Author Peggy Orenstein examines the long-lasting — and damaging — effects of ‘girl power’ pop star Britney Spears' sexuality
In your new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, you write about how Disney princess culture has altered your little girl’s view of sexuality. It reminded me of Britney Spears, when she debuted in a schoolgirl outfit posing suggestively.
Yes, she set a template for a lot of the confusion that came after and was ironically a direct outgrowth of the Girl Power movement — she had an impact on the way Girl Power was commodified and changed. On the one hand, she was a breakthrough because she was a girl who was a star for girls, as opposed to, say, David Cassidy or Bobby Sherman or the Jonas Brothers today. But as such, she had this whole different approach. She was at once selling chastity and sex and combining them in this really weird way.
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And she was doing this for very young girls, when she started.
It’s hard to remember now, but one of her central fanbases was six-year-old girls, who would go to her concerts and scream and shout. She always talked about being a virgin. And she’d say, “If you see me as a Lolita, that’s your problem.” But everything she did completely contradicted that. It’s this weird thing where she was sexualizing innocence and fetishizing it. So it was an ultimately incredibly disempowering stance for girls to see.
And what’s been the fallout all these years later?
The culture has taken up that message. It plays into the diva culture of little girls right now, that accelerated makeup and hot dance moves, with Miley Cyrus and the like. I want to be clear: I don’t come at this from a perspective to be negative about sexuality. It’s just that when little girls have inappropriate sexuality — however it’s imposed, by pop culture or adults they love — they don’t understand it. The risk is that they never connect it and sexiness becomes a performance for them rather than something that involves intimacy. Instead they see sexiness as something they do for the pleasure and entertainment for others. As if self-objectification was a rite of passage.
You see that today: Young girls “sext” naked photos of themselves to their boyfriends.
With sexting, there’s also an issue of sexual entitlement. Girls are feeling like they have to perform the idea that they’re comfortable with their sexuality. And you have to wonder, what is it that they’re getting? They don’t have pleasure or control. What is the reality of what that act gives them? It’s not anything healthy.
So what are parents supposed to do?
First, it’s about limiting their access to media and such, when they’re really little. And also trying to expand their ideas of who they are and what they can be, that’s not linked constantly to playing at pretty or sassy (which is sexy with training wheels). Educate them and yourself.
Who is your daughter, Daisy, idolizing these days?
Well, this is going to sound politically correct but it’s true. We went to a dinner the other night where this 99-year-old judo champion was being honoured. She was talking about, among other things, how one should be gentle, strong and beautiful. To illustrate “gentle” and “strong,” she said she could walk up to a man twice her size (which wouldn’t be hard, she was about four-foot-nine) and touch him with her index finger and he would collapse. And by beautiful, she meant not the externals but a beautiful heart. I told Daisy, “Look at her, isn’t she amazing!” She was taken. She was into it.