A Book Review of Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture
By Laura B. McGrath
Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture examines the social factors that have transformed our young girls into tiara-wearing, scepter-wielding Princesses. Orenstein’s research is extensive, spanning from the indomitable Disney Princess, to the original Brothers Grimm fairy tales, to modern-day pageants, to American Girl dolls, and even a Miley Cyrus concert, all to examine the factors that contribute to contemporary girlhood. Cinderella Ate My Daughter asks critical questions that can shape and inform practice in student affairs. With near Socratic expertise, Peggy Orenstein masterfully probes meaningful issues, leaving her readers with more questions than answers.
Orenstein spends the 256 pages of Cinderella Ate My Daughter asking paradoxical questions and playing devil’s advocate. Despite the many questions and few answers, one thing remains clear: consumer culture has infiltrated every aspect of our lives, beginning at birth. Nearly every stage of life has been externally defined, marketed, and consequently, commoditized. This commoditization of gender is disconcerting. Through marketing and media, girlhood is defined in its “ideal” form by adults with only one goal in mind: making money. Gender has been successfully commoditized into a manipulative marketing tool, and from a younger age than ever before, little girls are being told how to act “like a girl.” While these conceptions of gender are arbitrary and clearly market-driven, Orenstein demonstrates that these external definitions lead to distinct, internalized implications.
The most overt purveyor of Princess Culture is, of course, Disney. In 2000, a former Nike marketing executive developed “Princess”, a crafty marketing move to capitalize on the girls’ market. Orenstein is less than gracious in her treatment of Disney Princesses, and finds among their faults that they “avoid female bonding. Their goals are to be saved by a prince, get married… and be taken care of for the rest of their lives. Their value derives largely from their appearance” (p. 23). In typical fashion, Peggy Orenstein is willing to consider the underlying attractiveness of Disney Princesses. Parents, she finds, are attracted to the idea of innocence that princesses represent. Many are locked in castles, put under a magic sleeping spell, and cosseted from the world around them. “Princess,” says Orenstein, “is how we tell little girls that they are special and precious… how we express our aspirations, hopes, and dreams for them… the wish that we could protect them from pain, that they would never know sorrow, that they will live happily ever after ensconced in lace and innocence” (p. 81).
Materialism is, of course, the lingua franca of girlie-girl culture. Orenstein asks her readers to consider many girlish toys: Barbie Dolls, Bratz, and, yes, even American Girl Dolls. As a former owner of a Samantha doll and lover of the fiction novels in which Samantha both saved the day and learned a lesson, I cringed as Orenstein described her visit to American Girl Place. She details the historical line of dolls, singing praises of the lessons each girl learns and hardships she must confront. Molly, for example, is a spunky little girl whose father is fighting in World War II. Her mother plants a Victory Garden, as the family has donated the majority of their goods to the war effort; Molly objects to eating turnips, and learns a valuable lesson about being thankful. Currently, Molly costs approximately $110, not including books, clothing, or accessories. “Therein lies the paradox of American Girl: the books preach against materialism, but you could blow the college fund on the gear… there has to be a less expensive way to encourage old-fashioned values” (p. 31). American Girl dolls seem to represent a positive and moral alternative to Bratz dolls, but only for those who do not balk at the price tag.
Orenstein argues, “Both Princess and American Girl promote shopping as the path to intimacy between mothers and daughters.” I would go one step further than Orenstein here, adding the shopping is promoted as the path to intimacy among all females. She adds that shopping represents, “even for five year olds… female identity. Both, above all, are selling innocence.” (32) As demonstrated through the case of American Girl Dolls, morality is expensive. Holding on to innocence is a pricey endeavor, and sadly, not an option for all girls and parents.
It seems too easy for Peggy Orenstein to address the messages presented in the over-the-top, billion-dollar Pageant industry. Chapter Five, “Sparkle, Sweetie!” attempts to take a more balanced perspective on the world portrayed in the TLC reality show Toddlers and Tiaras, or satirized by the Hoover family in the film Little Miss Sunshine. In typical fashion, Orenstein is willing to consider the alternative, that beauty pageants might teach young girls something positive. As many pageant-parents assert, Orenstein is willing to concede that young girls may perhaps learn confidence, poise, and self-assurance. At what cost, however, are families subjecting their daughters to such performances? Aside from significant monetary commitment, little girls are being judged on their appearance, taught that physical appeal garners positive results, and that love is conditional on perfection and performance. While parents insist that they are only fulfilling their daughters’ desire to be a princess, Orenstein is skeptical. “Where does desire end and coercion begin? When does “get to” become “have to”? I’m not sure parents who are that deeply invested in their children’s success are able to tell” (p. 79).
The comparison to helicopter parents of today’s students is all too easy. In fact, much of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, though intended to describe contemporary American girlhood, could be describing the experiences and struggles of many college women. For example, one consistently reported finding is the pressure that young girls feel to be “perfect.” Orenstein writes of school-aged girls, “Instead of living the dream, those girls were straddling a contradiction: struggling to fulfill all the new expectations we have for them without letting go of the old ones. Instead of feeling greater latitude and choice in how to be female—which is what one would hope—they now feel they must not only “have it all” but be it all: Cinderella and Supergirl. Aggressive and agreeable. Smart and stunning. Does that make them the beneficiaries of new opportunities or victims of a massive con job” (p. 17)? I cannot help but consider many of the college students I know, all bright and capable young women, struggling to be “perfect”: involved in every activity, actively pursuing leadership roles, managing at least a 3.5 GPA, spiritually vibrant and physically attractive. The residue of Princess culture is prevalent across our campuses, as well.
This extreme pressure needs to be considered to a greater degree. Sadly, Orenstein reports this pressure is related predominantly to performance: “femininity as performance, sexuality as performance, identity as performance, and each of those traits as available for a price. It tells girls that how you look is more important than how you feel. More than that, it tells them that how you look is how you feel” (p. 183). How are we to address these issues for young women without further commoditizing their experience? How do we help young women in their development, recognizing specific experiences and needs, without exacerbating gender stereotypes?
I am troubled, for example, by the commoditization of gender in relation to campus leadership. Low male engagement is certainly a problem throughout higher education. However, we must consider the messages being sent to women through encouraging male involvement. We need to find a way to encourage men to be involved in ways that do not devalue the excellent work of female leaders on campus. Far too many of our messages regarding leadership leave women feeling like one student leader who told me, “I’m sorry for the program that I’m a girl. I know they would have rather had a guy.” Or further, to the men on campus, “Look! If the girls can do it, you can!” I certainly would not argue against encouraging male engagement. However, Peggy Orenstein’s examination of the internalization of external messages should caution us.
Cinderella Ate My Daughter asks compelling questions that can shape practice related to gender in higher education. We must consider the forces that shape young girls before they enter college. Further, if many of these sex differences have been externally manufactured and subsequently internalized, how does this impact our practice? Cinderella Ate My Daughter, therefore, challenges student development professionals to address these issues critically and thoughtfully. To confront consumer culture and dispel the myth of “the fairest one of all.” We have an opportunity to rewrite the Princess narrative: rather than passive, tower-bound invalids, we can empower young women to be strong and courageous, the hero of her story.
Laura McGrath is beginning her Ph.D in English literature this fall at Michigan State University, located in East Lansing, Michigan.
Orenstein, P. (2011) Cinderella ate my daughter: Dispatches from the frontlines of the new girly-girl culture. New York, NY: Harper Press.
Berger, A., Friendly, D., Saraf, P., Turtletaub, M., & Yerxa, R. (Producers), Dayton, J. & Faris, D. (Director). (2006). Little miss sunshine [motion picture]. U.S.A.: Fox Searchlight Pictures.