Orenstein, Peggy, 2011, Cinderella ate my daughter. Dispatches from the front lines of the new girlie-girl culture, New York: HarperCollins Publishers
I explained before what moved me to grab this book. As the title of the book suggests, it studies and analyses the new incarnation of the girlie-girl culture.
I liked this book for several reasons.
First, because I could identify with the authors concerns for her daughter and the reasons she set out to study more in detail this phenomenon. She describes how she wants to encourage her daughter to be a healthy, happy, strong girl. The girlie-girl culture freaks her out, but at the same time she does not want to give her daughter the impression that feminine, or girly stuff is not good, that ‘boys’ things are better. She wants her daughter to find a way of exploring her sexuality in her own terms, and being able to understand her body, her desire, her needs. And thus, objects strongly to the early sexualisation of children, and to the models of coming of age that seem to follow the princes stage – that of modern human ‘princesses’ such as Hannah Montana or Britney, which ends up being about objectifying. She wants her daughter to be strong and independent, to have a healthy body image and at the same time to fit in. She is worried about media, but also about social media. And more.
And she is brave to tackle head on these difficult issues. To do so, she immerses in the girlie-girl culture, by talking and interviewing different people, such as the mind behind the Disney Princess phenomenon, by analysing different products and toys – from Barbie, American Girl to Bratz, and all the z phenomenon-, by talking to mothers and children –including toddler pageants’ mothers- , by reviewing studies, and also weaving in personal stories. This book is mainly targeted at the general public, more than an academic audience. It is journalistic. And it is well-done in this sense as I found it not only informative, but also funny, and very engaging. I read it very quickly.
A thing I really appreciated about this book is that it is not written from a smug ‘know-it-all’ perspective. She questions herself, backtracks, starts again, moves in different directions around the issues and shows her personal struggles. It is like reading a funny, honest, on-going conversation of the author with herself, and with others, around the tricky issues parents and children face in contemporary girlhood. It is the type of conversation I would have myself. So in a way, I am glad she has done so much work that I can use, and also work with. Beware, if you are looking for a more ‘parental advice’ book, this book shows her journey, not a clear cut ‘solution’.
For me, this made the book meaty and engaging, but also particularly difficult to review properly, to summarise. And for this reason, I have decided that it would be more interesting to describe here briefly the issues the book touches on, and to, in the following weeks follow up with the different themes this book raises.
So here it goes:
Orenstein starts this book by arguing the importance of thinking about the girlie-girl culture, even though we might be tempted – with so many other issues to worry about- to give it a pass. She states that the emphasis on beauty and play-sexiness can increase a girl’s vulnerability to the issues that most worry parents: depression, eating disorders, disordered body image, risky sexual behaviour, to name a few.
She argues that these issues don’t just magically appear during teenage years, but are slowly built throughout the years. And that these little decisions parents make all along, such as which toys, movies, clothes, children wear/use matter. Her aim is to understand ways in which we can help our daughters navigate the contradictions they will face as girls, and to show us how and what this culture has become and what has changed in the last years.
She deals with the question of why princesses appeal, not only to children and businesses, but to parents. And shows how these are appealing to parents many times for their ‘safety’, but that this is done through a consumer culture that encourages the opposite. In addition, she scrutinises the boom of ‘pink and pretty’ for girls, and for this explores the business sense in this strategy, and how limiting this turns out to be for creating a female identity. This leads her to tackle the issue of nature vs. nurture, and to show how even though there is phase where gender for children needs to be validated through exterior signs, which makes them more prone to seek reassurance from toys, clothes, colours, this is also a stage in which they are more malleable to long-term influences on abilities and roles that go with sex. Next, she looks at how exploration of femininity can lead to exploitation and how difficult to manoeuvre the land of sexually charged toys, dolls, clothes.
Furthermore, she discusses the need for violent play, and critiques how this has been thwarted by TV. She shows how, even if children use the same toys –such as guns – as older generations used, the marketing culture in which they are immersed means that the relationship that girls (and boys) have with this toys and the impact they have, is different. The author also explains how tame Disney fairytales can be detrimental to a child’s emotional development, and describes her successful experiments with more gory versions, which at least, she argues, give better models for coming on age than the real life princesses she goes on to examine.
Orenstein described how the passage, the coming of age, of real-life princesses, such as the Hannah Montana actress or Britney Spears, for instance, seems to invariably involve the shedding of clothes. Her struggle here is that these modern day princesses seem to express the struggle of girls more widely, but encourage girls to view self-objectification as a female rite of passage.
Next comes a related, and major, issue in all this girlie-girl culture: the importance of body image. She describes here the history of fat, and how it became not only a health issue, but the moral issue it is today. Her advice, before having a daughter, to avoid eating disroders and a disordered body image was the usual: praise the actions not the body, involve her in group sports, in volunteerism, and make her media literate. But she shows how hard it is to counteract a message that is given by everything and everyone, and also one that you find hard modelling yourself. And how hard she finds it to give her daughter a sense of self-worth that was not contingent on her looks and clothes, but at the same time make her also stay allies with other girls.
Finally, she studies how the internet and social media is experienced and used by older children. She shows how social media has changed the ways children conceptualise their selves and their relationships, and that these are build in a similar way as ‘branding’. In addition, she shows how bad judgement was much less memorable before, and how forms of harassment and bullying have found new and wider forms of expression. The author points out how different ages bring different challenges, different abilities and development, and thus, different parental strategies need to follow. The author, however, reminds us that our role is that of preparing them, more than shielding them, from the world.
As you can see, even with this brief summary of issues, there is plenty of stuff to dissect. I do recommend this book, and would love if you want to join me in reading and discussing it together…like a geeky book club, you know you want to
And if you don’t keep up, I will send you some pink toys and a princess DVD your way…
Note: I have not been sent or asked to review this book.