Sunday, February 19, 2012

Book Review: Peggy Orenstein's "Cinderella Ate My Daughter"

When Peggy Orenstein began her writing career, she wanted to help mothers prepare their daughters for an overly feminine culture. For years, she visited high schools, grade schools, and Girl Scout meetings to spread the word on avoiding gender stereotypes. But then Orenstein had a daughter of her own. In her latest, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, Orenstein inspects feminine culture from a mother’s perspective, and speaks to the challenges of pursuing strong, independent images for girls across America, particularly for her own daughter, Daisy.

In Cinderella, the author looks at Disney Princesses, American Girls, and Barbies, all of which were originally rebellious counter-culture icons compared to the typical feminine images of their day but, over time, have only succumbed to the same old media-induced gender stereotypes. While Barbie first exemplified a strong, independent woman – a fierce and sassy flight attendant, nurse, and police officer – she now faces the problem many women continue to endure: “struggling to fulfill all the new expectations [society has] for them without letting go of the old ones.” In this way, Orenstein’s writing has a great sense of balance. She points out the red flags in girl’s activities and role models, but plays Devil’s Advocate as needed. Without being accusatory, the author presents the simple facts of why most so-called positive media heroines (like the tomboy Dora the Explorer) have ultimately given a negative or confusing message to girls (like when Dora became a princess anyway and started saying things like, “Vamanos! Let’s go to fairy land!”).

One of the most powerful aspects of Cinderella is the way Orenstein draws connections between genres, products, role models, and ideas. The author compares the way young girls play dress-up (in frilly dresses and boas) to emulate Snow White to the way young adolescents dress up (in mini skirts and fedoras) to emulate Miley Cyrus. And the main difference between the Little Mermaid and Rapunzel, according to Orenstein? The former literally gives up her voice for a man while the latter attracts a man with only her voice. MIND BLOWN.

Not to mention the statistics the author pulls to emphasize her horror – there are currently 26,000 Disney Princess items (pencils, t-shirts, dolls) for sale; pre-teen girls now spend over $40 million a month on beauty products; there were 12,000 injections of Botox administered to girls 13 to 19 in the year 2009 alone. Orenstein has built up a powerful argument regarding the detrimental relationship between the media and young women.

But girls, Orenstein discovers, are not the only ones set into rigid gender roles. In many ways, boys are stuck in just as many identity ruts. The author reminds readers that few serious role models exist for boys who want to dance, wear pink, or aspire to be a Disney Prince (or Princess). And, as Orenstein’s four-year-old daughter points out, “Did you know that girls can choose all kinds of things to wear, but boys can only wear pants?” While the author briefly touches on this double-edged sword of gender identity in the media (and, by extension, real life), she succeeds in teasing the reader with information, but doesn’t expand on her findings. Cinderella could surely continue for an additional 50 pages analyzing the effect of girly-girl culture on growing boys.

Overall, though, Orenstein powerfully dissects that tricky fine line of girly culture. Does removing Disney Princesses protect young girls from giving in to gender stereotypes, or teach girls that femininity – dresses, dolls, the color pink – are inherently bad? The author seeks to prove not only to Daisy, but to every toddler, tween, and teen out there that there are no “behavior[s] or toy[s] or profession[s]” that are unattainable for the female sex, nor “mandatory for [the female] sex.” Throughout Cinderella, Orenstein encourages gender-neutral freedom of choice for both girls and boys, be it the love of tutus or football jerseys.

Cinderella Ate My Daughter was published on January 25, 2011 by Harper.

(Look out for an extended version of my review in an upcoming issue of The Stranger)

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