Monday, June 18, 2012

Cinderella Ate My Daughter

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


Sam (Tiny Library) said...

Great review Ryan. I teach 10 and 11 year olds and my issue with the girls isn't the Disney Princesses, it's that when I ask them what they want to be when they grow up, the answer famous for?' the answer is that they don't is 'famous'. When I say 'but what will you be care, as long as they are famous. There are too many bad role models out there, girls that are famous just for going to parties and being with men. I want the girls I teach to become scientists and authors and doctors, not falling out of parties trying to get in magazines.

I look forward to reading this book, it sounds thought provoking to say the least.

Sam (Tiny Library) said...

Sorry some of the sentences got mashed up there!

Jonathan Wilhoit said...

You're right, it's scary to think about how much crap our kids are bombarded with these days--and girls especially. Pre-defined societal constructs, the princess complex, over-sexualization... it's enough to make a father insane. But despite all the shit out there today, there's still nothing as powerful in a kid's life as two involved parents. You'll do a great job, I know it.

Oh, and congratulations on your baby girl. ;)

Ryan said...

@Sam Don't know why the sentences got mashed but I understand what you are saying and that's some scary stuff.

@jonathan Thanks a lot. We'll do our best!

Buried In Print said...'s true...hard to feel the same way about pink after you've read this book (and I had no idea how differently the colour was once viewed, having been standard fare for boy babies as a muted form of the powerful colour red). I really liked her style of mixing anecdotes with facts, and the list of resources (can't remember now if that was on the site or in the book) for further reading. I didn't find it heavy-handed -- I've read a couple of other books on the subject a few years ago, and they struck me more that way -- but I do agree that a lot of people would say "lighten up" in response to much of her content. If it wasn't so troubling, I would lighten up too! Heheh

I bet your list of reading has changed a lot with the news of the wee girl: happy times!

Ryan said...

It has changed entirely and I didn't even notice it changing.

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