Peggy Orenstein has established an entire career around her ability to describe and analyze the ways young women learn, socialize, and advance into adulthood. She even wrote a highly influential book exposing how gender dynamics operate within the American education system (Schoolgirls). When her own daughter became ensnared in “girlie-girl” culture, however, Orenstein was forced to admit that her extensive academic knowledge did not prepare her to negotiate the paradoxes of growing up female in the 21st century. Cinderella Ate My Daughter chronicles Orenstein’s parenting crisis and her subsequent investigation into how femininity is being scripted by marketing, princess mania, and popular culture.
As she struggles to identify the best approach to raising a healthy daughter in our contemporary culture, Orenstein confronts her own conflicted notions about femininity and empowerment. She discovers that her reactionary disapproval of all things pink isn’t teaching her daughter how to be a well-balanced person. Nor can she merely adopt the opposite approach and blindly fund her child’s obsession with girlie-girl representations which privilege appearance and materialism over character, intelligence, and confidence.
Orenstein channels her intelligence and curiosity into exploring the dark side of what she refers to as “princess culture.” Princess culture, as Orenstein interprets it, emerges in many forms. From fluffy pink costumes, Disney films and merchandise to beauty pageants and social media. Orenstein identifies the underlying characteristics of the princess mythos, elucidating its discursive power over both children and adults: “‘Princess is how we tell little girls that they are special, precious. ‘Princess’ is how we express our aspirations, hopes, and dreams for them. ‘Princess’ is the wish that we could protect them from pain, that they would never know sorrow, that they live happily ever after ensconced in lace and innocence.”
Clearly, the surge of princess imagery and products is not merely a manifestation of girls wanting to play dress up. The hyperfeminine behavior associated with princess culture is enmeshed in patterns of marketing, gender polarization, and parental projection. As Orenstein discovers, the desires and interests of adults actually wield the most persuasive influence when it comes to sculpting children’s attitudes towards gender ideals and expectations. And it’s not just parents, teachers, and other role models who assume such a powerful position. Corporate executives, marketing gurus, and toy designers are often the uncredited creators.
Throughout Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Orenstein aggressively interrogates the relationship between the business world and gender socialization. She examines the messages girls are receiving from toys, commercials, and other representations of femininity with which they are inundated. The social script that emerges from this scrutiny is alarmingly reductive. Time and again it seems young girls are being socialized to associate their personal worth with their consumption habits and physical appearance. Their freakishly glamorous dolls often perpetuate a notion of identity that situates women as ultimate consumers. Both plastic and flesh role models aggrandize the value of shopping as a hobby and definitional characteristic. Shopping can be enjoyable, but defining oneself solely by the ability to purchase material objects prevents young women from pursuing a wider range of interests, hobbies, and experiences.
Even though Orenstein’s explorations of girlie-girl culture seem to reveal that our young girls are destined to become vapid brain-washed consumers, she manages to arrive at a balanced conclusion, arguing that “…our role is not to keep the world at bay but to prepare our daughters so they can thrive within it.” Rather than justifying an extreme approach to parenting, Orenstein decides that the best strategy is to maintain an underlying commitment to teaching children of both genders that their value is internally generated, rather than being determined by their toy choice, clothes, or external appearance. As Orenstein states, “I’m not saying we can, or will, do everything ‘right,’ only that there is power – magic – in awareness. If we start with that, with wanting girls to see themselves from the inside out rather than outside in, we will go a long way toward helping them find their true happily-ever-afters.”
Orenstein’s descriptions of commercialized girlhood are frank, engaging, and often quite humorous, while her underlying quest to raise a healthy, confident young woman will resonate with many readers.