashian is a feminist icon, and whether the word “feminist” itself should be banned. The noise from the crowd threatens to drown out everything else.

And yet. I’ve been caught up with the question of women’s representation for a few decades, and with the question of women’s “equal” representation on the page now for a while, through my work with two initiatives—one focused, for starters, on changing the gender ratio of bylines at the world’s opinion forums (The OpEd Project) and the other on disrupting publishing by creating supportive community and, later, “a third way” (She Writes / She Writes Press). Tomorrow’s panel is asking me to interrogate, with precision, what all that effort means.

So allow me, while Bears fans leap over my car and my family enjoys the fish, to think about these and some related ventures together, and out loud.

The OpEd Project (founded in 2008), She Writes (2009), and VIDA, also known as Women in Literary Arts (2009), emerged in the wake of the creation of the Women’s Media Center (2005), an organization that “makes women visible and powerful in the media” and works with the media “to ensure that women’s stories are told and women’s voices are heard,” and in the wake of the earlier Women in Media and News (2001). All these initiatives assume that, in VIDA’s phrasing, “voices change worldviews, and those voices should be multiple and varied.” My OpEd Project sisters and I, in the words of our mission statement and our founder Katie Orenstein, “envision a world in which the best ideas—regardless of where or whom they come from—will have a chance to be heard and shape society and the world.” Kamy Wicoff and I, in our She Writes credo, believe in “empower[ing] and amplify[ing] the voices of women and girls who have not otherwise have been heard” and “in building a platform upon which all of us can stand.”

How do these ventures seek to accomplish these goals? They “increase critical attention to contemporary women’s writing” and “further transparency around gender equality issues in contemporary literary culture” (VIDA). They protest the omission of women’s writing from the pages of career-making journals (VIDA) and from the front-door forums that feed other expressions of thought leadership, punditry, and public influence (OEP). They forge relationships with editors and media institutions that share the mission of changing who narrates the world (OEP). They disrupt the very system they believe excludes women (and others more traditionally without ‘connections’) by creating an alternative press (SWP, led by Kamy and the indomitable Brooke Warner).

And in this multi-faceted fight for women’s share and shaping of public voice, what constitutes a quest for equality and what constitutes a quest for liberation? Feel free to share thoughts here, if you have them.  Join us* at Roosevelt University tomorrow, if in Chicago, and tune in later to an NPR station (I’ll post the link here in this space) for more.

*Fellow panelists are:

Jill S. Tietjen, President, Board of the National Women’s Hall of Fame; Author “HerStory: A Timeline of Women who Changed America,” electrical engineer and CEO of Technically Speaking; Inductee of Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame

Carol Adams, PhD, President and CEO, DuSable Museum of African American History; Ebony Magazine’s “Power 100,” Crain’s “2012 List,” the Illinois Arts Council Governor’s Award in the Arts, and the Outstanding Humanitarian Award from the NAACP

Cecilia A. Conrad, PhD, Vice-President, MacArthur Fellows Program; chairs the Congressionally mandated Committee on Equal Opportunities in Sciences and Engineering, an advisory committee to the National Science Foundation; Author “African Americans in the U.S. Economy”

Marjorie Jolles, PhD, Associate Professor and Acting Director, Women’s and Gender Studies, Roosevelt University, Author “Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style”

Moderator: Betty M. Bayer, PhD, Senior Fellow, The Martin Marty Center, University of Chicago; Professor, Women’s Studies, Hobart and William Smith Colleges

Co-sponsored by Roosevelt University, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Illinois Institute of Technology, Shimer College

PS. Go Bears!

 

I invite you to follow me on Facebook and Twitter, subscribe to my occasional newsletter to keep posted, and come visit me at www.deborahsiegelphd.com

 

Mama w/ Pen

Quick Hit: Why Caregiver Discrimination Is Bad for Business

Screen shot 2014-10-22 at 9.13.33 PMWorkplace consultant, coach and work-life advocate Rachael Ellison penned an excellent post chock full of qualitative data at HuffPo Parents last week, “Why Caregiver Discrimination Is Bad for Business.”

Too good not to share.

Remember Catalyst’s Bottom Line series? That groundbreaking research series that first explored the link between gender diversity and corporate financial performance? Well, this is of that flavor, but focused on the bottom-line benefits of retaining working parents, and based on stories from accomplished, successful professionals in their thirties and forties in dozens of industries. As Ellison notes, “In order to create or sustain family friendly workplaces, you need buy-in from organizational leadership, effective manager training, and employee accountability. Most companies don’t have all three, and as a result they lose their top talent. And, it’s costing them a fortune.”

Ellison is working on a book, REworking Parenthood, for which she is currently collecting stories from parents in the trenches, that will help us understand how companies are succeeding and failing in supporting employees’ lives.

Read on, share away, and follow her at her blog and Twitter (@REworkingparent) as she goes.

 

Mama w/ Pen

Call for Book Reviews

girl-32813_640Hey GWP Community!

A slew of interesting books “bridging feminist research and popular reality” (our tagline) are either just out or on the horizon, from Seal, Feminist Press, Demeter Press, and many more. Shoot me an email [deborahgirlwpen (at) gmail (dot) com] if you’d be interested in guest reviewing any of these–either individually or in a cluster–here on Girl w/Pen, with an eye toward the larger conversations, perspectives, and research they tap into:

Rebecca Hains’ The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls through the Princess-Obsessed Years

Stacey Radin’s Brave Girls: Raising Young Women with Passion and Purpose to Become Powerful Leaders

Jessica Valenti’s Full Frontal Feminism, Second Edition

Babygate: How to Survive Pregnancy and Parenting in the Workplace by Dina Bakst, Phoebe Taubman, Elizabeth Gedmark

Sarah Granger’s The Digital Mystique

Melanie Klein and Anna Guest-Jelly’s anthology, Yoga + Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery & Loving Your Body

Queering Motherhood: Narrative and Theoretical Perspectives edited by Margaret F. Gibson

Reconceiving Motherhood by Patricia Hill Collins

Feminist Parenting From Theory to Life Lived edited by Lyndsay Kirkham

Intensive Mothering: The Cultural Contradictions Of Modern Motherhood edited by Linda Ennis.

And of course if there’s a book you’d like to review that’s not on the list, please inquire within.

Yours in bridging,
Deborah

Mama w/ Pen

What’s Hot at Girl w/Pen – Late Summer Round Up Edition

imagesSO much to pick from this season, but among our summer highlights for those of you who missed it or are just now dropping in:

Natalie Wilson finds a gender con at comic con.

Virginia Rutter sets us straight on love and lust.

Elline Lipkin looks at the poetry and prose of “real” motherhood.

Susan Bailey cries uncle on Hobby Lobby.

Tristan Bridges and CJ Pascoe critique the over-thanking of straight male allies.

Adina Nack culls intel from guest Mary Assad on the science behind medical claims around fat and women’s hearts.

Kyla Bender-Baird invites Jocelyn Hollander to weigh in on Miss USA and self-defense.

Heather Hewett curates Emily Bent on what’s missing from girl power discourse in light of #BringBackOurGirls (namely: rights).

And I sound off on empowerment, tampon ads, and the Always #LikeAGirl campaign.

Mama w/ Pen

Five Things I Didn’t Say About Working Motherhood On the Air. But Should.

The other week, I was a guest on the Working Motherhood daily podcast, hosted by Dr. Portia Jackson, aerospace engineer and mother of two. Each week, this savvy host interviews mothers who produce income, be they CEOs, teachers, entrepreneurs, real estate investors, or cashiers. For a taste, check out Portia’s interviews with Rachael Ellison, Gloria Feldt –or any one of 130 more.

I enjoyed this opportunity, very much. Like guests before me and guests after, I shared my family-and-career journey, insights on how I manage the multiple responsibilities, tools that help me, advice I’ve received that has helped me along the way. We only had half an hour. And there’s so much more to say.

The interview kept me thinking long after Portia and I hung up. In the spirit of continuing the conversation, always, here are some of my favorite “things to say about working motherhood” that I didn’t have a chance to share on air.

1. Working fatherhood — say what?

I’d love to see a Working Fatherhood podcast. Period.

2. There’s a conversation behind the conversation here.

Any conversation about working motherhood in the US necessitates a conversation about the embarrassing lack of high quality, universal, subsidized day care. The case is clear. For an investigative analysis of the challenges of finding good care, check out Courtney Martin’s piece in the New York Times last week; Avital Norman Nathman’s recent roundtable on Debra Harrell’s arrest (for leaving her child in a park while working her shift), motherhood, and race at The Frisky; and Alissa Quart’s inside look at the crushing cost of childcare, from last year.

3. Working motherhood — not just about individual solutions, anymore.

In the absence of said high quality, universal, subsidized day care, working mothers are left to seek out our own individual solutions. Again. We experience a political problem as personal, 40 years after the women’s movement re-surged. When things fall apart, we again find the fault in ourselves. (Heartfelt shout-out, and visible recognition here, to all-around assistant Melissa Shoemaker, whose intelligent, compassionate care for my four-year old twins while I work helps me keep it–mostly–afloat.)

3. Non-traditional is where it’s at.

Shout out to the caregivers, but shout out, too, to non-traditional arrangements in marriage. As the Council on Contemporary Families reports, new research suggests that in marriages formed since the early 1990s, men and women are much more happy with non-traditional gender arrangements than in the past.

4. Working motherhood is hot.

Yes, research shows that sex is better and divorce less likely for egalitarian couples. And for more on that, see our own Virginia Rutter’s incredibly informative Psychology Today cover story, Love & Lust. So there.

5. Not a choice.

For so many of us, and in the wake of recession, working motherhood is not a choice. It’s a financial necessity. But even if it weren’t my necessity, I’d choose it—or rather, it would chose me. I come from a long line of working mothers. Because it’s the air that I breathe, pondering how I feel about “working motherhood” is like a fish saying “water, works for me.” At the same time, not a day goes by that I don’t think about what a broken system we live in, filled with inequitable expectations and skewed assumptions based on outdated gender roles.

See again number 1, above.

 

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @deborahgirlwpen, join my Facebook community, and subscribe to my quarterly newsletter to keep posted on my coaching workshops and offerings, writings, and talks.

 

Mama w/ Pen

Thinking Like a Girl about That “Always” Video

By now you’ve likely seen the Always #LikeAGirl video that went viral, evoking tears of recognition as well as feminist critique about the uneasy equation of empowerment and tampon ads. And if you haven’t yet, click here or watch below.

Empowerment cheese, says Jezebel. An emotional ploy for tampon sales, writes Daily Beast and also Shape, who asked professional female athletes to respond. Outdated, responded ultra-runner Ellie Greenwood. “I agree that we should be way beyond this kind of thing. I can think of so many strong female sports models…I think that we should be at the stage in sports—and also in people’s perceptions of sports—that there is no reason why women can’t do 99 percent of what men do, and having some conversation about it is a little out of date.” Yes, yes, and great.

And still, here’s the thing: I’ve watched this video myself four times. It is manipulative, I agree, given that there’s no clear action on Always’ website steering us to how we might protect pubescent girls from the confidence plunge (other than using a winged panty liner, surprise, or sending out a tweet to prove how awesome doing things #LikeAGirl really is). It is consumer capitalism masquerading as feminism. Yep.

But what I’m interested in, as both a scholar of narrative and a communications professional, is why I, along with so many others, am so darn moved by the message in the video. Let’s forget that it’s Procter & Gamble, just for a tiny sec.

The video’s message is powerful because award-winning filmmaker Lauren Greenfield, the video’s director, is good. Her documentary creds include The Queen of Versailles, Thin, Kids + money, Beauty CULTure. Her photojournalistic book, Girl Culture, is by all accounts an intelligent exploration of American girlhood, endorsed in an introduction by no less than historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg.

So Greenfield is good, and the thinking behind the project is smart. The ad provokes us grown women to think back to a time before we were aware of gender difference, before “like a girl” meant something derogatory. For many of us, that’s hard to do. But if you think back, I bet you can find it. Give it a try. It’s a highly worthy pursuit.

Ok, I’ll go. My own recollection of that moment when I first realized “like a girl” could mean something negative was the day I asked my high school history teacher, who happened to be the boys’ baseball coach and clearly favored the jocks, why no one in the class was bringing up issues of morality when discussing the reasons the U.S. nuked Hiroshima. “Morality? That’s such a girl response,” said someone in the room. Cue snickering from all the boys in the room. Next, cue confidence plunge.

Well, almost. Lucky for me, my English teacher that year, Ms. Medwin, was a big ole feminist, and the world she opened for me saved me from despair. Under her guidance, I wrote my first real term paper–on Emily Dickinson and Adrienne Rich, women who refused to go under. “When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her,” wrote Rich.

Rich also wrote this: “The connections between and among women are the most feared, the most problematic, and the most potentially transforming force on the planet.” To that end, I’d love to see the kind of messaging in the Always video applied to a massive campaign, say, to restore the rights of the women of Hobby Lobby to access contraception through health care. Or to find all the remaining kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls. Or to any number of wrongs that need righting, right away.

Because at the end of the day and after all the virality, it’s still a tampon ad, and there’s nowhere much for our roused sentiment—the connecting between and among women we experience here as viewers—to go.

And so, a video with a powerful message becomes a lost opportunity. Amanda Hess at Slate sums it up when she notes, “it’s a little sad that all of this enthusiasm for women’s stories are leading us directly to a box of maximum protection wings, while female filmmakers and characters are still so underrepresented at the box office.” We’re wasting our best filmmakers on tampon ads, the headline screams.

Thinking like a girl over here, I say it’s high time empowerment causes, and not just empowerment products, had a PSA as powerful as this tampon ad. Causes for the betterment of women and girls’ lives deserve our most creative thinking, our savviest makers and marketers of all sorts.

When the cause for gender equity truly goes viral, when it becomes actionable and not just aspirational, then maybe, just maybe, “run like a girl” will mean, as one of the women in the video implores, “win the race.”

I’m not hugely optimistic, but I have to stay hopeful. Because my greatest hope is that by the time my little girl, now four years old, hits puberty, this conversation will actually be out of date.

 

 I invite you to follow me on Twitter @deborahgirlwpen, join my Facebook community, and subscribe to my quarterly newsletter to keep posted on workshops, coaching offerings, and talks.

Mama w/ Pen

Do Fathers Matter? An Exchange with Paul Raeburn

9780374141042_p0_v2_s260x420If you’re still looking for that perfect, think-y Father’s Day gift for the dads in your life, or a beach read for those who (like me) crave research packaged in narrative, science journalist Paul Raeburn’s Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked is the book to get this year. No father’s rights stuff here. Instead, it’s a heavily researched and highly readable story of scientific discovery–an overview of what psychologists, geneticists, neuroscientists, anthropologists, and sociologists are finding about the role of fathers in their children’s and families’ lives. Raeburn writes for The New York Times, Discovery, and Scientific American and pens the About Fathers blog over at Psychology Today. He’s the chief media critic for the Knight Science Journalism Tracker at MIT and a father of five.

I’ve watched Paul painstakingly compile the research and craft the narrative for this book over many years. His aim in writing it is not merely to publicize and popularize the new science of fatherhood, itself a worthy goal; he’s also invested in helping fathers—and their families—understand how fathers can be better at what they do. Here’s how our exchange went down. (In the spirit of full disclosure, Paul and I are both members of The Invisible Institute, a NYC-based authors group.)

DS: Moving beyond understanding fathers as sources of authority and economic stability in their lives of their children, you look at how new studies of the unexpected physiological links between fathers and children, from conception into adulthood, are forcing us to reconsider our assumptions and ask new questions. What are the key takeaways here?

PR: I was surprised to find so many biological links between fathers and their children, beginning during pregnancy, before fathers have even met their children.images

One example of the profound connection between fathers and their fetuses is that fathers’ hormones do a dramatic turnaround when fathers’ partners become pregnant. Testosterone falls, and prolactin–yes, men have this nursing-related hormone–rises. The thinking is that this profound biological change changes men from competitive mate-seekers into more nurturing fathers.

And the connections between fathers and their children continue. Brain scans of fathers during their infants’ first four months have found striking increases in activity in the prefrontal cortex in response to looking at pictures of their infants or hearing them cry. The brain regions that changed seem to be associated with fathers’ motivations and moods and their involvement with their babies. Infants are sculpting their fathers’ brains to make fathers better able to respond and take care of them.

And as children grow, similar connections continue to exist.

DS: You’re a father of five. Is this book personal in any way?

PR: In this book, I wanted to collect the research on what is known about fathers and their contributions to their children. I mostly avoided personal recollections, because I think it’s important that we distinguish the facts–the scientific findings–from our personal feelings and impressions. I did, however, break from this rule on occasion, when I found I couldn’t resist saying something about my father or my children.

DS: What was the most interesting finding you unearthed from looking at the research on dads in the animal kingdom?

Screen shot 2014-06-13 at 7.52.49 AMPR: I was surprised to learn how much humans and laboratory animals–even mice–resemble one another. Neuroscientists are using mice to find the circuits that govern fathers’ behavior, and they are doing it with mice for two reasons. One is that most human research subjects take a dim view of being sacrificed at the end of an experiment and have their brains dissected. Another is that mice’s brains are remarkably similar to humans’ brains. Both have the same structures and similar circuitry. If a discover is made in the brains of mice, it’s highly likely that the same thing is going on in humans.

DS: Research on mothers and mothering abounds. Why, do you think, we still know so little, relatively speaking, about the role of fathers in children’s and families’ lives?

PR: It’s hard to say for sure, but I think one reason is that psychologists in the 20th century became fond of a theory that excluded fathers from child development. Developed by John Bowlby, a British psychologist, this theory–known as the attachment theory–held that the bonding in the first days and weeks of life between mothers and children was essential for healthy child development. Fathers did not appear anywhere in this scenario.

If fathers were not important–which is what most psychologists believed–why bother studying them? I think this must have changed when a psychologist-father was nuzzling one of his kids, or rolling around on the floor, and caught sight of himself in a mirror. In that eureka moment, he might have said, “My child seems to be enjoying my company. Perhaps I matter after all!” And the rest was history.

DS: If you could suggest a research study, from any field, to continue what you acknowledge as the incomplete investigation of fatherhood writ large, what unanswered questions or quandaries would you most wish to resolve?

PR: I would like to know more about single-father families, and families with stay-at-home dads. On June 5, 2014, the Pew Research Center reported that the number of fathers who do not work outside the home rose to a high of 2 million in 2012. “High unemployment rates around the time of the Great Recession contributed to the recent increases, but the biggest contributor to long-term growth in these “stay-at-home fathers” is the rising number of fathers who are at home primarily to care for their family,” Pew wrote.

I’m eager to see what we can learn from those families about fatherhood more broadly.

I also think gay and lesbian families have a lot to teach us. They are not as constrained by gender stereotypes as some of us, and they are inventing parenting roles anew. A recent study, for example, provided the first evidence that gay men’s brains change in ways similar to the ways mothers’ brains change when they have a baby.

Follow Paul Raeburn on Twitter @dofathersmatter and read more about his work at www.paulraeburn.com

Image (mouse): Flickr, Rick Eh?

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Mama w/ Pen

Mother’s Day Gifts for the Feminist-Research-and-Resource Inclined

Looking for that perfect go-to gift for the wonky feminist mama in your life? Look no further. Your online guide to all things research-and-resource is here. Well, ok, it’s a partial list. Feel free to add suggestions in comments or tweet them at me (I’m @deborahgirlwpen) and I will share. Here’s a start:

1. A book (of course) to help her navigate feminist motherhood. Topping my personal list this season are two by colleagues  copy-redefininggirly_cover2from the Brave Girls Alliance, a gender equality think tank and advocacy group I’m part of that’s dedicated to communicating with and influencing media, corporations, and retailers.  First up, Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween by Melissa Atkins Wardy, my neighbor to the north. You can read an excerpt here, purchase apparel and gifts for “full of awesome” girls and boys that go beyond gender stereotypes at Pigtail Pals and Ballcap Buddies, and join an incredibly active Facebook community over at Wardy’s page.

her-next-chapter-book-coverNext, Her Next Chapter: How Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Can Help Girls Navigate Malicious Media, Risky Relationships, Girl Gossip, and So Much More, hot off the press, by Lori Day, M.Ed., and her daughter, Charlotte Kugler, a student at Mt. Holyoke. Covering far more than the significance of book groups, the book hits on eight of the biggest challenges facing girls today, including bullying, gender stereotypes, and negative body image. The authors provide tools and strategies for discussing these thorny topics, providing carefully chosen books, movies, media recommendations, discussion questions, and group activities to go along with each.

And while we’re on it, The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality, edited by Avital 21-200x300Norman Nathman, is practically a Mother’s Day standard, as is pretty much any title from She Writes Press, Seal Press, or The Feminist Press – three very different presses whose lists include high-quality works on a range of topics related to gender.

 

2. An experience to massage her mind. Why not gift a mama a slot in The OpEd Project’s Write to Change the World seminar, coming up next in Atlanta, Chicago, LA (where I’ll be teaching it on June 1), NYC, Boston, San Francisco, Tucson, and DC. And for Chicago-area locals, how about a ticket to Women Employed’s Working Lunch gala event.

 

WomensLeadership-COVER3. A savvy report for her to curl up with at the end of the day.  Hey! This one’s FREE! Gift her the newly released report “The Economic Importance of Women’s Rising Hours of Work: Time to Update Employment Standards” by the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Eileen Appelbaum, Heather Boushey, and John Schmitt, which Schmitt wrote about here.

Or send her Judith Warner’s new report from the Center for American Progress, “Women’s Leadership: What’s True, What’s False, and Why It Matters,” which explores the “silver lining” to exclusion. (Hint: women, long outsiders, have had no choice but to think, act, and lead in out-of-the-box ways, which is why they’re now poised to change our institutions for the better.)

 

4. Music, jewelry, pjs, a yoga class, or any of the myriad gifts available Every-Mother-Counts-logofrom the online shop run by Every Mother Counts, where part of the proceeds go to help mothers around the world.

 

 

5. A magazine or movie to feed her brain. How about a subscription to Brain, Child magazine, or the DVD of the documentary, “Who Does She Think She Is?“, about conflicts between motherhood, work, and art. ‘Nuf said. who_poster

 

 

Of course, no need to wait for Mother’s Day, or limit such gifts to mothers. Thinking back to Julia Ward Howe’s call for a Mother’s Day of Peace, come Sunday, here’s wishing all GWP readers and bloggers an equitable and sincerely peace-filled day.

 

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