Why I Wasn't Excited About the "First Black Disney Princess"

Back in 2009, a lot of people asked me what I thought about Princess and the Frog, the film Disney said trumpeted as featuring its first African American princess. My gut reaction was, I'll get excited when they release the film with their third black Disney princess. I mean, leaving aside for a moment whether it's progress to make the princess industrial complex an equal opportunity exploiter, what I find, whether it's women in general or women of color in particular, is that Hollywood (and Disney especially) makes a Big Deal when they finally, after oodles and oodles of movies

Score 1 for Freedom of Speech; Score 0 for Breast Cancer

Today I got a press release from one of my least favorite breast cancer organizations: Keep-A-Breast, the folks that brought you those annoying I ♥ Boobies bracelets. I've written about this before. There are so many things wrong with Keep-A-Breast it's hard to know where to begin. There is, of course, the whole issue of the blithe sexualization of breast cancer, a disease that, trust me, is anything but sexy (hey, Baby, want to see my mastectomy? I didn't get to "keep a breast," dang it). I wrote back in 2010 about how the fetishizing of breasts comes at the expense of the bodies, hearts and minds attached to them.  What disturbs me more, though, is the way that focusing on a youth demographic--especially early detection in a youth demographic--is doing a disservice to the cause of breast cancer. Campaigns like this (as I said in last year's piece, "Our Feel-Good War Against Breast Cancer")  are usually motivated by caring and grief: the woman who began Keep-A-Breast lost a friend to breast cancer in her 20s. But focusing on early detection--that  is not going to reduce young women's death rates from the disease. Keep-A-Breast urges girls to perform monthly self-exams as soon as they begin menstruating. Though comparatively small, these charities raise millions of dollars a year — Keep A Breast alone raised $3.6 million in 2011. Such campaigns are often inspired by the same heartfelt impulse that motivated Nancy Brinker to start Komen: the belief that early detection could have saved a loved one, the desire to make meaning of a tragedy.

Yet there’s no reason for anyone — let alone young girls — to perform monthly self-exams. Many breast-cancer organizations stopped pushing it more than a decade ago, when a 12-year randomized study involving more than 266,000 Chinese women, published in The Journal of the National Cancer Institute, found no difference in the number of cancers discovered, the stage of disease or mortality rates between women who were given intensive instruction in monthly self-exams and women who were not, though the former group was subject to more biopsies. The upside was that women were pretty good at finding their own cancers either way.

Beyond misinformation and squandered millions, I wondered about the wisdom of educating girls to be aware of their breasts as precancerous organs. If decades of pink-ribboned early-detection campaigns have distorted the fears of middle-aged women, exaggerated their sense of personal risk, encouraged extreme responses to even low-level diagnoses, all without significantly changing outcomes, what will it mean to direct that message to a school-aged crowd?

Young women do get breast cancer — I was one of them. Even so, breast cancer among the young, especially the very young, is rare. The median age of diagnosis in this country is 61. The median age of death is 68. The chances of a 20-year-old woman getting breast cancer in the next 10 years is about .06 percent, roughly the same as for a man in his 70s. And no one is telling him to “check your boobies.”

“It’s tricky,” said Susan Love, a breast surgeon and president of the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation. “Some young women get breast cancer, and you don’t want them to ignore it, but educating kids earlier — that bothers me. Here you are, especially in high school or junior high, just getting to know to your body. To do this search-and-destroy mission where your job is to find cancer that’s lurking even though the chance is minuscule to none. . . . It doesn’t serve anyone. And I don’t think it empowers girls. It scares them.”

Did you hear the big news? Earlier this week the Supreme Court declined Easton Area School District's appeal to ban Keep A Breast i love boobies! bracelets in their schools. Below is an excerpt of a response blog I wrote on how I felt. Although this is a huge victory for freedom of speech for students everywhere and Keep A Breast we know our fight isn't over. We still need your support to keep educating young people on the importance of breast cancer prevention. I hope you will consider making a donation right now. Will you support Keep A Breast?


Parenting in the Digital Age

I was just re-reading Catherine Steiner-Adair's book, The Big Disconnect, and came across this passage:

Children come to life innocent, unaware of the harsh aspects of pain and suffering and how cruel people can be. Part of the job of parenting is to protect them from that harsh truth long enough for them to develop a sense of goodness and core values of optimism, trust, internal curiosity, and a hunger for learning. If they see too much too soon--before they're neurologically and emotionally ready to process it--it can short-circuit that natural curiosity. Boys and girls alike are easily traumatized by premature exposure to the media-based adult culture that cultivates cynicism and cynical values, treats sex and violence as entertainment, routinely sexualizes perceptions of girls and women, and encourages aggression in boys.

As a parent, I was initially taken aback by how actively I've needed to protect my child's childhood (and her creative imagination) from predatory marketers and crass media. I had no idea that would be such a challenge. If you haven't seen Steiner-Adair's book check it out. It has great thoughts on how to guide your kids through the digital wilderness (and, I'm warning you now, won't let you off the hook about your own habits).  If her name sounds familiar, it's because she's also authored a path-breaking curriculum on  fostering health and leadership  among girls.  

Just in Case

Just in case you stop by this blog and are wondering: Hey, Peggy, where you at? I am, for the moment, trying to stay offline as I report and frame a new book. Unless I pull way back from other forms of communication, I have a super hard time doing that. So I'll be back at some point, when I'm further along. Meanwhile, thank you for your patience and on-going interest in my work! -Peggy

Let 'Em Know: Rape's Not Fun & It's Not a Gift

Think these comments about "legitimate" rape and rape that "God intended" are a fluke? Think again. Gayle Sulik,  whose excellent book Pink Ribbon Blues just came out in paperback, sent me the following, which went around on A Critical Sociological Discourse Listserv:


"When life begins with that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen." -Richard Mourdock (R), candidate for Senate in Indiana, on October 23, 2012

"The right approach is to accept this horribly created, in the sense of rape, but nevertheless...a gift of human life, and accept what God is giving to you." -Rick Santorum (R), Senator and Presidential candidate, on January 20, 2012

"Richard and I, along with millions of Americans...believe that life is a gift from God." -Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas voicing his support of Richard Mourdock's statement about rape-induced abortions, on October 24, 2012



"If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." -Republican Congressman & Senate candidate Todd Akin of Missouri on August 20, 2012



"If it's an honest rape, that individual should go immediately to the emergency room, I would give them a shot of estrogen." -Republican Congressman & Presidential candidate Ron Paul of Texas on February 3, 2012



"It was an issue about a Catholic church being forced to offer those pills if the person came in in an emergency rape." -Republican Senate candidate Linda McMahon of Connecticut (also confusing churches with hospitals) on October 15, 2012



"If you go down that road, some girls, they rape so easy." -Republican State Representative Roger Rivard of Wisconsin, on December 21, 2011 and endorsed by VP Candidate Paul Ryan on August 9, 2012



Republican Vice-Presidential nominee Paul Ryan, Todd "legitimate rape" Akin and 214 other Republicans co-sponsored the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act", which would prohibit federal funding of abortions except in instances of "an act of forcible rape or, if a minor, an act of incest." -H.R. 3, 112th Congress, January 20, 2011



"If it's inevitable, just relax and enjoy it." -Republican Gubernatorial candidate Clayton Williams of Texas on March 25, 1990

Me, I'm with the legendary Lesley Gore:



Pixar: Are you "Brave" Enough to Just LET YOUR FILM BE ABOUT A GIRL?


This new trailer is clearly pandering to a male audience that may have qualms about a "princess" movie.


Funny, yes, but I certainly don't recall any equivalent assurances to women in campaigns  for their previous twelve features, even when there were no female characters involved. Or was there  a  major aimed-at-the-ladies campaign before  the original Toy Story that I missed? I thought not.

I've blogged about Pixar's atrocious record on female characters before (actually multiple times). And in Cinderella Ate My Daughter I wrote:

I cannot help but feel, after waiting patiently--and sometimes not so patiently--through twelve genre-busting films about male robots, male superheroes, male cowboys, male rats, male cars, male bugs, male fish, and a small male mailman, that it would have been nice if the movie was not about a princess, even a kick-ass one. Honestly, is that too much to ask?

The range of female characters is far broader in the genius films of Hayao Miyazaki, an artist, ironically, that Pixar's John Lasseter cites as his primary inspiration. Maybe because of that, the Japanese trailer make the film look far more compelling.


In the U.S., Dreamworks has done far better than other studios; while the female characters are still firmly secondary, generally love interests and often several pixels too thin--so not good enough--but at least they are significant and as fully drawn as the males.

Brave has now been rated PG partly, according to Entertainment Weekly, for "rude humor" inserted to keep the menfolk happy--at the expense of the family friendlier G-rating. Bummer. I'm not sure which is more insulting: that they don't think boys and men would attend a movie with a female lead or that the way they reassure them is with potty humor. Guys, they're not giving you much credit.....

What's the Difference Between A Disney Princess and a Prostitute?

You know, when I first wrote the article, "What's Wrong With Cinderella?" in the NY Times Magazine, I doubt anyone would have asked that question, let alone a male reviewer at the Times itself. But the sexualization/diva-fication/commodification of princess culture has subsequently become so extreme that now a lead sentence like that, which appeared in today's NY Times, seems merely an in-the-know joke. It was proferred as part of a glowing account of a show by cabaret singer Lea Salonga at the Cafe Carlyle:

What’s the difference between a Disney princess and a prostitute? Not much if you are Lea Salonga, the Filipino diva who joked last week about having played both types, as she opened her new cabaret show, “New York in June,” at the Cafe Carlyle.

Ms. Salonga seemed fully aware that psychologically the line between one and the other isn’t all that clear anymore; nowadays little girls are exploited and commodified from the time they’re toddlers.

The most incisive juxtaposition of songs in the show paired “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” from “Flower Drum Song,” delivered in a tone of angry sarcasm, with “Femininity,” from the 1963 Disney movie “Summer Magic,” sung with honeyed perkiness. The way to “catch a beau,” “Femininity” advises, is “to be demure, sweet and pure” and “hide the real you.”

In other news, this week's Geena Davis Institute newsletter highlights two interesting if somewhat contradictory stories:

The first is on why Bridesmaids will launch a slew of copycat cross-over chick flicks.

The second is on how almost NO summer films are geared towards women. And few, precious few, are directed by women.

Wonder which will prove more true?

Is Miley Teaching Your Daughter How to Be a Woman?

Interesting new study in the Journal of Children and Media: Female pop singers have a huge influence on how girls think about their feminine identity and sexuality, particularly girls ages 9-11. Not surprising, I guess, but it's worth noting that they report feeling "torn" between the "imperative" of "innocence and purity" vs "beauty and seduction." They were working that conflict out in their bedrooms, with friends, in public and "especially on the school playground." Thanks to Yalda Uhls for alerting me to this one.

Angry Little Girls

I am a huge Lela Lee fan. I have loved her work ever since it was called "Angry Little Asian Girl" and was about a very cute and seriously pissed off Asian. I am, if you recall, and Asian-by-marriage-and-motherhood so loved how Lee STOMPED the passive Asian female  stereotype. In fact, I was actually featured in the PBS series, "Searching for  Asian America" talking about Lee's work. That's me, the blonde, frizz-headed, pink-faced, big-nosed white woman in a film otherwise populated by adorable-and-angry Asians-by-birth. Anyway, She has been doing some excellent Fairy Tales for Angry Girls (not for children) lately, and has developed an hysterical character called Disenchanted Deborah. But my favorite was sent to me by my friend Yalda Uhls at UCLA's Children's Digital Media Center:


I love it.

Hail to the Princess? I Think Not.

I love this T-shirt. I've been telling my t-shirt making friends they needed to make one like it. I was thinking: Forget Princess: Call me PRESIDENT, but this is good, too.  You don't have to get pink. It comes in green and "cinder" (whatever color that is) as well as white. My only complaint is the largest one is size 6. Why not bigger kid sizes? Why not ADULT sizes????

Thanks to Julie Wilson for sending me the link!

Culture Clash

Pamela Redmond Satran, from nameberry, wrote to me that she was at a grocery store in Virginia when she heard a little girl begging for "Princess Yogurt." Her mother said there was no such thing, but guess what? Yoplait makes pink, strawberry Disney Princess yogurt cups for kids!

So here you have two products that seem initially benign, even healthy, but in truth NEITHER of them is. Consider the nutritional info on yoplait. Yoplait lists a variety of percentages on its site--calcium, protein etc. Sounds good, right? Sounds like Disney saying princesses are a "developmentally appropriate way for girls to expand their imaginations." But again: look beneath the surface and you'll find out that the second ingredient  is sugar. A 4 oz cup of yoplait princess yogurt has about the same amount of sugar as a 4 oz serving of Dryer's Grand Vanilla Bean ice cream. Hey, does that make ice cream into health food?

I wish.

But this reminds me again of the parallels between the food movement and the movement for healthier media/toys/clothing/environment for girls. We talk about kids consuming the media. We talk about kids consuming food. And think about where we were with food 10 years ago. Who knew what transfat was? Who cared where their produce came from? But a couple of books--Omnivore's Dilemma, Fast Food Nation--started a national conversation about what we feed ourselves and our children,  how the corporate control of agriculture and the food supply had gone too far. Look at how the impact! Sure, not everywhere, not everyone. But Congress is revamping the school lunch program. New York City requires nutrition labels on chain restaurant food. McDonald's offers (some) healthier choices. That's because parents got...FED UP! And it shows the power we can have, as well as (not to sound self-serving but...) the power of books to start conversation that spark change.

Now if I could make trumpets blare on my blog I would. Wait, I can!