Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture by Peggy Orenstein is an eye opening study for anyone raising girls in today’s society. When I saw the book on the options list for Amazon Vine review, I was fascinated by the title and the concept, which turned out to offer a great deal more than the cover suggests. The Disney-instigated princess phenomenon has ceased being new and novel and is simply the backdrop of our daughter’s lives, at least in America. Don’t get me wrong, modern children have always played princess, but Orentstein’s book exposes how the culture of strategically-cultivated consumerism that is behind toys and dolls is troubling and the many manifestations of “princess” are cause for concern.
Orentstein’s book is broken up into sections, some that I was expecting and some that were a surprise. She opens the book with the birth of her daughter and her immersion into the world of princess, starting even before birth. In “What’s Wrong With Cinderella,” Orentstein explores the changing nature of the Disney princesses over time, how they turned from being a few characters in old animated movies to the enormous money-making franchise of today. Peggy explores how this phenomenon was not an accident, but a strategic marketing decision to turn young girls (and their mothers) into marketing targets. She also touches on the contradiction of the American Girl line, which offers more depth in message but mixed with material consumerism in purchase options.
In “Pinked,” Orenstein explores the rise of the color pink to define girls (less than 100 years ago, believe it or not, that color was associated with boys and blue with girls!). She also discusses the rise of the doll in American society and the path from baby dolls to Barbies to what she calls today’s “doll wars” – lines of dolls, replete with accessories, competing for market share. She also, in these first chapters, begins a book-long exploration of the resulting early sexualization of young girls that, disturbingly, rears its head in nearly every subsequent chapter.
Orenstein delves more into the academic nature of “What Makes Girls Girls,” exploring the developmental path of discovering gender and sex for young children, before moving into what she calls the extreme of expressing girl culture – the children’s pageant circuit. She then spends some time exploring not the merchandising, but the stories themselves that our children are reading – the Grimm fairy tales vs. the sanitized Disney versions as well as modern fairy tales like the Twilight series.
In my opinion, the most interesting chapter in the book was “Wholesome to Whoresome.” Personally, I’d like to see Orenstein expand this chapter into a book of its own. She deals with the “live” Disney princesses – Brittany Spears, Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana, Hilary Duff, Selena Gomez and others in the Disney constellation of girl stars. Over and over these girls seem to transition from a role model to young girls into a tabloid cautionary tale. Orenstein makes the point that is not the “good girl gone bad” that is the problem, but that the fetishism of their “goodness” that is the problem to begin with. There is simply nowhere else for them to go, potentially taking their young fans with them, to the horror of the mothers who pinned their hopes on the artificially sweet role model they were promised.
Orenstein then spends some time talking about alternate role models and body type awareness, as well as the online world of social networking. She is concerned about the way girls “package themselves” as a brand in the online world, and the permanence and rapidity of information exchanged by kids on the web. As a facebook fan, I am concerned about this as well, while like Orenstein, also challenged by these very notions myself.
Overall, Orenstein’s book asks more questions than provides answers, partly because some of these issues, while academically interesting, are so very ingrained in how we raise girls today that it is easy to acknowledge her concerns, but shrug them off for lack of any hint of how to do things differently. Orenstein does a great job acknowledging these tensions throughout the book – the princess thing is over the top, yes, but it’s so CUTE! Facebook is problematic, but they’ll have an online presence through their friends whether they want to or not. Alternate play is a great idea, but will any friends play with them.
But each of these issues and questions are important ones for parents to be asking themselves as their daughters grow. The primary message I drew from this book is the importance of protecting our daughters from the tentacles of consumeristic marketing. Life cannot simply be about having stuff, buying stuff and conforming to the need for the right stuff. This has always been true, but the “stuff” has become so much more intrusive in our everyday lives. The other message I found was continuously finding ways to challenge our girls to develop their inner selves rather than just packaging their outer selves. Ideally, this is the sort of book that should be revisited every year or so by parents of daughters, and eventually by the daughters themselves.
I congratulate Peggy on an excellent exploration of the challenges of young girls today and for deconstructing the significant role consumer marketing impacts the daily inner and outer life of our girls. I also would direct my readers to Peggy’s excellent Facebook fan page, on which she expands these themes through discussion of the current events of the day.