Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Book Review: Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, by Peggy Orenstein

Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture
by Peggy Orenstein
Harper Collins
192 pages

As a mother of a 9 year old girl, I admit that I have always been more than a little uncomfortable with the whole Disney Princess phenomenon, which exploded onto the pink-tinged scene just in time to coincide with my Betty's entrance into the Disney marketplace world. 

We may have never taken our kids to the Magic Kingdom (no character breakfasts with princesses and mermaids for us, thanks) but we certainly haven't escaped all things Disney in this house. Betty has been Jasmine twice for Halloween, as well as Ariel and Dora and Hannah. We have the Disney Princess Wii game. She's read (and owned) every single Disney book. Even though she's outgrown her, Betty still brushes her hair at her Dora the Explorer vanity table.

And who can forget the year (2008) that we refer to as the "Hannah Christmas" because almost every item that Santa or the grandparents brought bared the likeness of one Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana (so much so that The Husband claimed we all should have just handed over our ATM cards to Billy Ray himself.)

So, yeah.  Disney has succeeded bigtime in capturing our daughter's interest and a good part of our disposable income. 

And, as Peggy Orenstein writes in Cinderella Ate My Daughter, a lot of other people's too.

"The first Princess items, released with no marketing plan, no focus groups, no advertising, sold as if blessed by a fairy godmother. Within a year, sales had soared to $300 million. By 2009, they were at $4 billion. Four billion dollars! There are more than twenty-six thousand Disney Princess items on the market, a number which, particularly when you exclude cigarette, liquor, cars, and antidepressants, is staggering." (pg. 14)  "Of course, girls are not buying the 24/7 princess culture all on their own. So the question is not only why they like it (which is fairly obvious) but what it offers their parents." (pg. 22)

Yes, what indeed?

That's just one of the psychological factors that Orenstein explores in this book that is a must-read for any parent or relative or teacher of young girls.  I found this absolutely fascinating ... and it makes so much sense when put like this:

"[P]rincesses are, by definition, special, elevated creatures. And don't we all feel our girls are extraordinary, unique, and beautiful? Don't we want them to share that belief for as long as possible, to think that - just by their existence, by birthright - they are the chosen ones? Wouldn't we like their lives to be forever charmed, infused with magic and sparkle? I know I want that for my daughter.

Or do I? Among other things, princesses tend to be rather isolated in their singularity. Navigating the new world of friendships is what preschool is all about, yet the DPs, you will recall, won't even look at one another ....Princesses may confide in a sympathetic mouse or teacup, but, at least among the best-known stories, they do not have girlfriends. God forbid Snow White should give Sleeping Beauty a little support." (pg. 22-23)

That's the truth.  They don't ever look at each other, and that (as Orenstein says) is downright freaky and creepy.  You can see how this sets the stage for how mean little girls can be to one another.  (Orenstein gets into that into a later chapter.)

"Let's review: princesses avoid female bonding. Their goals are to be saved by a prince, get married ... and be taken care of for the rest of their lives. Their values drive largely from their appearance. They are rabid materialists. They might affect your daughter's interest in math. And yet ... parents cannot resist them. Princesses seem to have tapped into our unspoken, unrational wishes. They may also assuage our fears: Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty may be sources of comfort, of stability in a rapidly changing world. Our daughters will shortly be tweeting and Facebooking and doing things that have yet to be invented, things that are beyond our ken. Princesses are uncomplicated, classic, something solid that we can understand and share with them, even if they are a bit problematic. They provide a way to play with our girls that is similar to how we played, a common language of childhood fun. That certainly fits into what Disney found in a survey of preschool girls' mothers: rather than 'beautiful,' the women more strongly associate princesses with 'creating fantasy,' 'inspiring,' 'compassionate.'

And 'safe.' ... By safe, I would wager that they mean that being a Princess fends off premature sexualization, or what parents often refer to as the pressure 'to grow up too soon.' .... Children's wide-eyed excitement over the products we buy them pierces through our own boredom as consumers and as adults, reconnecting us to our childhoods: it makes us feel again. The problem is that our very dependence on our children's joy erodes over time, they become jaded as we are by new purchases - perhaps more so." (pg. 23-24)

(Jiminy Crickets,  I could quote this whole damn book.  It's that good.)

To be sure, Orenstein packs a lot into these 192 pages.  She not only takes on the Princesses, but the American Girls too.  You'd think they would be better (I did) because they are educational at least, but they've got their issues too, mainly in the form of all the accoutrements that come along with them (for a price).

"Therein lies the paradox of American Girl: the books preach against materialism, but you could blow the college fund on the gear." (pg. 30-31).  "It is a peculiar inversion: the simplicity of American Girl is expensive, while the finery of Princess comes cheap. In the end, though, the appeal to parents is the same: both lines tacitly promise to keep girls "young" and safe from sexualization. Yet they also introduce them to a consumer culture that will ultimately encourage the opposite - one in which Matter and Disney (the parent companies, respectively, of the two brands) play a major role. Both Princess and American Girl promote shopping as the path to intimacy between mothers and daughters; as an expression, even for five-year-olds, of female identity." (pg. 32)

It's that identity that is at the heart of what Orenstein is trying to convey (and succeeds in doing) in Cinderella Ate My Daughter.  She delves into the world of child beauty pageants, the pages of the original versions of fairy tales, and into the online worlds of inhabited by thousands of kids starting with the games found on and Disney and moving into the virtual and social networking worlds where 3.7 million teens are logging on each month. "In short order - a matter of a few years - social networking and virtual worlds have transformed how young people, male as well as female, conceptualize both their selves and their relationships." (pg. 165)

It's hard to walk away from Cinderella Ate My Daughter feeling ... well, empowered.  Enlightened, yes, but there aren't many answers as to what to do about the proliferation of the Princesses and how they are just the beginning of this slippery slope that we're on. The answer isn't to ban all this altogether (particularly the online stuff, because there are obviously many benefits to this Internet thing - and as someone who logs way more online hours than I probably should, I'd be a little hypocritical if I said there wasn't.)   And this stuff isn't going away - not a chance, not when it is making upwards of $4 billion dollars a year.

Instead, it's what we all know - having an awareness of the messages and psychology behind all of this and how it can and does affect our girls.  And sometimes, from the most unexpected sources, there are good messages to be found. Like take today, for example.  I finished Cinderella Ate My Daughter last night and was in the car with both kids heading home from the library today when The Cheetah Girls came on Radio Disney.  The song? "Cinderella." 

I groaned ... but kept it on, willing myself to listen to the words.

And I was rather pleasantly surprised.

"I don't wanna be like Cinderella
Sitting in a dark, cold, dusty cellar
Waiting for somebody to come and set me free.
Come and set me free.
I don't wanna be like someone waiting for a handsome prince to come and save me."

I cranked up the radio to make sure the message was heard loud and clear.

"Don't wanna depend on no one else.
I'd rather rescue myself.
Someday I'm gonna find someone who wants my soul, heart and mind.
Who's not afraid to show that he loves me.
Somebody who will understand I'm happy just the way I am.
Don't need nobody taking care of me.
I will be there, I will be there for him just as strong as he will be there for me.
When I give myself then it has got to be an equal thing.
I don't wanna be like Cinderella, sitting in a dark, cold, dusty cellar ...."

Yes, indeed. Sing it, my Cheetah girlfriend.  As loud as you possibly can.

What Other Bloggers Thought:

Dawn from 5 Minutes for Books
The Book Lady's Blog
Nomadreader (who mentions a key part of this book that I wanted to include: that of the impact of girls having opposite-sex friendships in their early years. Yes ... so important.)
Rhapsody in Books

copyright 2011, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.


Amused said...

Not being a mother myself yet I really enjoyed this book because it made me think about a lot of things that I didn't even know were issues to mothers about having little girls. It kinda freaked me out but gave me lots of food for thought for if I ever, someday have a little girl. It was great to read your post from the prospective of a mother who has lived through it!

nomadreader said...

I'm so glad to read the perspective of a mother (of a daughter, especially). I loved this one and continue to think about it. I'm curious to see how this book ages too. As you mentioned, there aren't many solutions, and I'm curious to see if another book comes out in response to address some of those issues. Glad you liked it too:-)

Amy said...

Great review! Like you I thought that the book didn't offer answers but rather was promoting dialogue and understanding. Also - LOVE THAT SONG! What a great message! I must go check it out. heh.

Dina said...

Loved this post! (And am pretty sure I would love this book, too!)

Dina said...

Loved this post! (And am pretty sure I would love this book, too!)

bermudaonion said...

I don't have a daughter, but am still interested in this book because I can see how this phenomenon is affecting the young girls around me. Fantastic review!

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

This is on my "must read" list. We have two daughters (15 and 9); I *think* I'm aware of these subtle messages in our culture, but am likely to be surprised by what I'm missing. Sounds like a great pick for a book group discussion.

Cass said...

I found it rather odd and frustrating that Orenstein didn't offer a single suggestion on what to do about Princess Culture after making the argument for how terrible it is. I mean, not even "team up with other moms to think up creative party ideas" or something similarly obvious? I went to a reading she did for this book at a local bookstore and one of the audience members actually asked "What can we do about it?" and Orenstein's response was, basically, "nothing." Frustrating!

Alison said...

I couldn't put the book down, and I was surprised at how surprised I was--because I went into the book a bitter, cynical feminist mom. But I was like, "Damn, I haven't been cynical enough!"

I like the idea of a feminist moms' collective where we come up with party ideas, Cass!

Jennifer said...

While I'm not a mother myself, I am interested in this book and this princess culture. When I was a little girl, I don't really remember buying all that much into this. Sure, I loved watching the Disney movies, but I never really wanted to be the princess. Heck, the princesses that I loved the most were Belle and Jasmine (in my mind these two stand out as being more adventurous and having a lot of agency). I find myself a bigger fan of Disney now as a young adult than I did when i was a kid. Perhaps that is just a bit of generation gap but I do find it interesting to see what has changed. I went to Disney World this last Christmas and was amazed to see how much Disney has changed. There is so much more stuff to buy. And the little girls are always begging their parents to buy them these outrageous products. The market to support this culture is certainly booming. But I like to think that it isn't all bad. There are some valuable lessons being thrown out there by Disney. Sure, the consumerism isn't the best, but for now I am taking it with a grain of salt hopeful that all of this can be used in a constructive way to build good foundations for young children.