Cinderella Ate Her Daughter

I recently finished reading Peggy Orenstein’s book Cinderella Ate My Daugther: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture. This NPR interview with Orenstein offers a solid introduction to and overview of the book.

This book was an interesting exploration of the sickening media frenzy and marketing circus that now dominates childhood- especially girlhood. I loved the small facts that are sprinkled throughout the book. Did you know that Disney Princesses, when they appear in a group, never make eye contact with each other? Princesses don’t have friends! Creepy. Orenstein charts the origins of Princess Culture (guess what, it was conceptualized by money-grubbing dudes) and the steady rise of young girls’ obsession with all things pink and sweet.

But for some reason I haven’t quite pinned down yet, I had a difficult time making it through this book. It’s short, not even 200 pages of text, but I had to renew it from the library twice. One chapter entitled “Wholesome to Whoresome: The Other Disney Princesses” toed dangerously over the line of Slut Shaming in its judgments of Disney media moguls. (Or, as Orenstein called them, “mogurls”.) Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Hilary Duff, Melissa Joan Hart, Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, and Selena Gomez were all dissected as examples of good girls gone bad. But instead of critiquing the culture that created and sexualized these young women (guess what, WE did that to them) Orenstein vilified and shamed their choices. In a chapter on cyber-bulling, she brushed off young women’s suicides as the result of their previous mental instabilities, not the torture they were subjected to. Throughout the book, I felt like Orenstein was flirting with slut shaming and victim blaming in a way that made me very uncomfortable.

Furthermore, while I think the marketing and media blitzing aimed at little girls and young women is terrible, I’m skeptical as to how much our childhood phases really impact the people we’ll become. For most of our lives, my sister refused to wear dresses or to allow the color pink to exist in any of her belongings. She spent most of her time wrestling and breaking her bones. Conversely, I am sporting a heavy pout in my preschool photo, because my mom forgot it was picture day and sent me in pants. I was devastated to be photographed in a moment when I wasn’t wearing a dainty dress. I played with dolls, took ballet classes, read all the American Girl books. And wouldn’t you know it, my sister is married and fully entrenched in domestic life while I’m an angry feminist killjoy busily bucking all sorts of trends.

If you never leave the Princess vacuum, that’s clearly problematic, but I think most of us grow up to be people who don’t much resemble the various months we spent obsessed with one thing or another. I did once know a young lady who, in our first year of college, wore an inordinate amount of Disney gear- a Disney World bracelet, Snow White t-shirts, and the like. That was disconcerting to me. She was so invested in the Princess plotline that she was incapable of initiating or maintaining interpersonal relationships. Turns out in the real world, being a Sleeping Beauty isn’t a great way to win friends and lovers. Because you’re, you know, asleep. But I still think this was a rare case.

Rather than shunning all popular trends, we should probably just emphasize media literacy more. If we learn how to gain a critical consciousness around the media that’s produced and mainstreamed in our culture, we’ll be better equipped to examine how it functions in our lives, and what role we want it to play in our lives.  Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to participate in lots of the popular culture my friends reveled in, because my mom didn’t think pop culture was appropriate. She was absolutely right, but this resulted in some really awful ostracization and exclusion from my peer group. Rather than rote banning, I think it would have been more productive if my mom and I had conversations about why this media was popular and why it was objectionable.

Ultimately, I’m glad I read this book. Aside from the interesting facts, I wasn’t introduced to any new positions or ideologies I wasn’t already familiar with, but it was nice to see this topic taken on publicly. I imagine I would feel much differently about the book if I were a mother, or happened to be considering motherhood. At this point in my life, the contents of the book were interesting only in a detached way.  I was moved to side with and defend the young women (those “other” Disney princesses) rather than to outright ban the color pink from my life.