ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Now, an exploration of childhood fantasy. It comes from our series "The Hidden World of Girls," which examines the lives and aspirations of girls and the women they become. Today, The Kitchen Sisters, producers Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson, delve into girls' fascination with animals and the real and fantastical worlds that emerge.
The Kitchen Sisters call this story "Horses, Unicorns and Dolphins."
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Unidentified Woman #1: Dolphins and unicorns and horses, they're kind of like girls' fantasies. Like, every girl wants their own unicorn. Every girl goes through a stage where they want a horse.
Ms. LAUREL BRAITMAN: Horses and dolphins and unicorns, these are all borderland creatures, gateway animals to other worlds. They help us imagine wonderful other ways of being in the world. They let us be cowgirls and oceanographers and mermaids and princesses.
Ms. ALLIE McKENZIE: We dont really like princesses that much. I'm seven, and my name is Allie McKenzie(ph). They're not as exciting as, like, horses, animals and the show called "Flipper."
Unidentified Woman #2: I love dolphins. I swam with dolphins. It just captures your heart. When they take off and swim and just pushing with their nose, or they're pulling you with their fin, it's power.
Professor JANET MANN (Georgetown University): It's like the mermaid fantasy, that you can just live in the ocean and not have to have anything. It's all there. My name is Janet Mann. I'm a professor of psychology and biology at Georgetown University. I've been studying wild bottlenose dolphins for 23 years.
I get a lot of letters from girls. Sometimes they say they want to be me, just sort of what I went through when I first wrote to Jane Goodall. Often their mothers will write the letters for them: Hi, Janet. My second-grade daughter, Emily(ph), is crazy about dolphins. She has to do a small project at school. All her classmates are choosing the life of Thomas Edison and George Washington. She wants to do Janet Mann, dolphin researcher.
It's this notion of being able to just move like that through the world. That's what both dolphins and horses have in common: sleek power and speed.
Ms. SALLY ROSE RIKER: My name is Sally Rose Riker(ph), and I'm 11 years old. When I look at a horse, I see myself in their eyes. That's who I am. I want to be free, and I want to leave my worries away from me, just getting on and riding and leaving all my bad memories on the ground.
Ms. PEGGY ORENSTEIN (Author, "Cinderella Ate My Daughter"): To be in control, or out of control, on a galloping horse is a wild feeling. You are one with it. You just feel the power underneath you, and that's part of the attraction.
There's always been speculation about why girls love horses. Is it about power? Is it some Freudian phallic thing? Or, you know, what is it? My name is Peggy Orenstein, author of "Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the New Girlie-Girl Culture."
Horses and unicorns and dolphins are a girl expressing her own power through these very dynamic, strong creatures that they're identifying with.
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Unidentified Woman #3: I had a teacher who asked me what it was with girls and horses. His theory was that it was similar to, like, taming a bad boy. And I really disagreed with that.
Unidentified Woman #4: Horses don't talk back. You know, they're not going to yell at you if you didn't clean your room or give you the cold shoulder if you forgot to return a phone call.
Unidentified Woman #5: Come on, Buttercup.
Unidentified Man #1: A girl, ladies and gentlemen, a bit of a girl clutching the neck of a bandied-legged outsider streaked across the line to win the greatest race in Turkdom(ph). A girl wins the Grand National.
Ms. DANIELLE: "National Velvet," I loved that book. I'm Danielle(ph), I'm 11. My horse is named Grendel. I'm here every day, every second I can be here to work with him.
Unidentified Woman #6: The currying, the cleaning of the hooves, the mucking of the stall, the brushing of the mane and tail. You have to have this sort of skill level, as well as the nurturing, to take care of your horse.
What that seems to be turning into, in this generation, is online pets. There's this whole breed of online horses. You have your horse, and it's in its little stall. You have to feed it, brush it, change its hay, and if you don't, your horse starts to die, and its little life meter runs out.
Ms. LEAH CREATORA: My name is Leah Creatora(ph). For me, a lot of the horse phase was that I wanted to be an Amazon princess because I wanted to be Wonder Woman.
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Ms. CREATORA: One of the parts of my Amazon princess training was learning how to ride bareback. I was going to a Y camp. I was very discouraged because they didn't really understand about the Amazon princess training. They would not let me learn how to shoot archery on the horse.
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Unidentified Woman #7: To have a place where what it means to be a girl is to be courageous and strong and the only one able to do this impossible task, it's the girl who can ride the horse. It's the girl who's Wonder Woman. It's the girl who tames the unicorn.
Unidentified Woman #8: I love unicorns. They are, like, the whimsical fantasy dreamland of the horse.
Unidentified Woman #9: I know that unless you believe in them, they won't show themselves to you. They're like a very pure spirit.
Ms. NINA SHEN RASTOGI: One of the most iconic myths about unicorns has to do with the unicorn hunt. My name is Nina Shen Rastogi, and I wrote an article, "Why Do Girls Love Unicorns? It's More than Just the Horn."
The only way that hunters can lure the unicorn is to bring out a pure, young virgin, have her sit in the woods, and the unicorn would be attracted to her innate goodness, purity, her beauty, her youth.
For many young girls, there is a fantasy that someday you will be recognized as the secretly beautiful, magical thing that you are. The unicorn would be attracted to something ineffable about you, secret from the rest of the world.
Unidentified Woman #10: I think when you're small, you're more open-minded to everything. That's maybe the most beautiful part of girlhood is knowing that you can't actually be all of these things but not being entirely sure.
BLOCK: That story is part of our series "The Hidden World of Girls." It's produced by The Kitchen Sisters and mixed by Jim McKee.
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BLOCK: You can listen to all the stories from the series at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Many girls fantasize about horses, dolphins and unicorns. One theory about why is that it helps them express their power. Others say the animals — real and mythical — symbolize dreaming and achieving. Still for many, it's a way to run away with their imaginations.
People have long speculated about why girls love horses, according to Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture.
By identifying with these dynamic, strong animals, Orenstein says, girls are expressing their own power.
"They're all active, they're all sources of power and motion and transformation," she says.
Laurel Braitman, an MIT graduate student in the history of science who writes about animals and what we think about them, says girls' fascination with these animals is more than power — the animals fuel girls' imaginations.
"Horses and dolphins and unicorns — these are all borderland creatures; gateway animals to other worlds," she says. "They help us imagine wonderful other ways of being in the world. They let us be cowgirls and oceanographers and mermaids and princesses."
Horsepower 'That Has A Heart'
When longtime horsewoman Dominique Gioia Scaggs approaches her horse's stall at the Santa Rosa Equestrian Center each morning, a grin still breaks out on her face. She says she's always excited to see B.J. — it's one of the big relationships in her life.
"To be in control, or out of control, on a galloping horse is a wild feeling," she says. "You are one with it. You just feel the power underneath you. And that's part of the attraction."
Danielle Altizio, 11, pours feed into a bucket for her horse, Grendal, whom she also boards at Santa Rosa. She spends every minute she can with him.
"He's just always there if I need him," she says. "I just know that we can do it, and that we'll do well."
When champion barrel racer Caterina Tadlock started at Southern Oregon Community College, one of her writing teachers asked what it was with girls and horses.
"His theory was that it was similar to taming a bad boy," Tadlock says. "I really disagree with that."
Tadlock wrote a paper for the class, "The Mystery of Girls and Horses," which she also posted on her sister's website, The Ultimate Horse Site. In it, she talks about how the image of the horse has changed. She says that in the past, mostly men rode and broke in horses. Women didn't have as many opportunities to form relationships with the animals as they do now.
"Horses used to be considered tools for cowboys, a means of transportation for soldiers, and a matter of business for racehorse owners," she writes. "Today, horses are mostly companion animals kept for pleasure rather than work or business purposes."
Girls are attracted to achieving the skills and level of competence it takes to care for a horse — the currying, the cleaning of the hooves, the mucking of stalls, the brushing of the mane and tail, the feeding of the horse — as well as to the nurturing aspects of the work.
Dolphins: Sleek Power And Speed
Chelsea Berman, 21, works at the Monterey Bay Horsemanship Center, where she began volunteering when she was 13. Her love of horses is only rivaled by her love of dolphins. She says they "capture your heart."
"I swam with dolphins," she says. "When they take off and swim, and they're just pushing you with their nose or they're pulling you with their fin. It's power."
Georgetown University professor Janet Mann, who has been studying bottlenose dolphins for 23 years, says girls' attraction to dolphins is paralleled with the mermaid fantasy.
"You can just live in the ocean and not have to have anything," she says.
Mann says she has received hundreds of letters from girls who are obsessed with dolphins. Sometimes the girls' mothers write for them.
"Hi Janet. My second-grade daughter Emily is crazy about dolphins. She has to do a small project at school. While her classmates are choosing the likes of Thomas Edison and George Washington, she wants to do Janet Mann, dolphin researcher."
Mann answers every letter.
"Sometimes they say they want to be me," she says. "I think it's like what I went through as a girl when I first wrote to Jane Goodall — I just wanted to do what she did."
Unicorns: The Dreamland Of The Horse
Posters of unicorns paper 11-year-old Jennifer Green's bedroom walls. For her, unicorns are magical. They symbolize dreaming and achieving.
"I know that unless you believe in them, they won't show themselves to you," she says. "They're like a very pure spirit."
Girls and unicorns have been linked in stories, art and on tapestries since at least the Middle Ages. One of the iconic myths about girls and unicorns has to do with the unicorn hunt, writes Nina Shen Rastogi in her article for Slate magazine, "Why Do Girls Love Unicorns? It's More Than Just The Horn." In this myth, she says, the only way that a hunter can lure the unicorn is to bring out a pure young virgin and have her sit in the woods. The unicorn is attracted by the maiden's innate goodness, purity, beauty and youth.
"I think for many young girls, there's a fantasy that someday you will be recognized as the secretly beautiful, magical thing that you are," Rastogi says. "The unicorn will be attracted to something ineffable about you, secret from the rest of the world."
When you're small, you're more imaginative and open to possibilities, says graduate student Braitman.
"That's maybe the most beautiful part of girlhood," she says. "Knowing that you can't actually be all these things — but not being entirely sure."
Produced by The Kitchen Sisters, (Davia Nelson & Nikki Silva) with Nathan Dalton, Laura Folger, and interns Tess Kenner, Marie Doezema, Patty Fung, Lacy Roberts, Amelia Borofsky. Mixed by Jim McKee.