21 February 2011

'Cinderella Ate My Daughter'...

Throughout her career, Orenstein has observed at close range how the media and popular culture have colluded to serve up distorted visions of womanhood to girls. So perhaps it’s fitting that Orenstein’s new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, takes on the Disneyfication of American girlhood, and the princess narratives sold hand over fist to girls like her own 7-year-old, Daisy Tomoko. Disney princess narratives have long been a staple of modern girlhood. But Cinderella Ate My Daughter emphasizes that princess culture is a 21st-century phenomenon
-M. M Adjarian, ‘Pink Slip: breaking down the princess castle with Cinderella Ate My Daughter author Peggy Ornstein’, Bitch Magazine.

I’m always pretty fascinated when I read about studies surrounding girlhood. If anything, it’s a selfish opportunity to reflect on my own experiences as I‘m pretty certain I‘ve had a very regular, very stereotypical upbringing of a white, middle class girl and my experiences tend to be largely represented in studies like this. Now I feel doubly drawn to them because I can witness girlhood through the eyes of my niece- my niece who wears the same pink polka dot dress day in and day out. It’s time we put a method to her madness.

Exhibit A...

Chillin' with the ladies- Orange Blossom, Plum Pudding, Raspberry Torte, Lemon Meringue and the everpopular Strawberry Shortcake...

The 'I just got out of bed but I'll rock the polka dot dress anyway because I have a cardboard guitar' look

Completing the ensemble with a pair of classic pumps (scrappy hair, optional)...

This is not meant to be a secret letter to my sister and brother-in-law about the anxieties of raising a girl since I obviously have no idea what that must be like (and as outlined in my last post, don‘t plan on experiencing this first hand)...Claire is simply the eyes through which I’m attempting to find reason in why little girls do what little girls do.

It seemed like she just woke up one day, knew that girls were supposed to like the colour pink, Barbie and ...well, that was it (thank goodness she likes Strawberry and the Berry Bitty City gang way more!) She doesn’t have a thing for Disney Princesses yet, but that‘s probably because she can‘t sit still for more than 3 minutes (not to mention she's just outside the age bracket Orenstein researched). Regardless, Claire seems to be on a pretty average playing field of what little girls experience, how they are capable of being consumed by images of girlie-girl culture and as a result, how they project those images onto themselves through participating in what Orenstein calls the ‘inflexible stage’ - the stage in which little girls appoint themselves chief of the gender police.

Orenstein writes, ‘for a preschool girl, a Cinderella dress is nothing less than an existential insurance policy’. As if Claire knows anything about existentialism. In plain English? Girls need to prove they are girls (as boys need to prove they are boys) so they effectively grab on to exaggerated ideas of femininity and utilize them to the fullest extent, all the live-long day.

According to Orenstein (and any other research I‘ve read on the topic), external/visual signs and signals are what little boys and little girls use to define themselves. That’s simply how they understand gender and perhaps more importantly, gender difference. Clothes, hair style, colours and toys are all external factors which help determine and convince toddlers that they are either a boy or a girl. So...once a girl understands that she is a girl, she begins to denounce all things visually associated with being a boy. To further ensure she is understood as a girl to anyone paying attention, (and perhaps most importantly, herself) she not only latches on to these external signals but starts mimicking the performances of most girls/women around her (here enters the maintainence of certain views, ie. ones that argue genders' innateness).

But as I'm sure you'll agree, there's nothing innate and natural about this!

Bottom line - little girls start to perform their gender, blurring the lines between what‘s believed to be innate and what‘s constructed through learning, through seeing and through experiencing other people‘s ideas of gender and femininity.

It’s not hard to see that little girls are easily consumed by ideas of femininity, right? Susceptible to most images put in front of their faces, especially because they lack the critical thinking skills to actually question the information and images presented to them. They simply accept it. Now let’s add passive, fragile, dependent Disney princesses into the mix, (characters who are defined by beauty first and the aforementioned negative traits next), and we’ve got a whole new detrimental ball game. Don’t believe me? Fast forward 10 years and we’ve got 16 year-old girls who still understand their femininity through performing it. Performing it in ways that are (negatively) presented to them by their culture. This has all been proven through research.

Anyone who has taken a class on gender and representation (and therefore been subjected to at least one lecture on the horrifying effects of Disney princesses), knows that femininity, aka gender performance has the ability to leave oodles of room for serious and damaging effects. Now I’m not saying burn all your Disney VHS (yes, VHS) or that digesting images of Ariel and Cinderella will inevitably cause serious psychological problems for all girls... just honestly think about what those princesses portray and how they portray it. The evidence is damning.

It's moments like these where I’m thankful Belle was the one I identified with most (the lesser of evils on the princess scale!) It's true!! She wanted more than her small provincial life :)

I want adventure in the great wide somewhere
I want it more than I can tell
And for once it might be grand
To have someone understand
I want so much more than they've got planned

I kid you not, that song resonated with me more than I could have known at that age.


Anyway - gender is learned. We simply cannot escape performativity. No if's, ands or buts. And if we’ve been performing femininity since the ripe age of 2, we’ve obviously come to master it thereby making it appear natural. So while it might look as if we’re just ‘being‘, in actuality, we're ‘doing’. Getting over this fact is fine by me although I encourage more to do it. I fully accept that I’m forever performing my gender- but it's important to determine who we are performing for! And here's where one of its more damaging effects comes in to play.

Take for example what Orenstein says about girls who are sexualized from an early age (and by this I'm making a slight assumption that she means girls who have had experiences of objectification from a pre-pubescent age). She argues that these girls are more likely to see sexuality as a performance, not as something that they feel internally. Ding Ding Ding! While I completely agree with this statement, I think we should extend the definition further to include all girls. I truly believe all girls (each and everyone one of us!) has at some point in time, or currently is, or will in the future, perform female sexuality.

I had to delve pretty deep into my own heterosexuality and sexual experiences during the process of writing my MA dissertation (negotiating male-defined systems of power through acts of heterosexual sex) and in so doing, I discovered (not only for myself) but for those that I interviewed, just how much performing we actually do as women - by and large through our sexuality and in the case of heterosexuality, through our sexual experiences with men.

Now I’m not saying that anyone who is currently raising a girl will have to deal with the horrifying effects of this girlie-girl culture (according to Orenstein the pitfalls include eating disorders, depression, risky sexual behaviour, etc.) I mean, sure, we could relate these pitfalls to a whole slew of other variables, there's no denying that. But there's also no denying the correlation Orenstein draws thereby making this phenomenon something worth acknowledging.

What’s most important to acknowledge? Performing femininity is part of our existence as female social subjects - to me, gender as performance is as obvious as my attraction to James Franco - inevitable, unavoidable, simply an undeniable fact of life. But it’s how we perform, our reasons for doing so, who we are doing it for and perhaps most importantly, coming to a deep awareness of those performances, that for me, make books like Cinderella Ate My Daughter, worth a close look.

Little girls, for the rest of time, are going to do gender, we might as well help steer them in the right direction.

On that note, brilliant words from a brilliant woman -

‘Gender is not a singular act but a repetition and a ritual, which achieves its effects through the naturalization in the context of a body.' -Judith Butler

Girl, Deconstructed

10 February 2011

Babies, babies, babies...

I hate when magazine’s rag on Jennifer Aniston for being childless. Stories are fabricated, week after week, for no other reason than to point out that she‘s strayed from the norm. She’s 40, not married and child-free - it’s like the trifecta of failure, according to some. And to others, it’s considered the biggest act of selfishness. Uhh, what?

Thankfully, a blog that circulates via Bitch magazine (best magazine in the world) shares the same 'how does being child-free make me selfish?' sentiments...

You can read that piece of wonderfulness here!
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Over the past few years, I’ve started questioning two very large, overwhelming concepts. Marriage and Children. Both of which go so easily unquestioned because of their deep internalization as something that just is. Something that we do, just because we do it. It‘s a natural stage of life. A rite of passage... or is it? I would venture a guess to say 65% of people enter these stages of life without questioning what it would be would like if they did, in fact, question them.

I simultaneously have one ear on Access Hollywood and wouldn’t you know it, Jennifer Aniston‘s 42nd birthday is fast approaching. When will Jen finally have a baby, asks the consistently intrusive Billy Bush. Aniston grapples with the idea by saying that she thinks "people want to see me as a mom and married and barefoot in the kitchen..." A-ha! Regardless of how she even feels towards having children- on her own, with a man or however she pleases, she knows that it’s what people want to see. Alright, sidetrack over.

For reasons beyond this post but for the sake of at least acknowledging its ties, I should probably share (for those interested/not already in the know) that I do not want to get married. Yes, I want to share my life with someone but I don’t think the institution of marriage is for me. Cliché and lame, I know. Let me explain (although I’ve learnt it’s not so easily explainable)...

I don’t exactly warm to the history of marriage...the ceremony for starters (an exchange of women between two men...as in ‘who gives this woman away?’ The father. 'To whom?' Ohp, another man.) Call it a superficial reason and one that can obviously be revamped in any ceremony ('Nikki, BOTH your parents could walk you down the aisle!'), but this is an image that legitimately frightens me because it remains a part of so many weddings today, hundreds and hundreds of years following its origin. Coupled with this, the obvious exclusion of rights is another big one - a set of written and unwritten laws and rules that have transcended through time, producing the most damaging effects (in my opinion) on the female psyche throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s (so perfectly portrayed by the one and only Betty Draper).

Look at those empty eyes!!

Need I continue? It’s not for me. Of this I am sure. Another post entirely...

Spending my life with someone doesn’t need to be bound by a legal document. I think if you’re meant to be with someone, that someone will share the same values, and marriage thus becomes obsolete.

So like marriage, it took a lot of questioning these deeply embedded social codes to come to the realization that I don’t actually have to have kids just because I’m probably physically capable of it.

And it’s not even like I don’t enjoy them - the exact opposite is true. I never in my life thought I could love anyone the way that I love my niece. She’s the reason I moved back to Canada, a large part of my weekly routine, and I genuinely cannot imagine life without her. We talk about Strawberry Shortcake, what she had for dinner, why she likes my hair (because it‘s long and pretty), why she can only jump on my bed and nobody elses... She can cheer me up at the worst of times and I would pay good money to find someone who knows a 2 ½ yr old with a sharper sense of humour. And to top it all off, the girl’s got Beiber Fever. BIG TIME.

The thing is, I always assumed I would have kids. I had even shortlisted several names. I still sometimes find myself thinking, ohh, that’d be a nice name...that's how deeply embedded this idea is- that sometimes, I just forget! But then again, I also always assumed I would get married. Realizing that I actually have a choice in these matters was a huge wake up call.

I realize the most common argument is that becoming a mother is meant to serve as the pinnacle of any woman’s life, the moment her existence is defined- where something deep within her brain shifts because of an experience that will irrevocably glue her and another person’s body and soul together.....well, yes, obviously. It doesn't take decades of research to figure that out. But is it really necessary to treat motherhood as the only experience single-handedly causing a woman to self-actualize? The only event capable of defining her purpose on this planet? Honestly, think about it. Can you think of any other experience that gets treated with the same importance? I can't. And it's kinda shitty.

I sincerely, and with the the utmost respect to any mother reading this, don’t think it’s the only way a woman can, will or even should self-actualize and come to understand her existence and/or purpose on the journey that is life. Yes, it would change my life forever - yes, I would do anything in my power so that child never felt less than adored. I’m not discrediting motherhood - but I really think, as human beings, we are capable of being satisfied and finding purpose - real purpose, with things other than reproducing children. Couldn't I also feel the same feelings of fulfillment and satisfaction spending my life with one person, a person who is also happy to not have children? Couldn’t I also be fulfilled, satisfied, proud, and full of purpose when I have the letters P, H and D after my name?

There are a lot of things I want to do with my life - and I trust that I will have human experiences, connections and relationships that are just as rewarding as reproducing children, without actually reproducing them. Because as my life takes on different meanings through different experiences, having a child falls lower and lower on my list of priorities. And there's no changing that. It's how I genuinely feel.

And I know some of you reading this are thinking that I just haven’t met the right person yet, that I'll have trouble finding someone who feels the same, etc etc. And you know what? Maybe you’re right. But I have it on good authority to think I’m capable of making this decision if these thoughts have been at the forefront of my mind for quite some time now. I will put stubbornness aside and say FINE, I’ll never say never, but come on...give me some credit!

It’s true though, I don’t know many girls my age who feel this way - and it usually surprises people (even good friends) when I tell them it‘s something I‘ve seriously been questioning. Do I think it'll be tremenously difficult to meet boys who feel the same? Absolutely not. The few that I do know who share these sentiments are great. Wonderful even. I should hope to know more of you.

So should I reproduce solely because I’ve been saturated with the idea that I should? Certainly not.

Am I really to believe that I will only self-actualize if I produce minituare versions of myself? Good God...

Is it really that selfish to not want kids? Couldn’t we say the same about someone with 19 of them?

The greedy Duggars.

Joking aside, I certainly don’t think it makes me selfish. I think it defines me as assured in knowing life offers varying ways in which we are capable of finding happiness, satisfaction and fulfillment. I don’t need to be defined by my ability to reproduce. And this doesn’t mean I think those who choose children are succumbing to some ridiculous notion of conformity. I think that it’s a set of unwritten social codes that require questioning- and I think more people should be questioning them.

And as for Jennifer Aniston...whether she’s ever barefoot in the kitchen, baby on hip, husband at her side, I have to say that I may be a bit disappointed. But if it’s her choice to do so, then by god woman, run with it.

Girl, Deconstructed