By Peggy Orenstein
This morning a student asked me: "What is the most frightening book you have ever read?"
I answered: "The one I am currently reading."
Of course I was being snarky, but only a little.
I have had Peggy Orenstein's book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, on my reading radar since before my wife got pregnant. When we learned that we were expecting, it jumped up a place or two in my reading line-up. When we learned a couple of weeks ago that we are expecting a daughter, it shot right to the top.
Cinderella Ate My Daughter is a disturbing exploration of princess culture, a marketing phenomenon spearheaded by Disney. In 1999 Disney hired a man named Andy Mooney to help declining merchandise sales. When he attended a production of Disney On Ice he noticed that a huge number of little girls attended the show wearing home-made princess dresses. Home-made, as in not purchased from Disney. This, of course, was lost revenue. Revenue that Disney intended to recoup.
Over the course of five years (from 2001 to 2006) Disney merchandise division rebounded from $300 million dollars in sales to over $3 billion, the majority of which was made off the sale of Disney Princess merchandise. Mooney and Disney were laughing all the way to the bank, but what sorts of effects did all these pink gowns and tiaras and pampering have on an already increasingly entitled generation of girls?
Orenstein's book delves deep into the social and psychological implications of princess culture from its impact on girl's self-esteem, body issues and the sexualization of girlhood. Some pretty heavy issues for children to deal with. Hell, those are some pretty heavy issues for parents to deal with. It all made me a little queasy about raising a daughter equipped to deal with the insidious manner in which companies market their products to children, and girls specifically.
Certainly everyone in the world is classified and exploited by marketing execs. That's hardly news. However, unlike adults who are (supposedly) consumer savvy, children are in an unfair position in that they are unaware of the rules of the marketing game, making them easy pickings for the likes of consumer divisions at Mattel, Fisher-Price, Disney etc... Children are sort of like animals who participate in the sport of hunting. Only one side of the game is aware of the game being played, and they are armed with the latest technology, while the other is entire oblivious to even the existence of the game. The odds have always been stacked against children.
But when exactly did things get so entirely out of hand? When did every single girl in the world become the incarnation of Cinderella to Sleeping Beauty or Snow White? Are these the role models we want for out girls? What exactly do these princesses do aside from wait around for Prince Charming to do all the heavy lifting? Do these princesses instill even a single positive value into our girls? While she has no love loss for any of the current Disney princesses, Orenstein hold a special place for Ariel (The Little Mermaid) who gives up her voice for a man (the metaphorical implications of that are astronomically abhorrent). Furthermore, as these girls grow up they tend to cast these princesses aside for a different sort of princess in the like of Hannah Montana or other non-animated Disney concoction of fabricated girlhood. And given the recent behavior of some of these former Disney protégés (Brittany Spear, Linsay Lohan, Miley Cyrus), we all know where that leads.
I imagine there are a number of parents who would tell me (who isn't even a parent yet and hardly in the position to say what is right and wrong in the world of parenting) and Ms. Orenstein (who is a parent of a girl -- Daisy) to lighten up. It can't be all that bad. Fantasizing is a natural, integral phase of any childhood. And certainly Orenstein oscillates between indignation and acceptance, resistance and resignation during the course of the book, often more than once. She stresses that modern girl culture’s emphasis on beauty decreases (or, at the very least confuses) a girls’ self-esteem which, in turn, can lead to the traditional parental nightmares: depression, eating disorders, distorted body images and risky sexual behavior. Furthermore, parents are being assured by marketing execs that it's all just normal. I'm not so sure.
With the sheer volume of media that bombards our children in this day in age (and certainly this generation of children are a hell of a lot more tech savvy than any generation in the history of mankind) our girls are being told that being cool is tantamount to popularity and the only way to achieve this is by being sexy or (in Taiwan) cute. While this is isn't a new phenomenon, it's one that is accelerating. As Orensteain notes in the book: "our daughters are getting older younger." Much like the quote, it's all enough to make your head spin.
I didn't agree with everything that Orenstein wrote (some of her conclusions were a tad heavy-handed and a few others are going to need a few weeks of digestion) she has given me and my wife a lot to think about in the months ahead. While my wife and I will be spared a lot of these worries due to our distance from the North American media monster (Taiwan's marketing execs are nowhere near as depraved as their North American counterparts and much of what Orenstein warns against will not be of any consequence to us due to the relative trickle of American culture that makes it's way to our corner of the world) it has made me a lot more mindful of the way products are marketed toward girls. I've never liked the color pink before, but I have an extreme aversion to it now. If you are the parent of a young girl or are planning to have children in the near future, I would jot this title down as required reading.
For anyone who wants so further reading, I recommend Peggy Orenstein's website which is an extension of the ideas expresses in her book and well worth the look.