Years later, the conversation is still with me. As much as I'd like to think that I'd raise a daughter or son in the same way, I know that won't quite be how things play out. The differences between the world in which we live and the world we'd like to create are very real. That's not to say that I won't encourage my children (regardless of gender) to dream big (and bigger), and to treat all individuals with respect. But there are certain warnings I'd give my daughters (or sons) about our society before encouraging each to keep the best of this world, toss the stuff that really doesn't make sense, and make their own realities.
The Way We Live Now: Girls Will Be Girls
By PEGGY ORENSTEIN
Published: February 10, 2008
Hillary Clinton isn’t the only woman struggling to find an ideal mix of feminism and femininity, one that allows a woman to behave both like and unlike a man without being penalized either way. Mothers of daughters, even if they don’t support the former first lady, feel, if not her pain, at least her conflict. You need only look at the staggering success, in a publishing industry gone soft, of two advice manuals for young women, “The Daring Book for Girls” and “The Girls’ Book: How to Be the Best at Everything.”
Those volumes were inspired by “The Dangerous Book for Boys,” a gilt-embossed paean to old-school adventure that has nearly two million copies in print and caused a furor among the mothers of daughters who resented the implicit “Girls Keep Out” sign nailed to its cover. Aren’t today’s young women as eager — and as able — as boys to build a treehouse or shoot marbles?
They missed the point. The tantalizing chapters on building a go-cart and making secret ink from (presumably your own) pee were designed not so much for boys themselves but to induce nostalgia among fathers — who are typically the ones purchasing the book — for their own Huckleberry childhoods, those halcyon days before cable, Wii, Facebook and cellphones.
The girls’ books, which have a combined 1.6 million in print, do something entirely different: rather than hark back to — heaven forbid! — bygone days, they evoke nostalgia for a time that has yet to be: a girlhood that we mothers may wish we’d had but didn’t, one that we hope will prepare our daughters to be the kind of women we’re not sure we were fully able to become. Each book reflects a different vision of feminism, femininity and girlhood, but at its heart is a desire — or perhaps the fervent hope — for girls to have it both ways: to be able to paint their nails and break them too; to embrace whatever it might be that makes them girls in a way that will sustain rather than constrain them.
For decades now, girls have been told that “you can do anything.” “How to Be the Best at Everything,” originally published in England, might as well add “ . . . in heels and lipstick.” It promises lessons on how to “act like a celebrity,” “make your own luxury bubble bath” and “give yourself a perfect manicure.” This is the “I am woman, see me shop” strain of feminism, the one that’s given rise to mother-daughter spa packages and endless reruns of “Sex and the City.” Perhaps the shift from purchasing power to purchase empowerment was inevitable: once marriage and motherhood ceased to be the bulwarks of female identity, what remained to distinguish us from men beyond our God-given ability to accessorize?
“The Daring Book for Girls,” commissioned by the publishers of “The Dangerous Book for Boys” as a companion volume, seems to take its cues more from “relational” feminism, which argues that while girls’ psychological development, moral reasoning and “ways of knowing” may overlap with that of boys, they are also distinct and should be valued as such. “Daring” makes the case for a separate-but-equal female culture of play that, like its male counterpart, deserves resurrection and preservation. Any former girl — read: current mom — will find its chapters on jacks and hand-clap games irresistible. Yet the fact is that today’s girls won’t spend their lives in a separate sphere. As a nod to that, as well as acknowledgment that “different” can quickly be tagged as lesser, the book provides tutorials on “How to Negotiate a Salary” and “Finance: Interest, Stocks and Bonds.” Useful skills, but ones that probably will appeal primarily to mothers. Girls themselves, I’d wager, will see them as the equivalent of a granola bar in the Halloween bag.
And what of the girls, anyway? Which of these visions will they embrace? That’s hard to say. According to a study of how children ages 5 to 13 spend their time, by Isabelle Cherney and Kamala London, psychologists at Creighton University and the University of Toledo, respectively, and published in the journal Sex Roles, girls tend to become less stereotypical in their play as they age — choosing more neutral toys, sports and computer games — while boys remain emphatically masculine in theirs. There was one exception to that trend: television-watching. The viewing habits of girls become strikingly more feminine in their tween years.
Whether girlie or girlist, girls, because they’re allowed more latitude in their identities, can still be girls: Boys, on the other hand, must be boys — unless no one is watching. In another study of younger children, Cherney and London found that if ushered alone into a room and told they could play with anything, nearly half the boys chose “feminine” toys as often as “masculine” ones, provided they believed nobody, especially their fathers, would find out. That made me question whether any more expansive vision of girlhood can survive without a similar overhaul of boyhood, which, apparently, is not in the offing. Learning to “create an amazing dance routine” (as suggested by “Everything”) is still far more Dangerous for boys than, as their own volume suggests, learning to juggle.
As for me, I wonder whether my own 4-year-old girl will some day become hamstrung by the paradoxes of growing up female or will revel in them. Maybe, when the time comes, I’ll rip the covers off all of the books and let her make her own. That way, she can choose for herself what the new girl should be.
Peggy Orenstein is a contributing writer for the magazine and author of a memoir “Waiting for Daisy: A Tale of Two Continents, Three Religions, Five Infertility Doctors, an Oscar, an Atomic Bomb, a Romantic Night and One Woman’s Quest to Become a Mother.”