You'll hear the same arguments from a million parents and marketing departments: rampant princess culture is what girl's want, and it's not hurting anything, so why don't we all just go with it? Whether you're booking your seven-year-old a manicure party or giving your kindergartner a spray-tan before a beauty pageant, we're all doing the same thing. Toy makers love it. Every time they can segment and direct products towards a specific market, they get more sales. Did you buy your son a blue Leapfrog? Well you'll have to buy your daughter a pink one! Kids feel great about it... around the age of three they're really starting to develop that sense of "self" that makes us so human, but haven't really fleshed out the idea of permanence yet. They don't understand that plumbing is enough to make you a boy or girl, they think you have to be one: act like one, look like one, don't accidentally slip onto the wrong side or you'll lose what you've worked for.
So what's wrong with it? Well for one, we're exposing kids to stereotypes awfully early. How you look and what you buy shouldn't define you, but it's tough to shake that idea if it starts when you're three. Why is the APA telling doctors to look out for eating disorders in girls under 12? Why did girls in a college study perform more poorly on a math test after trying on a bikini, yet boys showed no difference in scores no matter what they tried on? Princess dresses on preschoolers is almost like a gateway into Bratz dolls.
The slab-sized division just isn't that great for kids developing brains. Eventually we have to learn to get along, although today's domestic abuse and divorce statistics show we're not doing a fantastic job at it. The truth is that boys and girls are a little different... girl brains really are wired to have a slight advantage in verbal skills and boys have a slight advantage in spacial perception. The differences aren't huge, they aren't even as notable in the height difference between men and women, and everyone knows you wouldn't go seeking the tallest people in a crowd and come out with only men. But they're there. We only make life hard for ourselves when we try to amplify the differences by marking vast separate territories between girls and boys. One large study found that girls with older brothers had better-than-average spacial perception, and boys with older sisters had better verbal skills than other boys... see what environment and interaction can do?
The world didn't used to be so insecure about gender expression. The original EZ Bake oven was teal (can you believe it) and 1900s-era pictures of toddler boys almost always had them in ruffly white dresses, just like their sisters.
So what's a parent to do? The last chapter of the book has very good age-specific appropriate ideas... you obviously can't ask a three-year-old probing questions to get them to think critically about culture wars, and you can't use "NO" as the answer to everything a 14-year-old asks you. Orenstein urges parents to seek out practical toys, support manufacturers who don't make everything into a pepto circus. Seek out movies for your kids where the characters aren't stuffed into BOY and GIRL roles, they just happen to be girls or just happen to be boys... she actually prefers anime films like Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro. Disney movies can sometimes be see okay... I loved the smart, inspired Rapunzel in this year's Tangled. But go to the toy store and suddenly the Tangled makeup kit, styling head, and jewelry kit are right there to remind me that a big part of Disney isn't excited about Rapunzel's ambition. They're here to sell her clothes.
Overall this is a great book and a quick read. Orenstein's blog is worth a bookmark too. She's done a wonderful job navigating a very tricky subject, and has given me so good tools for my daunting task as a new mom.