Redefining Girly: An Interview with Melissa Wardy
Melissa Atkins Wardy is the founder of Pigtail Pals and Ballcap Buddies, an amazing online resource for parents seeking to empower their daughters. Her new book Redefining Girly addresses an issue that is glaringly apparent to many parents every time they walk down the toy aisle of a store or look online for clothes for their kids. Starting at birth, children are rigidly marketed to on the basis of their gender, with no flexibility or crossover between which products are meant for boys and which are meant for girls. Play is one of the first ways children learn to navigate the world and their place in it, which means that the messages toys and media send children at the start of their lives is an extremely influential one.
How do we make our daughters feel that any future is open to them when the toys and media available to them (not to mention other people they interact with on a regular basis) communicate constantly that the job of a girl is to be decorative, not active? This is not a small thing, since internalizing this lesson impacts everything from the activities girls pursue while still in elementary school to the jobs they consider after college.
The world of children’s toys gives girls (and boys) a very limited idea of their abilities, talents, and future. For parents frustrated at only being able to find Barbie’s, cooking sets & princess outfits for their young daughters, Redefining Girly is a welcome help. It includes letters from girl experts, tips for buying gender neutral toys, advice for navigating interactions with other parents, and more. Redefining girly, according to Atkins Wardy, means “girls cannot be packaged into a stereotype.” It means “we can expect the same great things for our daughters, and from our daughters, as we do our sons.”
GENaustin is grateful to Melissa for participating in a Q&A about her book, her mission, and her goals as a parent.
What motivated you to write this book?
A couple of times a week for about four years now I get emails or facebook messages from parents who says how happy they are to find my company and my work because they thought they were alone in noticing the problems in girlhood and now they no longer feel crazy. I don’t want parents feeling crazy. I wanted something tangible that parents and teachers could have that gave them the strength and insight to fight what has to be seen as a necessary fight: our girls’ right to their girlhood.
I wrote the book for my daughter and my nieces, but I see all girls as my daughter so I wanted to create something that would impact their lives in a positive, powerful way. I also wanted parents of boys to better understand the issues, and I hear from several readers that the book has really helped them with the concept of feminist parenting in general and provided creative ways for them to fight the stereotypes their sons face.
You say in the book that “pink is not the enemy, girly is not the enemy; lack of choice is the enemy.” Why do you think we’ve gotten to the point where the choices available to girls are so limited?
That is a great question and it is frustrating to understand how we got here, especially considering that parents today were the children of the “Free to Be You and Me”/Women’s Rights era and are raising our own children in a time of constant gender segregation.There are many ways to be a girl, but you wouldn’t know it if you went shopping for one. The marketplace is very homogenous these days with one company following the other to the almighty dollar as opposed to creating innovative and unique brands.There have always been gendered toys but it wasn’t until the mid-1980’s when advertising to children was deregulated that companies were allowed to market directly to children in an unlimited capacity. Childhood became a new consumer demographic. The first step was to segment the market in order to double profits, which is how we arrived at the pink and blue toy aisles we know and loathe today. We aren’t taught media literacy in school or as a custom in our society, so this type of “commercial culture” around kids became the status quo, and with that came heaps of gender stereotypes that defined products for girls with the lowest common denominators of femininity. Essentially, parents stopped questioning the appropriateness of what was being marketed and the messages those products and media contained. In the mid-1990’s media content creators wanted to cash in on the girl power movement and we saw a rise in media and products that co-opted that message of empowerment with sexuality from the male gaze. It was at this time we saw sexualization become a mainstay in girls’ products. In the early 2000’s when Disney introduced the Princesses as a connected brand it was the beginning of the end as it was quickly proven that “girly-girl culture” was a billion dollar industry.
So why is the most well-educated, most well-traveled, most wealthy and independent generation of women ever on this planet going along with raising daughters in a sea of gender stereotypes, beauty myth, and sexualization? I can’t understand that, actually, and I think it comes down to the fact that we stopped asking questions and holding marketers accountable for what they shill to our kids.
What would you say is the single most important change parents can make in the lives of their kids to circumvent the influence of “pink culture”?
Aside from being vigilant about establishing a practice of critical thinking about media, I think parents can encourage their daughters to establish their own “personal brand” and teach them how to define themselves, their passions, and what goals they want to pursue. Marketers are going to spend huge amounts of money to brand and shape your daughter into the type of consumer they want her to be, so why not use their same tactics against them? Brand is about communication, packaging, ethics, and assets. When we help our daughters understand who they are, what they stand for, what the value of their voice is, what the power of their personal impact can be, and what strengths come with their personal assets we help them establish internal benchmarks they can then use to measure the messages coming from marketers and hopefully bounce most of them off and away.
Parents can start this at very young ages and their daughter should be an active participant. When my daughter was four she insisted on being called “Amelia Dinosaur” as her name and would tell everyone she met that she was a “science-brained girl”. And so it goes.
What do you suggest to parents who don’t just want to help their own daughters, but want to get more involved in changing the whole culture around girls toys and media? Where should they start?
Well, being involved with groups like GENaustin is a great start, because you’ll be around like-minded people who share a commitment to raising strong girls. Social media has proven to be an immensely powerful way to aggregate parents and activists which is why groups like the Brave Girls Alliance, Let Toys Be Toys, SPARK, PinkStinks, and the Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies Community have seen a lot of success in campaigns pushing back against marketers. At the same time, these groups all champion the folks who are getting right so I always want to make sure we focus on the “good guys” like New Moon Girls magazine, Go!Go! Sports Girls, Lottie Dolls, and Roominate, to name a few. Supporting ongoing projects like Miss Representation, Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, or the media research that the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in the Media conducts is important. Some of the easiest steps to take to raise awareness is by sharing tweets, facebook posts, or blogs by these organizations working in this space. Sign online petitions, talk to store managers about why you dislike a product they carry, interact with brand via social media. Ultimately: Use your voice. And teach your daughter to do the same.
When we use our consumer power to support the people getting it right, the people getting it wrong take notice. Shop responsibly for the girls in your life and purchase items that build them up and empower them. Enjoy media that is gender balanced and free of sexualization. Invest time and money in providing positive experiences as a family like a weekend hiking adventure or a trip to a museum or take a class on computer coding together. Keep her involved in sports and civic activities like Girl Scouts or 4H. And here is the biggest one of all for moms — be the woman you want her to be. For dads — model for her that she has every right to expect respect for herself. These girls of ours, they are so powerful. Let’s set them up to take over the world.
Thank you so much to Melissa for her thoughtful answers! Melissa also kindly created a code so that GENaustin supporters can get 15% off products at Pigtail Pals. Just visit the Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies store and enter “gengirls” to receive a 15% discount in the anytime you visit!