Thursday, April 4, 2013

Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture (2011)

By: Peggy Orenstein

Genre: Nonfiction, Social Commentary, Women & Gender Studies
Ever since giving birth to her daughter, Daisy, Peggy Orenstein has wondered how to raise her into a healthy, confident young woman. Orenstein worries about how the world around her is affecting her daughter, and how much influence she has on her daughter’s healthy development, especially when young girls are exposed to media everywhere they go. Here, Orenstein inspects different elements of media – advertising, toys marketed to children – especially girls, the emphasis on the color pink, the Disney Princesses, young female idols (Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez), beauty pageants, the internet, books and films. The reader joins her on her journey of finding the happy medium of raising a well-adjusted girl in a world that has so many expectations.
Most of the book focuses heavily on the Disney Princesses – specifically Cinderella. It’s clear that Orenstein doesn’t want her daughter to idolize these characters, and I can understand why. All of these stories push the happily-ever-after ending with the prince who saves the day, and the girl becoming the fairest of them all, as well as a princess. Orenstein discusses the fact that while Mulan and Pocahontas are considered “princesses” there is hardly any merchandizing of them, yet they have the strongest characters. Meanwhile, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Belle, Ariel, and occasionally¸ Jasmine, steal the show. Orenstein points out that while these princesses often appear together in a group, they never make eye-contact with each other – this is because Roy Disney didn’t like the idea of mixing storylines – but Orenstein feels it exemplifies the fact that all of these princesses never had any real girlfriends. (That is a rather troubling thought when you think about it; they only ever have their prince to guide them.) 
To counteract the Disney version of these Fairy Tales, she read the Brothers Grimm stories to her five-year-old daughter. She was a little worried about how the gore and violence would affect Daisy, but the little girl didn’t seem to mind it. Orenstein found that the original tales had a lot more to offer than the Disney versions, and continues to read them - along with stories of mythology, legends and biblical tales with strong female characters – to her daughter frequently.
One thing I did take issue with in her book section is her take on Robert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess. The part Orenstein finds fault with is at the end, where, after the princess has gone through all the trouble of trying to rescue her prince, he tells her to go away and return when she looks like a “REAL Princess.” The princess rightfully dumps him, and goes on her merry way, leaving him behind. Orenstein claims that this reaffirms the cultural necessity to be pretty and feminine. She says, “Step out of line and you end up solo.” (p.101) So, would you rather this princess decided to stick by a man who obviously would treat her poorly? As a child, this book was one of my absolute favorites, and I never thought the princess ended up alone, the thought never crossed my innocent little mind. I was too busy rooting her on for drop kicking that conceited prince and moving on – which is what all people should do to a partner like him. Besides, even if she did end up alone, it’s better than being with someone who would treat her like dirt! I honestly don’t see the problem with this story at all. 
Orenstein also tackles a book entitled Princess Smarty-Pants whose heroine is uninterested in marriage. A prince wins her hand in a contest, the girl kisses him and he turns into a frog. She then goes happily about her life, living with her pets and enjoying herself. Orenstein claims, “…That’s not progress; it’s payback.” (p. 101) How so? For what? If a male character can live out his life contentedly without a female partner, why can’t a female character? I thought we, as feminists, didn’t want every story to end in marriage, pushing the idea that it’s something all girls must do? I don’t see anything wrong with a female character who prefers the company of animals to that of a man, and I think it’s a refreshing story for young girls to read. Not every woman or man wants to get married, why can’t we have literature out there telling them that that decision is okay? Again, I don’t really see a valid complaint here. 
When she gets into the toys, she discusses Barbie, Bratz, Monster High, etc. She argues that these fashion dolls get our daughters wrapped up in materialism and consumerism, as well as dressing provocatively and wearing makeup. I have my arguments, but I’ll leave those aside in favor of the ones against her next claims. 
On the one hand, she introduces the American Girl line as the anti-fashion doll. These dolls are well-made and each has her own series of books that take place during a certain time period. These girls all have distinct personalities, are often very strong, and they all have an interesting development over their six book span. She mentions that they are great for girls, but then lays into them for a couple reasons:
                1.) They only have one African-American girl, Addy, in the group. True. Prior to the writing of this book, there was only one. Now there are two. Also, Orenstein barely mentions the Native-American girl, Kaya, except to say that her doll is boring and hard to accessorize; and doesn’t mention the Hispanic girl, Josephina, at all.
                2.) While the books teach traditional values, the dolls lead little girls into the downward spiral of consumerism – and these dolls are expensive ($110 a piece, but they last for a very long time) and so are their accessories. Here’s where I draw the line – it is the company’s job to market their product, it is the parents’ job to tell their daughters ‘no.’ I grew up when American Girl became incredibly popular. I devoured the books, had two of the dolls, and a few of the expensive accessories. These items I collected over about three to five years – I could pick one or two major items from the catalog and I would receive them for Christmas/my birthday, and that was perfectly fine with me. I thought I was spoiled and the luckiest girl in the world. Orenstein cites this as a problem, using her friend as an example. This friend shelled out $500 at the American Girl Place (their major store in New York) – that is not the fault of the store or the company – that is the fault of a mother who can’t say ‘no.’ Bad example. 

Of all the toys Orenstein discusses, I would have my future daughter playing with American Girl dolls. Not to provide an unsolicited advertisement, but these dolls are both fun and educational. I learned a lot about history reading those books, and they introduced me to one of my favorite genres: historical fiction. I even chose my dolls based on my favorite characters. I enjoyed them very much as a child, and still revisit the books on occasion.

The topic of child beauty pageants is also explored, and I have to say I was a little surprised in how Orenstein handled it. Considering how she is often blatant in her opinions, I wasn’t expecting her to be able to be objective in that situation. She describes the gaudy clothing and the hours of hair and makeup, as well as the constant coaching of the pageant moms, without judgment, actually giving the reader some details on two of the families involved. While she does worry about the affect of the pageant scene on these girls and the appearance-centric ideals it promotes, she also finds a way to understand the parents involved and listens to their stories. She states that the shows like Toddlers & Tiaras focus too much on the negative aspects, and not enough on the people they are filming. The viewers at home lap it up as they sit in judgment, when they really don’t know anything about the people onscreen. That is a fair argument, and television is known for its sensationalism, but the chapter still didn’t answer whether beauty pageants have a positive or negative effect on the young contestants. If Toddlers & Tiaras only depicts the negative side, show me more positive – show me former contestants who fall on either side of the argument. Don’t just say there are good people with understandable motives involved in the scene and leave it at that. That doesn’t give us any answers.

I wasn’t a big fan of her “Wholesome to Whoresome” chapter either. She focused on all the Child-Stars-Gone-Bad/Crazy and neglected to mention that many turn out fine. [Paraphrasing]: Britney Spears started out innocent(ish) but when she started embracing her sexuality, her fans turned on her. As one of Britney’s early devoted fans, I didn’t abandon her because of her sexuality – nor did any girl I knew. A lot of us just grew up and discovered different forms of music – I discovered pop-punk and alternative rock, leaving my Britney days behind me for quite some time. Did I think she was pretty? Yes. Did I like her style? Yes. Did I start to call her a whore after I’d moved on? No, and no other former fans did either. The only people who attacked her were people that never liked her in the first place – at least that’s how it was in my school. I’m not saying Orenstein is wrong, but it wasn’t my particular experience.

Orenstein then goes on to discuss the Disney girls: Hilary Duff, Miley Cyrus, Lindsay Lohan, and Selena Gomez. Hilary is apparently a “whore” because she posed in Maxim – does anyone but the males who have that issue hidden under their mattress even remember that? Same with Melissa Joan Hart – she’s gone on with her career. While some people find it sad, a lot of female child stars do this to prove they’re adults now and a few have done so to break their contracts with networks binding them to child-like roles (i.e. Jessica Biel). It happens; child stars grow up and embrace their sexuality – usually when they are of legal age, and parents often find that to be a hard concept to grasp.

Miley Cyrus is the exception – getting an early start at the age of fifteen with the racy Vanity Fair photo shoot and not long after, her “pole-dancing” at the Kid’s Choice Awards. Also she has a music video where she’s dancing provocatively in a cage – apparently. Orenstein describes the Miley concert she attended, its overt sexuality, and how upset the young girls in attendance were. These girls weren’t upset by the sexuality, they were upset because it was strictly a Miley show – it had nothing to do with Hannah Montana – the character they know her as. While Miley has made some bad choices – and continues to make them, she lost her fan base because she outgrew the show/character that created it, not because she has become a sexual being.

After the lengthy discussion about Britney and Miley’s troubled roads, Orenstein predicts that the same thing will happen to Disney’s latest “It-Girl” Selena Gomez. I find it a little offensive that she can just write Gomez off like that, without really paying attention to the girl that she is. From what I’ve seen of Selena, it’s looking good – she’s involved with charity and politics, she has done some more grown-up films and has appeared, tastefully dressed, on the cover of Cosmo. She keeps her personal life quiet. I’m not throwing the towel in on her just yet, and I don’t think it’s fair for the author to either. Not every young actress/starlet acts out – there are quite a few girls who have made it through just fine – like Mandy Moore, Danica McKellar, Mila Kunis, and, though she is still very young, Dakota Fanning. Not to mention Shirley Temple, the most famous child star and a figure referenced quite frequently in this book. Sure, Temple aged out of her cute child acting gigs, but she also went on to have a prolific career in politics – being a Representative to the UN, an Ambassador to Ghana, and the first female Chief of Protocol. Orenstein doesn’t bother to mention anything after Shirley left the film industry, and that’s a shame, because she is definitely a star worth idolizing.  

Orenstein discusses lightly the affect the internet on young girls – but she doesn’t go into much detail. She interviews three teenage girls, all friends from the same school, who have weird definitions of what is and isn’t slutty online. She glosses over sexting and cyberbullying, without really offering parents any aid in keeping their children safe online. Also, there is really no discussion about internet predators which is still very much a problem. I felt she could have gone a lot further into this material than she did, this chapter alone could have easily been a book itself with the right research.

She does share some interesting facts, such as the age groups “Toddler” and “Tween” were first created by marketing teams before becoming actual developmental stages examined by psychologists. There are a few books she mentioned that I will be looking into - especially The Body Project by Joan Jacobs Brumberg, where the author compares and contrasts New Year’s Resolutions from girls of the nineteenth century and girls of today. I think Orenstein’s suggestion of not talking down your own appearance in front of your daughter is a good one, and I loved that she suggested introducing young girls to the films of Hayao Miyazaki – which have great female leads and strong story lines. Also, watching/listening/reading the same media your daughter does and discussing it with her is another great idea. Not only will you have a conversation that provides the girl with a better understanding of what she is consuming, you’re also connecting with her via something she enjoys, which can strengthen the bond between the two of you.

Overall, the book wasn’t bad, but I felt she was reaching in a lot of areas. I also felt that she found fault where there was none to be had. Nothing is perfect, but there are products that are better than others. I would rather have my daughter idolize The Paper Bag Princess than grow up to moon over trash like Twilight. I think Orenstein offers some great insight and interesting facts, but there are places where she could have gone further in her thesis and places where she could have backed off a little bit. I did like what few suggestions she had for raising healthy – minded girls, but, ultimately, at the end of the book, I felt just as confused as when I started it. There’s no easy answer, that’s a fact, but it made the whole endeavor feel almost pointless. I feel Orenstein came out of this project with as few answers as she went in with, and that isn’t very helpful to the reader.  


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