So I just read Cinderella Ate My Daughter, by Peggy Orenstein. Reading this book was like having a long, open discussion with a friend, another writer/mom who is trying to raise a daughter with consciousness and confidence. Ms. Orenstein examines all the major media influences with which girls must contend, from princesses to Facebook and everything in between. At times, I wanted to tell her to relax, it’ll all be okay—she’s a good mom, and she’s raising her child with awareness and love, which means she’s doing the best she can do (a message we could all stand to hear from time to time, myself included). At other times, I wanted to jump up and yell, “Sing it, sister!” because she was articulating thoughts I hadn’t fully worked out in my head, or saying something I’ve tried to say, but getting it so right-on, so succinctly, that her words were part confirmation, part affirmation, and nothing but the truth, so help us God.
My favorite chapter in the book, in which Ms. Orenstein analyzes the careers of real-life Disney princesses like Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears, is entitled “Wholesome to Whoresome: The Other Disney Princesses.” I liked this chapter in part because it educated me—I tend to ignore the Disney Channel, and my kids don’t watch its programming. I often learn about a young starlet’s romantic life and wonder, along with why I should care who she’s dating, who on earth she is. Turns out, more often than not, she’s been the star of a Disney show and is now all grown up—which, of course, explains why I should care who she dates.
The chapter not only educated me about the names of Disney starlets; it also laid out the progression such a starlet makes—from child star to tween with her own hit show and merchandising line to gyrating, scantily-clad adolescent. The author sums up my own distaste for this cycle—and the effect it might have on my children—beautifully: “The virgin/whore cycle of the pop princesses, like so much of the girlie-girl culture…encourages girls to view self-objectification as a feminine rite of passage.” (p.130)
While discussing Britney Spears, the author articulates exactly what this “rite of passage” might mean for not-so-rich-and-famous girls: “They, too, struggle with the expectation to look sexy and not feel sexual, to provoke desire in others without experiencing it themselves. Our daughters may not be faced with the decision of whether to strip for Maxim, but they will have to figure out how to become sexual beings without being objectified or stigmatized.” (pp. 123–124)
In addition to examining princesses—both the fairy and pop varieties—the author, who is a journalist, interviews gender experts about their research, attends toy fairs, reads and retells the original versions of some of the most famous fairy tales, and spends time with the parents of young girls on the beauty pageant circuit. Her book doesn’t just condemn the “girlie-girl culture”—it truly analyzes it. She recognizes that the companies that produce our culture only do so because it is profitable, and that parents (including herself) spend money on products they don’t necessarily condone for a variety of complex reasons.
Ultimately, the author reaches the same conclusion I have: there are no easy answers to any of this stuff, but the best thing you can do for your daughter is to help her cultivate both self-awareness and cultural awareness. Be informed about the culture that inundates her from toddlerhood to teenagehood and beyond. And talk.
Because this is a book about girls and culture, the author only rarely mentions boys. But as I read, I found myself continually thinking about my son. I think, sometimes, in our concern about how girls will grow into healthy, whole people despite the commodification of their sexuality, we forget that this commodification affects boys as well. One of the mothers Ms. Orenstein spoke with expressed frustration over the fact that her boy, a teenager, had just received a topless photo on his cellphone from a female classmate. This mother wondered how she was supposed to teach her son that girls are not merely sexual objects if the girls themselves are encouraging boys to view them as objects. Good question, that.
All of the aspects of culture that Ms. Orenstein examines—from gendered toys to Miley Cyrus hanging from a stripper pole to virtual friendships—affect boys just as profoundly as they affect girls. And boys have a whole host of other issues to deal with—messages from culture about what it means to be masculine, which includes the concept of pride in sexual conquest, a counterpoint to the self-objectification of girls. And, increasingly, boys are participating in sexual self-objectification, which I believe lowers rather than levels the playing field. Rather than teaching our kids to objectify one another, we should be teaching them mutual respect and helping them to develop the emotional and psychological strength to deal with their own desire as well as the desire of others.
So now my wheels are turning…if Cinderella ate my daughter, what are Prince Charming and Iron Man doing to my son? That is food for thought…and maybe a book, by Ms. Orenstein or another brave soul.
In the meantime, if you are the parent of a daughter—or a son who might one day date someone’s daughter—I highly recommend Cinderella Ate My Daughter. In fact, I think they should hand it out with those cigars that say, in proud pink cellophane, “It’s A Girl!”