March 2011

Koa Beck

nonfiction

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

Peggy Orenstein’s fourth book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, chronicles the author’s journey through America’s princess culture with her young daughter, Daisy. Beginning with Disney princesses, Orenstein comes to examine American Girl dolls, the “tween” market, Miley Cyrus, social media, beauty pageants, and of course, Barbie, all in the united effort to best understand the decisions she is making for her daughter. Acknowledging early on in Cinderella Ate My Daughter the tumultuous battlefield of potential body issues, poor self-esteem, ramped sexism, and gender essentialist impositions, Orenstein opens her book with an awareness for the road ahead in raising a girl.

The “princess phase” is first up for debate as Orenstein discusses the concept with fellow mothers at her daughter’s school. Each of the mothers justify the princess epidemic in a different way, one stating that it’s simply about dressing up and that the stories are not permitted in the home while another says that having a princess ideal gives her daughter a strong identity as a woman and as female -- a place were 1960s feminism erred, according to this same mother.

Orenstein cites many studies, including a 2006 survey of more than 2,000 school-aged children that observed young girls feeling an increasing need to be “perfect” -- not only to excel academically, but also in extracurricular activities, sports, and friendships. Orenstein also reports that the number of young girls worrying about their weight increased between 2000 and 2006 as well, along with rates of stress, suicide, and depression. Orenstein quotes Susan J. Douglas from her book Enlightened Sexism to reconcile these studies: “We can excel in school, play sports, go to college, aspire to -- and get -- jobs previously reserved for men, be working mothers, and so forth. But in exchange we must obsess about our faces, weight, breast size, clothing brands, decorating, perfectly calibrated child-rearing, about pleasing men and being envied by other women.”

But Orenstein’s study of the princess archetype becomes more nuanced than surveys and statistics, as the glitter, sparkles, multiple gowns, and accessories take on a different appeal when Orenstein’s daughter says, “Mom, did you know that girls can choose all kinds of things to wear, but boys can only wear pants?” Orenstein observes through her own daughter that plucking one tiara from many and embodying fictitious royalty becomes a source of power for her -- a way to assert herself and her own aesthetic in a make-believe world. Orenstein also notes how many parents do not associate princess play with beauty necessarily, but rather view the time as an innocent one that protects against premature sexualization.  

“It reassures us that, despite the pressure to be precious, little girls are still -- and ever will be -- little girls. And that knowledge restores our faith not only in wonder, but quite possibly, in goodness itself,” she writes. From there, she observes the princess epidemic that began after September 11, 2001, and continued to escalate during the recession:

This is not the first time princess obsession has cropped up during a time of societal crisis. The original European fairy tales rose from medieval culture that faced all manner of economic and social upheaval. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book A Little Princess was published in 1905, a time of rapid urbanization, immigrations, and spiraling poverty; Shirley Temple’s film version was a hit during the Great Depression… President Franklin Roosevelt even reportedly proclaimed, "As long as our country has Shirley Temple, we will be all right."

Orenstein explores how, historically, multiple cultures have established a pattern for constructing hopes and aspirations on the innocence of little girls and, more specifically, on their bodies. While attending a children’s pageant a la Toddlers & Tiaras, Orenstein shadows one particular family with a little beauty queen and a disabled son. Through lacquering their daughter’s face with makeup and teasing out her hair, the family strikes Orenstein as placing their hopes for a different life on their daughter’s beauty:

It seemed that, for a variety of reasons -- a disabled child, the dream of upward mobility, an escape route from small-town life -- these little girls had become the repository of their family’s ambitions. That made a certain kind of sense. Historically, girls’ bodies have often embodied families’ upwardly mobile dreams: flawless complexions, straight teeth, narrow waists -- all have served as symbols of parental aspirations.

Cinderella Ate My Daughter provides a multi-tiered yet accessible meditation on princess play that draws both from first-hand observation as well as acute study of history, fairy tales, psychology, and cultural analysis. Orenstein freely counters her own assertions, going back and forth in an internal debate about purchases, messages, values, and ideals that is at times humorous and understandable given her own daughter’s bubbly voice in the background. What Orenstein uncovers about the behavior patterns of little girls and their propensity towards pink ends up revealing just as much about American culture as it does about contemporary girlhood.

Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture by Peggy Orenstein
Harper
ISBN: 0061711527
256 Pages