Pink and pretty – how ‘innocent’ can harm

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.

8 responses to “Pink and pretty – how ‘innocent’ can harm

  1. Fabulous! Thank you. I don’t have a girl, but I do have two wee nieces. I think I’ll have to give it a read, then pass it on to my sister (who, unfortunately is not a reader, but with her girls at 6 months old, she’s already pinked-out, so maybe she’ll give it a go).

    As a somewhat off-topic aside, I had dinner with old friends the other night. They were sharing the “horror” story of their son wanting his toenails painted. I shared the happy story of my son and his pink viking helmet, then let the conversation drop. Now, these are very old friends (since oh, 1981 or so) from my childhood thru college days who are 150% sure that their perspectives on/about life & how things are to be (especially child-rearing), are accurate and True. And that mine – which they expect to be identical to theirs (after all, we were raised in the same place and by very similar parents) – are appalling. I wish I could have said something more, but I just didn’t know how to do it. And I felt 99% sure would completely fall on deaf and perhaps, hostile, ears. But one day I will – with help from other Mums like you and Natalia and your excellent readers!

    • That’s great! It would be nice to have someone read along! It is easy to read, if that would maybe convince your sister…
      On your experience with your friends…I always find it difficult, especially with friends or family, because you want to keep it civil, but also give your point of view. I think you did the right thing there, just to comment…also I think many times the reactions to messing with masculinity are much worse than those of femininity. If it is any consolation, I always think of what I should have said four hours later!

  2. Just put myself in the queue for a copy at the Brooklyn Public Library. (No funds in the budget to buy books just now, alas!) I’m tenth in line, but the library has twenty-one copies! Will join in as soon as I can!

  3. Third Culture Mamma

    I got my hands on a copy when it first came out for the same reasons you listed. However, I really wanted MORE. Whilst I appreciated her honesty in the conflict involved in how to manage the girlie-girl culture when raising a daughter, I thought that it could have been made alot more interesting by including more ‘data’ about some of the ideas she mentioned. For instance, in the final chapter when she touches on the role that social media plays in all this, I wanted to read more about the relationship between girls and technology. There is more and more research coming about how technology is not as gendered as previously considered – how does that fit into the pink culture? At the same time, I had the impression that she is trying to make the book as accessible as possible and as such left out alot of ‘research’ on purpose. I wanted it to be more like Klein’s No Logo.

  4. I agree with you, I also left me wanting more, and I felt it was a bit thin research-wise, but probably because hse wnats to keep it accesible. I also think that there are so many big issues that it would be hard to go to all of them in so much depth, and still be easy to read. That is why I feel like I want to review it slowly, and start reading around it, because it touches on many issues such as body image, toys and imagination, violent play, TV, marketing, new social media, etc, that it makes sense to me to go little by little and try to get the bits that make you think, and make you want to read more. I find some books are great for firing out ideas, and others more to go deeply into one theme, this book was probable near the first category, but I like that about it too…hope you join in the future discussions!

  5. Pingback: Starting point | maternalselves

  6. Pingback: On pink and other toy segregation | maternalselves

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