Shop the Fear Away, Girls! Man Up, Boys!

[1] Their sheer pervasiveness makes it hard to believe that Disney Princesses, reality television, toy commercials demanding that boys are “just different,” and the pinking of all things “girly” only took a commanding hold of our consumer culture after those jets brought down the World Trade Center towers live on morning television ten years ago.

[2] In an interview with Peggy Orenstein, Disney executive Andy Mooney describes how he got the idea to start marketing Disney Princesses as a group, independent of any film for the first time, after seeing little girls in homemade princess costumes at a Disney on Ice show in 2000.1 Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire debuted on Fox on February 15, 2000, and ABC first aired “the landscape-altering dating franchise The Bachelor in March 2002.”2 Pinkification was becoming entrenched by this time, having begun the rise of gender segregated consumerism in the 1980s “when amplifying age and sex differences became a dominant children’s marketing strategy.”3 This explains Tonka’s 2007 ad campaign: “Boys: They’re just built different.”4 Anyone who has shopped for and with children in the past decade has seen the packaged, color-coded, and hyper-marketed gender segregation in everything from clothes and toys to books and music.

[3] If fear and anxiety are partially to blame for our complicity in this, we need to identify the real questions so that we might search for more meaningful answers.

[4] Orenstein herself makes a connection between elements of this consumer culture and a post-9/11 mindset, suggesting that “the desire to encourage our girls’ imperial fantasies is, at least in part, a reaction to a newly unstable world.” This is not a new phenomenon, though, and she also describes how modern fairy tales (the Brothers Grimm emerged out of tumultuous medieval European culture, and how little Shirley Temple danced and entertained the masses during the Great Depression.5 What faces and overwhelms us now is just the newest manifestation of our own fears and anxieties about a world in political turmoil, economic instability, and social change.

[5] Let’s remember how President George W. Bush himself egged on this consumerist bent with his recommendations in an address to Congress and the nation on September 20, 2001. Hug your children, he said, keep praying, and “I ask your continued participation and confidence in the American economy.”6 Shopping was a key element of the presidential call to action in response to a national emergency.

[6] What has it gotten us a decade later? A packaged, color-coded, and gender-segregated consumer-driven culture whose plastic answers cannot fully satisfy the young person’s quest for meaning and identity.

[7] In his groundbreaking work on men and masculinity, Michael Kimmel maps out Guyland, a stage of life (males between 16–26 years old), a collection of places (high schools, college dorms, college-town bars), and a mindset (constant gaming, shirking responsibility, “proving” one’s manhood).7 This time/place/mindset has a code of conduct encapsulated in phrases like “take it like a man.” Kimmel points out that an emotional subtext undergirds this code, insisting on men “never showing emotions or admitting to weakness. The face you must show to the world insists that everything is going just fine, that everything is under control.”8 Inhabitants of Guyland are a prime demographic for corporations marketing everything from movies to game systems to body wash, and so young men are also subject to gender commodification tactics. Asserting control in the face of anxiety and insecurity remains a primary motivator for all involved.

[8] The hyper-construction [OU1] of reality and gendered identity that we see in Disney Princesses merchandise ($4 billion in sales by 2009), “frankenbite” interviews on The Bachelor,9 and Axe Shower Gel commercials (which “go beyond sex jokes and deep into racist, misogynist, dangerous territory”10), provide twisted responses to deep questions that theologians and ethicists have long considered: Who am I? What does it mean to be a girl? How does a boy become a man?

[9] Gendered elements of consumer culture are arguably part of the latest backlash phenomenon. We see backlash when women gain more social and political status, and simultaneously depictions of them on television and in consumer culture become increasingly limited, shallow, and even hateful. In Reality Bites Back Jennifer Pozner juxtaposes milestones for actual gender equality with depictions of women on “reality” television. For example, in 2000, Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? first aired and Condoleezza Rice was appointed the first African American national security advisor. The year that The Bachelor debuted, 2002, is the same year that The New York Times changed its wedding announcements policy to include same-sex unions. And in 2006, when Katie Couric became the first woman to solo anchor a network evening news broadcast and Nancy Pelosi was elected the first female Speaker of the House of Representatives, VH1 first aired Flavor of Love, “depicting women — especially women of color — as nothing more than ignorant, violent, gold-digging sluts.”11 Gains for women in many areas of public life have at every step been harshly countered by regressive gender ideology in the entertainment and consumer industries.

[10] For young women and young men, the world is simultaneously out of control and hyper controlled; Fear and anxiety are met with easy answers and escapist fantasies; Complicated questions about identity essential to our personal development are answered with packaged content manufactured by television producers or workers earning pennies in China.

[11] For those of us who want more, the Lutheran theological and ethical tradition is a resource not only for answering those deep questions about ourselves and the world, it also helps provide a scaffold for interrogating the meaning and presence of products and brands and stereotypes in consumer culture itself. Mary Streufert highlights a point of convergence between feminism and the Lutheran theological tradition helpful to this task:
As a theologian, Luther began to ask questions through the radical wager of justification by grace through faith. In a similar fashion, feminist, womanist, and mujerista theologians ask questions through the radical wager that women and girls in all their multiplicity are fully human — equally created, equally sinful, and equally redeemed.12

Questions answered by our consumer culture now are crucial in the formation of young people: What does it mean to be a girl? What makes a boy a man? Too often, answers in popular culture are laden with sexist, racist, homophobic, and otherwise dehumanizing messages that increase, rather than decrease, collective fears.

[12] Martin Luther recognized that a hyper-consumerist medieval culture of religious objects, icons, places, and rituals did not answer his questions about God, self, and salvation. It was when he let go of the illusion of having control over salvation that theological breakthrough occurred. The insistence that we can do nothing to earn grace, to earn God’s favor, to purchase salvation and merit through indulgences is itself a rejection of consumer culture. In his “Explanations of The Ninety-Five Theses,” Luther describes how people are “led astray by the din and noise of the preachers of indulgences,” thinking erroneously that buying something will bring about peace, justification, and righteousness.13

[13] In the twenty-first century, the din and noise of advertising and social media surround us, and so we must be reminded that nothing can be bought that will eliminate terrorism, no color-coding will help our girls and boys understand who they really are, and reality television is the farthest thing from reality. All of this actually distorts our sense of what is, in fact, real.

[14] The alternative Luther articulated, that the tradition has continued to emphasize, is simply and profoundly this: grace, peace, and hope. Grace that you can’t buy; Peace that is given and sustained; Hope that guides us in this world, promising something more.

[15] Luther also understood that Christians who live first and foremost coram Deo, in relationship to God, are always and also living coram mundo, in relationship to this world. His was not an escapist theological view, and nor should ours be. We are called to respond to and engage in this world. Gerhard Ebeling says, among other things, that the relationship between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world is not a facile separation, rather it “is one of movement, activity and conflict.” He reminds us that “the two kingdoms coincide and yet remain separate within the human person.”14 We inhabit multiple identities, and they inhabit us. A complex and layered understanding of human life in relationship to both God and the world is an important tool for constructing engaged responses to culture.

[16] To be called to life coram mundo involves challenging authority, questioning injustice, and engaging the culture that shapes us and the young people in our lives.

[17] One thing that many Christians and fed up parents consider is avoidance. A clergy friend of mine recently sent me a text after an exchange with her four-year old daughter: “She just asked me if God made Justin Beaver [sic]. I’ll admit I hesitated….” Banning television, or princesses, or Barbie, or guns, or Bieber or whatever pop culture irritation is sweeping the schools this month is tempting. Whether we like it or not, something will always be out there to capture and commodify kids’ (and let’s be honest, our own) imaginations. Avoidance might be tempting, and even temporarily possible with common sense parental control of media at home. But our girls and boys live in the world outside of our control, which is perhaps the most anxiety-producing element of them all.

[18] Peggy Orenstein finally observes that “we have only so much control over the images and products to which they are exposed, and even that will diminish over time.”15 Even if the Disney channel never finds your house, your daughter will meet Selena Gomez. Orenstein’s strategies are simple, age appropriate (because with little ones “‘no’ is a useful tactic”16), and remind us that asking questions and answering their questions (yes, dear girl, God loves “Justin Beaver” too) is part of constructive cultural engagement.

[19] Jennifer Pozner offers concrete resources from Women in Media and News, and The Media Literacy Project, that turn the consumption of pop culture into a game and a lesson in critical thinking. Reality TV Bingo invites you to make your own bingo card, filling in the squares ahead of time with all the regular stereotypes and features embedded in a show, and then looking for those things while you watch.17 Michael Kimmel likewise advocates engagement and conversation: “The only way to transform Guyland is to break the culture of silence that sustains The Guy Code.”18 He does this by running professional workshops and speaking often on college and university campuses about sexism, violence, racism, and what it means to be a man.

[20] We can do this by seeing how these strategies mesh with a theological worldview promoting questions and promising more. Knowing that human identity is primarily coram Deo can make life coram mundo a little less terrifying. Honor the flaws and joys of the culture we have constructed, and give up the illusion that existence takes place anywhere but in the middle of it.

[21] The Lutheran theological tradition reminds Christians that in the face of fear and anxiety, when we are faced with the challenge of engaging in this world even more, we do not do so alone and without grace that you can’t buy, peace that isn’t packaged, and hope that who we are is more than the color of our toys.


1. Peggy Orenstein, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, (New York: HarperCollins, 2011) 13.

2. Jennifer Pozner, Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, (Berkeley: Seal, 2010) 9–10.

3. Orenstein, Cinderella, 35–36.

4. Catherine Price, “Tonka trucks are made for boys!” Salon Broadsheet, October 30, 2007. (accessed December 6, 2011).

5. Orenstein, Cinderella, 25.

6. “The Bush Speech: How to Rally a Nation,” Time Magazine, September 21, 2001.,8599,175757,00.html (accessed December 6, 2011).

7. Michael Kimmel, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men — Understanding the Critical Years Between 16 and 26, (New York: HarperCollins, 2008) 4–5.

8. Kimmel, Guyland, 45.

9. Pozner and other reporters describe this phenomenon of editing sound bites and altering words spoken by participants in television shows in order to construct the reality that the producers desire, Reality Bites Back, 26–27.

10. “Mad World: The Axe Effect” by Kelsey Wallace, Bitch Magazine blog, March 23, 2010. (accessed December 6, 2011).

11. Pozner, Reality Bites Back, 240–242.

12. Mary J. Streufert, “Introduction,” in Transformative Lutheran Theologies: Feminist, Womanist, and Mujerista Perspectives, ed. Mary J. Streufert, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010) 4.

13. Martin Luther, Explanations of the Ninety-Five Theses (1518), in Luther’s Works, vol. 31, ed. Harold J. Grimm, (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1957) 204.

14. Gerhard Ebeling, Luther: An Introducton to His Thought, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1970) 176–191.

15. Orenstein, Cinderella, 182.

16. Ibid, 185.

17. Take American Idol for example. Squares might include: the Coca-Cola logo appears on screen, the judges describe a contestant as a “total package,” a stock phrase like “you made it your own” is used. When it happens, you get a square! Pozner, Reality Bites Back, 302–308.

18. Kimmel, Guyland, 280.

Dr. Caryn Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold, Ph.D., is Professor of Religion and serves as the Mike and Marge McCoy Family Distinguished Chair in Lutheran Heritage and Mission at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.