Dr. Jennifer SShewmaker with bookhewmaker is a nationally certified school psychologist, psychology professor, and mother to three daughters. Her book Sexualized Media Messages and Our Children: Teaching Kids to Be Smart Critics and Consumers takes on children’s consumption of sexualized media messages, providing parents, teachers, and professionals with strategies for abating their influence. Combining academic prowess with personal experience, she deftly demonstrates the impact of both positive and negative media messages. I sat down for an email chat with Jennifer—a colleague I “met” through the Brave Girls Alliance—to ask her more. To learn more about Jennifer’s work, check out her recent TEDx talk “Does Sexy Media Matter?” and visit jennifershewmaker.com. Follow her on FB and Twitter @drjenshewmaker.

Deborah Siegel: It kills me all over again to read of studies that, as you document, “link the consumption of sexualized media with body dissatisfaction and negative body behaviors such as dieting for girls even down to the age of six.” Six! And we know things only get worse as little girls grow up. At the same time, in the six and a half years since I myself became a parent, I’ve gone from “Never Princess” to “a little bit seems ok” to “I let my daughter keep the disembodied Cinderella head our cousin gave her and am now jamming in the car with her to Taylor Swift.” Any advice for parents who feel beat down by the culture, and our own confusions and compromises, to help us keep the faith?

Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker with her daughters
Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker with her daughters

Jennifer Shewmaker: This is such a good question. As parents we do have to find the best fit for our own families. For example, when my daughters were young, they enjoyed Disney Princess movies and costumes. I let them engage with princesses, but we also talked about the messages. So, with Snow White, I would ask, “What do you think about Snow White falling in love with the Prince like she did? Could she really know him, or can he really know here? How do you think people fall in love?” Giving young children the chance to think through ideas like that as they watch media helps them build their skills in becoming critical consumers, and learn to look at stories with a critical, realistic eye.

DS: Ok, so maybe not all is lost over here. It was a proud moment when my daughter called out Anna, from Frozen, for “falling in love at first sight” with the dude who turned out to be a bad guy. As parents, it’s not like we can issue a princess media blackout–nor would we necessarily want to perhaps, since these shows, it seems, offer teachable moments about the culture we live in. Critiquing the “external blocking” paradigm, whereby parents try to control the media content their children consume, you call instead for a more “ecological approach”. Can you explain what you mean by that?

JS: Sure. An ecological approach just means that we’re going to think about the environment in which the child is growing up. That includes the family their in, the peers they’re close to, the school they attend, and so forth. We have to ask what kinds of supports, skills, and messages a child is getting within that context. Media is a part of a child’s ecology, or environment, but it’s not the only part, and definitely not the strongest component. When a child has a family around them that helps them build their confidence and competence in critiquing media, when they have a peer group in which they build caring community, when they’re learning from all of the important people and groups in their lives to understand where their value lies, that is going to give them the tools to thrive, even when they face challenges like sexualized media. It goes back to those 5 C’s of thriving, confidence, competence, character, caring, and connection.

The 5 C’s

DS: I love this photo of you on a TEDx stage, with the “5 C’s” on the screen behind you. But as writers, educators, and activists who also parent or take care of children, it’s not enough to be the sage from the stage–right? Often our best lessons and learnings, I find, are the ones that take us by surprise. So I love asking gender experts this question: What’s surprised you most about the way sexualized media consumption has played out in your own home?

JS: When I started researching sexualized media, it was because I felt so overwhelmed by the messages. I really did wonder if there was a healthy way to address it. Once I discovered the 5 C’s of thriving, and started connecting those with the things I was hearing from kids in the interviews and surveys that I had collected, I began to understand that we don’t have to be afraid of negative or unhealthy media messages, we just need to know how to help our kids process them and build their skills to respond effectively. Now that my daughters are 12, 15, and 17, I see them using those skills everyday, and that is so encouraging. I know that what I share with parents will work, because it has worked in my very own family.

DS: Your book is anchored around “four interpersonal mediating variables” that can change the way adults living and working with children respond to sexualized media. What’s new or different about the way you’re understanding these wider contexts in which media literacy (or lack thereof) evolves?

JS: So many times when people have looked at media and how it effects kids, it’s been done from only one perspective. My idea is that we have to take a broader view, and understand that a child lives and develops within a context that’s dependent upon those variables, such as their gender, their family environment, connection to the culture of celebrity, and the other communities that they’re a part of. When we understand that each child can build the five C’s of thriving within each of these contexts, that gives us a good place to start in helping them become critical consumers of all kinds of media.

DS: Let’s throw another “C” into the conversation: consent. How early do you feel should we start talking with children—boys and girls—about consent? What are some age-appropriate ways to inform and forewarn, without scaring them?

JS: In the book I share an exercise that you can do with young children, even preschoolers, to help them begin to understand the concept of consent. This activity is called, It’s just a hug, and it’s one that I’ve used with young children for years. I start by asking them a few questions:

–Do you always want to be hugged?

–How does it feel if someone hugs you when you don’t want to hug?

–When you want to hug a friend and they don’t want to hug, how do they feel if you hug them?

–What might you do  instead of forcing a hug?

This activity gives you a chance to start building language around body ownership, that each person has the right to say what they do and don’t want done to their body, and the chance for everyone to think about asking for and obtaining consent, what to do when someone denies it, and how to refuse consent themselves. Once you’ve set up the idea of consent with this activity, you can talk about it in different ways as the child gets older.

DS: You write that sexualized media “presents a dilemma” for both boys and girls, and you note that many adults talk about that dilemma more openly with daughters than sons. Why is that, do you think? And how can we help adults feel more comfortable broaching these critiques with boys?

JS: I think that many adults think that “boys will be boys,” instead of understanding that our boys need and want guidance on how to develop healthy relationships and a healthy understanding of how to go about building those just as much as our girls do. For example, it’s really important for both boys and girls to understand the concept of consent from both the perspective of giving and obtaining consent. Both boys and girls can be sexually abused, assaulted, and manipulated, and we want all of our kids to understand both how to treat others with respect and how to ask for respect themselves.

I believe that open conversations about our bodies, good and bad touch, how to say no or yes to touch, and so forth are important for all kids. In the book I give some specific conversation starters to help us do that with all children. And, it’s vital that we have these conversations about consent and contraception with our boys as they get older. We don’t want our son to be the bystander who saw someone getting assaulted and didn’t step in, we want him to be the one who helped, who called an adult, who noticed something was going on and asked for help.


I invite you to join my Facebook community, pin with me on Pinterest at Tots in Genderland, follow @girlmeetsvoice, and subscribe to my quarterly newsletter to keep posted on coaching, workshops, writings, and talks.


I’m beyond delighted to briBeyondBalancePanelng you this post from my friends over at Women Employed, a Chicago-based advocacy organization that mobilizes people and organizations to expand educational and employment opportunities for America’s working women. Below, Adriana Díaz, the Communications Manager at Latino Policy Forum and a leader of the Advocacy Council at Women Employed, muses poignantly and shares knowledge on how we work. Follow her on Twitter @adriana9diaz.  -Deborah

A few weeks ago, I lost several hours of sleep to an irregular bout of insomnia. I went to work grouchy, brain hazy, and started to complain to my coworker—when I realized that she, as a mother of two children under the age of 3, ran on an average of five hours of sleep a night. A sleepless night seemed trivial in the moment, but in our water cooler conversation we gained perspective in our lifestyle differences, and in our shared privileges as women employed by our office—we both work for a company that values family support and work-life balance and offers flexible scheduling for salaried employees to meet those needs. For example, my coworker works 8 to 4 to accommodate her family’s childcare needs. I work 10 to 6. Bonus: we both get to work from home once a week.

While it may seem like a small perk to some, my coworker and I recognize that having flexibility in our workplace is a huge benefit to our quality of life. To be sure our conversation was an “a-ha!” moment for me on workplace issues; one of many I’ve had since becoming an Advocacy Council member at Women Employed (WE) more than a year ago. For too many working women—the benefits my coworker and I view as a given, control over our schedules, paid sick days, maternity leave—are out of reach.

So how do we create conditions in which all of us can thrive?

Beyond Balance, a panel discussion hosted by WE, dived into this very question last week. The engaging conversation was moderated by WE Executive Director Anne Ladky and included panelists Susan Lambert, University of Chicago, Associate Professor in the School of Social Service Administration; Iliana Mora, COO at Erie Family Health Center and WE Board member; and Rex Huppke, Chicago Tribune journalist of the popular workplace column, “I Just Work Here.”

The full program is available to watch on CAN-TV, but here are a few more a-ha moments I had that I hope you can learn from too:

  • There is no work-life balance for low-wage workers.
    • As 80 percent of minimum wage workers are adults, and 59 percent are women, Illiana Mora reminded us that for many balance is out of the question, “It’s work, work, work, work, work, work and more work. What they’re talking about is really, survival.”
  • Paying workers well, providing fair schedules and paid time off is not just great for employees, it’s great for business! Employee morale, health and loyalty suffer in industries with low wages and unpredictable schedules. This leads to high turnover among other incurred costs. Susan Lambert said, “We want strong businesses, we want firms to employ people and a strong economy. But the literature shows if you treat people well it pays off too.”
  • Millennials deserve their due credit for revolutionizing the workplace. The demographic is now the largest portion of the workforce and has a strong commitment to social justice.
    • Rex Huppke made the point that Millennial men want to be involved with their families: “Every generation will have its negative side…but Millennials have come along and said, ‘if you don’t provide me with the kind of things I find important, basically the work-life balance issues, then forget it, I’m going somewhere else.’ And then they just leave.”

Catch more highlights here. Interested in learning more about creating fairer workplaces? Visit Women Employed’s website.

LHLHN coverI’m thrilled to bring this interview with Joanne C. Bamberger, editor of the new anthology Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox (She Writes Press), to Girl w/Pen. Joanne and I were both part of the first class of the Women’s Media Center’s Progressive Women’s Voices program waaay back, and I’ve been following her writing with admiration ever since. An entrepreneurial journalist and award-winning writer, Joanne is the publisher and editor in chief of The Broad Side, a digital magazine of women’s commentary. Joanne was chosen for the Forty Over 40 “disruptor” list for her work in amplifying the voices of women for political and social change, and was awarded the 2013 Advocacy Innovator Award by Campaigns & Elections magazine. Working Mother Magazine has called her one of the most “powerful” moms in social media. Her new anthology explores the question of why so many Americans, especially women, have such complicated and conflicting feelings when it comes to one of the most well-known and admired women in the world — Hillary Rodham Clinton. She’ll be moderating a panel, with contributors Veronica Arreola and Emily Zanotti, TONIGHT at Women and Children First in Chicago at 7:30pm. If you’re local, I invite you to join me there!

DS: Your book’s title, Love Her, Love Her Not, evokes that game in which one person seeks to determine whether the object of their affection returns that affection or not. Hillary Clinton certainly wants the affection of culturally and politically astute women like those who’ve contributed to this anthology. By embracing the range of our complicated feelings, what kinds of feelings—and thoughts—do you hope the book itself will spark?

Joanne Bamberger

JCB: My hope is that the essays in LHLHN will help voters, especially women voters, examine their underlying feelings about Clinton. So many people say, “Oh, I don’t like her. I could never vote for her.” But when those same people are asked why they don’t like her, they’re stumped for an actual reason. So when I gathered the writers for this project, and we talked about essay topics, I asked each writer to really dig deep about the “why” question. What I found was that since we can only view any candidate through the lens of our personal experiences, those experiences significantly inform our feelings about her, rather than forming our opinions about her based on Hillary’s experience and credentials.

In many ways, how we view Hillary Clinton is really more about ourselves than about her. I believe that until women voters can work through their own feelings about Hillary, as well as women leaders in general, and what we expect of women, we won’t be able to elect a woman to the White House.

DS: You’ve brought together writers who are diverse in age, walks of life, race, and political affiliations. What were the most surprising through-lines in these essays, if indeed such through-lines exist?

JCB: One of the most surprising things to me was that so many writers still judge her for not leaving her husband after the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Even for the writers who initially judged her for being open about her personal political ambitions – and viewed her decision to stay in her marriage as a political calculation rather than a marital one – and have changed their minds about that judgment 20 years later, it was just very surprising to me that people judge her negatively for her decision when she was the wronged party in that episode.

Another theme I found fascinating was that while each essay topic was different, each writer was willing to take a step back and really view their feelings about Hillary through a microscopic lens and be really honest in the positives and negatives about Clinton. I’d characterize that kind of “through-line” as finally being able to see Hillary Clinton as a 3-D person, rather than the 2-D portrayal of her we are fed by most of the media, and to re-examine our ideas about her on a truer 3-D level. And isn’t that how we all want to be viewed? Unfortunately, we live in a time were media boil us all down to 2-D versions of ourselves. We won’t be able to elect a first woman president until we can look at ourselves, as well as Hillary, as fully-formed, three dimensional women who, by definition, are full of contradictions.

DS: In your earlier book, Mothers of Intention, you document how women and social media are revolutionizing politics and the uphill battle women still face in the world of politics and activism. How does a grandmother running for president change politics? And what do you make of the way media (social and otherwise) represent and portray her candidacy this time around?

JCB: Since we have had so many grandfathers run for president where that fact hasn’t been a substantive issue at all (most infamously, Mitt Romney with his 23 grandchildren and counting), having a woman who happens to be a grandmother running should not be an issue, either.  Sadly, we still live in a society where women are still judged – decades after “women’s liberation” – through a traditional, gendered lens.

Unfortunately, few reporters or pundits are doing anything to change our views of women like Clinton. It certainly doesn’t help with how we view women of a certain age when women of younger generations use outdated language to discuss people like Hillary. Recently, a TIME Magazine reporter who’s written a book about women political leaders, said that grandmothers are viewed as “biddies,” suggesting that such an idea harms their chances of leading.

It seems we can’t escape media sexism when it comes to Hillary Clinton. In 2008, some questioned whether a hormonal Hillary should get anywhere near the “nuclear button,” channeling stereotypical worries about hysterical women. Now, a post-menopausal Hillary gets portrayed by Donald Trump (who is older than Hillary) as not having stamina, and reporters question whether she’s too old to run for president, yet they don’t make it as much of an issue for Bernie Sanders, who is several years older.

Statistically, since women live longer than men, and Clinton, at 68, has a life expectancy of at least 85, maybe we should take a more serious look at the fact that her older male candidates statistically have shorter life spans.  🙂

Until we can take the gendered filter off the lenses through which we view candidates, sadly will be an issue. Just as with the studies that show that woman candidates have to be likable for women voters to view them as “qualified,” yet when don’t require that of male candidates.  I just hope I live long enough to see us toss those outdated gendered ideas out the window.  Sadly, I’m not holding my breath.

DS: In so many ways, as you suggest, the debate seems as much about us as her. I love the title of a piece Jessica Grose wrote in Elle, “Have We Gotten Less Sexist Since Hillary Clinton’s Last Run.” Have we? And about that “we”: it’s easier to claim sexism when haters are men. Are there ways in which women, in our own love/hate, are enacting sexism too? If yes, how so?

JCB: Some of that sexism comes from the grandmother question we talked bout earlier.

Women, sadly, aren’t exempt from sexism when it comes to Hillary. The idea that some women have that a former first lady has no place running for national elective office, regardless of her own personal qualifications, is blatantly sexist.  That many women loved her as secretary of state but loathe the idea of her as president is sexist. Women’s sexism toward Clinton is sometimes less obvious than the sexist commentary thrown her way by men, but it’s there – our continued questioning of her fashion choices, whether she’s strong enough to be commander in chief, and, yes, whether she is “likable” enough to women – all sexist, even if those same women can admit that her resume more than qualifies her to run for president.

DS: If you were to design a Hillary Studies course for college students (as you hint at in the introductory essay to the book!), what would the curriculum be?

JCB: It would be easy to put together a curriculum, with academic articles and books being written every year about her, and I think the focus would be on gender, media and whether we are, in fact, a post-feminist society.

While I know that many women younger than myself believe that we have finally reached a point where we are post-feminist – meaning we don’t need a woman to advocate for feminist issues, and that men who identify as feminists can do just as good a job as a woman, I disagree. And I think that a Hillary Studies curriculum would focus on: (1) the media sexism Hillary endured during the 2008 campaign and how all women are negatively impacted by that, (2) how Hillary’s leadership potential is undermined in our world of memes, and how those undermine all women, (3) right-wing, gendered hate speech (one example – “rhymes with blunt”) against Hillary and the negative impact that has on other women who follow her onto the national stage, and (4) what has to happen in society to get beyond these issues to finally be able to envision a woman sitting in the Oval Office in her own right so that we can actually elect one.

DS: Anything else you’d like readers to know?

JCB: One of my favorite things about the essays in the book is that they are all so nuanced, and written with insight and yes, humor.  I had thought that the essays would fall neatly into three categories – the lovers, the haters, and those still on the fence.  But because all the writers – even the ones who aren’t Hillary Clinton fans – could recognize the importance and the value of having someone like Hillary on the national stage, I couldn’t package them that way. If more of the coverage of her as a candidate was as thoughtful as the essays in LHLHN, we would be having a very different national conversation about her. I hope the readers of LHLHN will enjoy the various perspectives from these amazing women.

Buy the book from Women and Children First, right over here. Screenshot 2015-11-03 05.43.45

Read more about Joanne: www.joannebambeger.com




Stay in touch! I invite you to join the Girl Meets Voice Facebook community, pin with me on Pinterest at Tots in Genderland, follow @girlmeetsvoice, and subscribe to my quarterly newsletter to keep posted on coaching, workshops, writings, and talks.

Experimenting here a bit, so GWP readers and writers, bear with me! For a piece I’m writing, I’m collecting all the metaphors scholars and advocates use to talk about the “straightjacket” that gender identity can be. Like, well, “straightjacket.” And “box.” What else are people using these days? Please share, in comments, on my FB page, or tweet me @girlmeetsvoice –Gender box GO!

Wishful Thinking“That’s your solution?,” asks a character in my She Writes co-founder Kamy Wicoff’s debut novel. “Time travel is easier than passing affordable childcare?” Rarely do we cover novels here at Girl w/Pen, but given the subject matter (and, full disclosure, the fact that I think Kamy is the bomb), I’ve become interested anew in the question of fiction as a mode of advancing public conversation. As someone who once considered writing a dissertation on popular feminist fiction from the 1970s, I’m obsessed with the portrayal of women’s issues — and working mothers’ issues in particular — in popular discourse, imagined and real. Can fiction centered on work/life issues bridge research and reality? Here’s how our conversation went down. -Deborah

DS: Wishful Thinking joins working-mother dramadies like Alison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It and Where’d You Go, Bernadette–a contemporary genre in which a middle- or upper-class protagonist tries and fails to “do it all,” breaks down, puts herself back together. What do you see as the advantages, and limitations, of fiction as a mode of advancing the conversation around working mothers’ dilemmas? Is this a domestic drama, or a social one?

KW: Is the pressure to have, do, and be it all so great that only science fiction can solve it? In a way, I wrote the book as an argument against the notion that the increasingly impossible demands placed on working parents are each individual’s problem to solve, by showing how crazy it is that my protagonist, Jennifer Sharpe, thinks forcing her body through a wormhole is a perfectly rational response to her out of whack work/life balance—more rational than trying to reform the out of balance system itself. (One of my favorite lines in the book comes from Jennifer’s coworker, Alicia, who, when she finds out about the app, says, “That’s your solution? Time travel is easier than passing affordable child care?”) Jennifer believes it is a domestic drama, but it is absolutely a social one, and I think by writing a novel rather than a nonfiction book on the subject, I was able to underscore that in a fresh way.

The other inspiration for Wishful Thinking was very personal, and inspired by fiction—I was reading the Harry Potter books with my older son, and I thought, I love this, but I wish it were about a woman my age, not a ten-year-old boy. And then I thought, if I could give a working mom any power, what would it be? The answer, the ability to be in multiple places at once, came immediately, because it’s a need I and every mother I know shares, whether she is juggling a job and kids or raising her kids full-time. But even that first impulse was feminist and socially conscious. I hungered for a fun, fanciful but thoughtful and grown up book about someone like me, by someone like me—not something written for a YA audience or with yet another male protagonist I couldn’t relate to—because in the current fiction marketplace I was starving. (I Don’t Know How She Does It came out fourteen years ago, if you can believe that. And I have never gotten over the fact that they made Multiplicity about a man. Really? It’s the guy who feels like he has to be everywhere at once?) The premise I instantly arrived at is in itself a critique.

Overwhelmed, by Brigid SchutleMom's RisingNonfiction, of course, can be more explicit in its critique and its calls to action. In an ideal world, a working parent would read Wishful Thinking, then read Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed: Work, Love And Play When No One Has The Time, and then join MomsRising and start petitioning her Congressperson like mad.

DS: When we first created She Writes, we were two entrepreneurial mamas on a mission to start something and simultaneously be there for our very young kids. You, in fact, were an early model for me of what living two passions looks like. (Recall those staff meetings on my bed while I was on bedrest, carrying twins!) Five years later, I look around me and see mothers of all stripes struggling as if the decades of advocacy for better workplace policies in support of working families hasn’t moved the dial. What’s it going to take, other than wishful thinking? Any latest initiatives you’re aware of that you’d like to shout out here? 

KW: It is easy to be discouraged, isn’t it? (And how could I forget those staff meetings?) One of the things I liked most about Overwhelmed, however, was Brigid’s determination to tell success stories, most prominently in her “When Work Works” chapter, providing models for change rather than only pointing to what, in workplaces, is broken. (And that’s a lot, like the fact that America is one of only 4 of 167 countries in the world with no paid leave for parents—the others are Lesotho, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland.) It was through Brigid’s book that I found out about MomsRising, and also about A Better Balance, founded by Dina Bakst in New York. I also love LeanIn.org, with its circles for peer support. And for many years I was on the Advisory Council for the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, which does fabulous work under the leadership of Shelley Correll on supporting scholarship and research designed to move that heavy, heavy dial—and gets that research into the hands of people with the power to make change. I’m also looking forward to Laura Vanderkam’s upcoming I Know How She Does It, for some practical, actionable tools to alleviating some work/life stress.

DS: As much as your novel is a comment on work/life condundrums, it’s a satire of app-for-that culture and technology. Are our hyperconnected lives fuller lives, or lesser lives? Are we more connected to each other, or just to our apps?

KW: This is so hard to answer. On the one hand, I witness, as I think we all do, the clearly deleterious effect of our devices on our personal relationships; the other night my son and I were at a restaurant and the entire family at the table next to us was glued to their devices, oblivious to one another—I’m happy to say my son noticed first, and was appalled! The book is certainly about that, and a commentary on our addiction to our phones. (In the first scene Jennifer realizes she’s lost her phone, and the panic and despair she feels are emotions I have to confess to having had in the same situation.) I’m pretty good about managing my use when I’m with my kids, but the pull to check email, Facebook, and the rest is very powerful, and does feel like an addiction at times, which is scary. On the other hand, my dad, who lives in Austin, can read stories to my kids, in Brooklyn, on Skype, which is magic. We have a shared family photo stream we all subscribe to, and I just saw my nephew have his first bite of rice cereal. I know what’s happening in the lives of many more people than I would have ever thought possible, and am alerted to news, social justice issues, and causes I might never have been exposed to, through these platforms. Yet I fret about it. I feel often feel that while I may have more knowledge about more people in my life, I don’t have richer relationships with them for it. (And as we all know, Facebook posts notoriously skew sunny.) Our generation is in a funny spot, not having grown up with any of this, but being so fully immersed in it now as adults, and as parents. Sometimes I wonder if our fretting will someday sound like the worries that television would spell the end of culture…but maybe television has done that. Ha.

DS: I don’t want to give too much away, but a significant plot line in your book concerns a brilliant female physicist whose discovery goes unrecognized by the scientific authorities. What was the impetus for a strong woman scientist at the center of this text?

KW: There was never any question in my mind that the physicist who invented time travel would be a woman, for a variety of reasons. The obvious one, of course, is that the story of science and its major breakthroughs is told by and about men, leaving countless brilliant and deserving women out. Physics is particularly bad—the Nobel Prize in Physics has only been awarded to two women in its history, and hasn’t recognized a female physicist’s work in fifty years. In this notoriously sexist field, I wanted to create a character who had fought her way through, and in some cases inventively worked her way around, a system stacked against her. (I’m also an amateur physics lover. Have you see Particle Fever? There are some fabulous female scientists featured in that movie.) I also chose to make her a passionate collector of artifacts of female scientists who had come before her; for Dr. Sexton, these women are the muses. Researching that part of the book was a delight—did you know Florence Nightingale was an accomplished mathematician, and invented infographics? Or that Hedy Lamar co-invented spread spectrum and frequency hopping technology? I also felt strongly that I didn’t want to have magic in this book—there’s enough of that mushy, bibidi bobidi boo stuff out there already featuring women. Who needs a fairy godmother when you can have the greatest physicist of all time at your side? There was another, very compelling reason I wanted a strong women scientist at the center of my book. So I could make a Larry Summers joke. Which I did.

DS: Virginia Woolf wrote, “A woman writing thinks back through her mothers.” You’ve had some terrific literary mentors in your life—Diane Middlebrook, Nancy K. Miller, Alix Kates Shulman, Francine Prose… Barring (ha!) for a moment the complicated maternal metaphor, in what ways have these women influenced your writing or your sense of yourself as a woman who writes?

KW: Well the late, great Diane, of course, is the model for Dr. Diane Sexton, the physicist who invents the app in the book. (Diane Middlebrook wrote the seminal biography of Anne Sexton, hence the name as homage.) I miss her every single day, and writing this book was a way of having her voice, her presence, and her inimitable style close to me for the year and a half it took to write it. Diane completely changed my life. She was the first person to look me in the eye, when I was a young graduate student who felt that, without an agent or a book, I could not call myself a writer, and say, “You are a writer!” in a way that made me believe it. She told me to write the truth about my life, and I have tried to honor her ever since then by doing it. We founded the Salon of Women Writers together in London in 2003 (again, when I was a young nobody, and she was an established badass, but she saw what a good team we’d make), which led to my founding SheWrites.com with you, and ultimately She Writes Press with former Executive Editor of Seal Press Brooke Warner.

Diane believed that as a woman who writes, it’s pointless to insist on being viewed simply as a “writer” because the world doesn’t view you that way—the best thing is to resist that prejudice by critically responding when it inevitably rears its head, and always to combat it with wit, fearlessness, and of course, brilliant writing. Francine, Nancy and Alix all do that too. I derive so much courage and strength from their example. Hopefully I can do the same for a young woman writer or two someday. But as a debut novelist at forty-two, I’m a little behind in the game.

For more, check out Kamy’s post on Moms Rising. Visit Kamy’s website. Meet her on a stop during the She Writes Press National Spring Book Tour – coming to Chicago on June 29 (I’m hosting!). And go buy the book.

And as always, I invite you to join my Facebook community, pin with me on Pinterest at Tots in Genderland, follow @girlmeetsvoice, and subscribe to my quarterly newsletter to keep posted on coaching, workshops, writings, and talks.



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.

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.


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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


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.


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,