A preschool student at La Canada's Child Educational Center plays with mud. Jordan Young, a neuroscientist, emphasizes that associations between gender and color, or gender and specific activities aren’t hardwired in the baby’s brain – the physical and social environment we give to kids builds them up
Preschool students play with a truck at the Child Educational Center. Ellen Veselock, the school’s Director of Programming says, “its really important for children to be able to go the direction that they want to go and that means that if this little girl wants to spend her day playing baseball that should be perfectly fine, and she shouldn’t need a pink bat to do that.”
Trumpets played and fans cheered earlier this month at a gala event at Disneyland, to crown the newest Disney princess, Merida — a fierce, bow-slinging Scottish redhead.
But outside the gates, some parents, bloggers, and Change.org are outraged that the newly crowned princess is prettier and sexier than in the movie. She has higher cheekbones, wears more make up, has a thinner waistline and, in some dolls, her dress is seductively off the shoulder.
Peggy Orenstein, who writes a lot about gender issues for the New York Times magazine, the New Yorker and other publications, said girls' dolls are getting too sexy. She said even dolls of a generation ago — Rainbow Bright, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty — have been made over as thinner and sexier.
“When I started looking at the product lines that Disney and other companies want our daughters to go into, it becomes increasingly alarming,” she said. When a preschooler grows out of the Disney princess dolls, awaiting her in the toy aisles, Orenstein said, are decidedly more sexy dolls such as Bratz, Fashionista Barbie and Moxie Girlz dolls, among others.
Disney did not respond to questions by KPCC about Orenstein and others' complaints. In a statement the company said critics are reading too much into Merida’s makeover.
Decades after feminists fought — and won — major battles for women’s rights, some researchers are worried that women are losing ground and point to an increasingly sexualized American childhood as a troubling sign of the values we are imparting to young girls.
“When we start looking at research about what puts little girls at risk later on in terms of body image, in terms of poor sexual choices, in terms of eating disorders, what we find is that an excessive focus on appearance is the thing that makes them the most vulnerable,” Orenstein said.
Orenstein points to Mattel's 2010 toy line called "Monster High," which featured dolls, apparel and Halloween costumes aimed at girls as young as 6. The Halloween costumes can get particularly sexy and can be bought in sizes that will fit preschool age girls. (Story continues below poll window.)
Doll manufacturers bristle at claims by Orenstein and others that they’re to blame.
“To our knowledge there are no scientific studies connecting Barbie with body issues. Girls understand that Barbie is a doll — she was never molded on the proportions of a real person,” Mattel said in a written statement.
Sarah Banet-Weiser, an American Studies professor at USC, agrees.
“There is no way to measure whether playing with a Barbie doll or a sexy doll will lead a girl to have a low body image or a low self image,” she said. The problem of girls’ and women’s body image extends far outside the princess isle at local toy stores, she said.
“When we blame the dolls, it allows us to not focus our attention on all sorts of other factors that are part of the culture of gender in the U.S.,” she said, “such as legislation and abstinence-only programs and fashion and advertising and branding.”
Civil rights attorney Lisa Bloom said she was horrified to learn that 50 percent of 3 to 6-year-old girls thought they were too fat. She wrote a book called “Think,” about American women’s obsession with looks and body image. She believes American culture “rewards girls for looks over brains.”
“I think the first message that most little girls get from adults is that their appearance is the most important thing,” Bloom said.
“When we see a cute little girl wearing the little dress and the shoes and the cute curly hair,” she said, “our first impulse is to say, ‘You’re so cute. … Let me see your dress. Let me see your nails.’ And often we never move on from that subject onto anything else.”
Social scientist Rebecca Jordan Young, of Barnard College, said her review of brain studies find no evidence that infant boys’ brains start off hard wired to like baseballs and girls’ to love tiaras.
Instead, she said, we create that love when we inundate a baby girl with pink, along with all the cooing and love. With time, her brain comes to associate pink with pleasure, comfort and safety.
Young believes our society still stereotypes children into gender roles.
“We routinely undertrain boys for empathy, and I think that we routinely shortchange girls in terms of our and their imaginations about what they are physically capable of,” she said.
Deborah Siegel, a Visiting Scholar at Northwestern University who studies gender issues, agrees.
“Studies show that in cultures and countries where boys and girls are both encouraged to tend house, you have greater work-life policies later on for men and women alike,” Siegel said during a recent TedX talk. “Parents' ideas about gender influence the way they behave towards their kids, which in turn influences the wiring of those young plastic brains.”
Ellen Veselock works with preschoolers every day. She and her colleagues at The Child Educational Center in La Cañada Flintridge, are so concerned about stopping gender sterotypes that they have made it a critical part of the preschool.
“It’s really important for children to be able to go the direction that they want to go,” she said. “And that means that if this little girl wants to spend her day playing baseball that should be perfectly fine — and she shouldn’t need a pink bat to do that.”
The school calls its approach “anti-bias.”
During a recent visit, little girls zoomed trucks down a hill in one part of its sprawling, kid-centered yard, and other girls played T-ball in another. A little boy pranced around the sandpit in a red gown.
When teachers came across a study that found girls are more likely to play with blocks if they are on the table rather than on the floor, Veselock said, one teacher tried it out.
“Immediately we had four girls around the table building and then taking their journals and sketching what they were building,” she said. “It kind of proved its point to us pretty clearly.”