Peggy Orenstein: Cinderella Ate My Daughter (2011)

An intelligent, candid, and often personal work, Cinderella Ate My Daughter offers an important exploration of the burgeoning girlie-girl culture and what it could mean for our daughters’ identities and their futures.

What happens when a feminist who knows exactly how things should be, gets pregnant and the child is – horror on horror – a girl? This is pretty much how Peggy Orenstein opens her entertaining, thought-provoking and occasionally quite shocking account about what she sub-titles “Dispatches from the front-lines of the new girlie-girl culture”.

In Cinderella Ate my Daughter she explores the world of toys, kid’s beauty pageants, the color pink, superhero figures, fairy tales, the internet and so on and so forth. It is at the same time a cultural exploration as a reflection on how to bring up a daughter. How much can you allow, how well can you shield her from the influences around her and what if you succeed and she will forever be a boyish girl, the odd one out?

A lot of what Peggy Orenstein describes is certainly very American. I have seen items of the Disney Princesses’ brand but never to the extent she describes. The Disney Princesses are a marketing strategy that exploited little girls’ wish to look and dress up like a princess. The main problem, so Orenstein, is the focus on cuteness and looks only. What is also problematic is the fact that, although there are several princesses, they are never found to interact and on pictures showing them together, they all look into different directions.

Orenstein finally had to give in and let her daughter dress up as a princess but she stayed firm when it came to sexualized toys like the Bratz doll. She also explores at length how  even little girls are dressed in more and more sexy ways. Once more it is all about looks and not about feeling. The girls should look sexy but not feel it (of course not, they are only little girls), only if this is a behaviour they learn at a young age, how will they un-learn it?

The chapter on beauty pageants is one of the most controversial. Orenstein showed how confusing it was to speak with the families, to see how much the girls enjoyed it and she wondered finally if it was really all that damaging.

The chapter on pink was an interesting one and I liked how she described that this is rather a new phenomenon. Only a couple of decades back, pink wasn’t so important. Once more there is a marketing strategy behind it. If boys and girls are the same, you sell far less toys. Just imagine, a family has a boy and a girl, they wouldn’t need to buy special boy and girl toys, if there were no differences. Of course, it is more complicated than that, I simplify.

I never expected, when I had a daughter, that one of my most important jobs would be to protect her childhood for becoming a marketers’ land grab.

The chapter Wholesome to Whoresome was another fascinating part. Reading about the case of Miley Cyrus and other girl stars who seem to cross the border from cute child to slut in an instance and how this not only damages their self-esteem but confuses the fans is enlightening. Those girls have to be cute and sexy at a young age but as soon as they become teenagers the problems starts. They should be virginal but they can’t. Britney Spears is another sad example.

I found one of the last chapters on social media and virtual friendships called Just Between You and Me and My 662 BFFs extremely worrying. The umber of so-called friends on Facebook and the like indicates the popularity of a girl. At the same time, all their fears and weaknesses are exposed to the whole world at an age when they can hardly handle it.

The self, Manago (a researcher at the Children’s Digital Media Center in LA) said, becomes a brand, something to be marketed to others rather than developed from within. Instead of intimates with whom you interact for the sake of exchange, friends become your consumers, an audience for whom you perform.

According to Orenstein, recent research has shown, that there is an alarming rise in narcissistic tendencies among young adults as social media encourages self-promotion over self-awareness.

What I liked a lot is how honest Orenstein is about finding out how nice things are in theory and how super difficult and different things get when you face them in real life. Still, she concludes, it is vital, not to let go, to talk to the girls, ask them questions, guide them and to look for role models they can identify with and that will help them develop a strong sense of their self as beings and not as products.

I won’t lie: it takes work to find other options, and if you are anything like me, your life is already brimful with demands.

It is amazing that in all her sorting out of children’s books, cartoons for girls, fairy tales and movies there was only one director in whose films  there are female protagonists who are

refreshingly free of agenda, neither hyperfeminine nor drearily feminist. They simply happen to be girls, as organically as, in other director’s films, they happen to be boys.

The man she is speaking of is Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki who signed such fantastic movies as Laputa: The Castle in the Sky or Kiki’s Delivery Service.

I discovered the book on Fence’s blog. Here is her review.

If you want to know more about Peggy Orenstein and her books you should visit her website Peggy Orenstein.