The princess phenomenon


CINDERELLA ATE MY DAUGHTER: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture

CINDERELLA ATE MY DAUGHTER: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture
By Peggy Orenstein (New York: HarperCollins Publishers,
2011, 256 pp., $25.99, hardcover)

While true gender equity has yet to be achieved in this country — women are still underrepresented at top levels of government and industry — we’re at least at the point where it’s unacceptable to say women can’t or shouldn’t be in these professions. In fact, any explicit statements about what women and girls should or shouldn’t do are generally considered unacceptable. The key word being, of course, “explicit.” Implicit messages about what girls should and shouldn’t be, in marketing and pop culture, are plentiful. In her new book, “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,” Peggy Orenstein examines these messages and what they mean for the next generation of girls — and for American society in general.

The subject is of great personal importance to Orenstein. More than a decade ago, she authored “Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem and the Confidence Gap,” considered by many a feminist classic and required reading for parents of young children. However, now a parent herself — since the birth of Daisy Tomoko, her daughter with her husband Nikkei filmmaker Steven Okazaki, in 2003 — she was forced to confront the issues from a whole new angle.

The book begins with Orenstein examining the $4 billion “princess” industry (which includes movies, dolls, costumes and countless other products aimed at young girls), which Daisy becomes acquainted with immediately after starting preschool. After being exposed to classmates in princess costumes and grocery store clerks and even dentists calling her princess as a term of endearment, to name just a couple of examples, the girl whose favorite outfit was once pinstriped overalls was suddenly requesting princess clothes of her own. Orenstein sets out in search of the answers to questions like, “Where did the princess phenomenon come from?” “Are gendered toys and play natural?” “Are they harmful or something kids will grow out of?”

But she doesn’t stop there. Instead, Orenstein uses the “princess phenomenon” as a springboard to venture into how we perceive femininity in contemporary culture. She covers the rapid rise of sexualized clothing and accessories aimed at increasingly younger girls, as well as pop-stars like Miley Cyrus and Lindsay Lohan who are almost physical manifestations of our contradictory ideas about youth, femininity and sexuality. She even covers the less obvious, but no less important, territory of politics, comparing America’s attitudes toward Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin.

With its breezy, conversational style, “Cinderella Ate My Daughter” makes its serious material fun and accessible. By writing in first person, and drawing on examples from her own life, Orenstein helps readers understand what is at stake and grow invested in the issues.

At the same time, the personal, informal tone doesn’t indicate a lack of seriousness — the book is a solid piece of journalism. “Cinderella” weaves in original interviews with academics, child beauty pageant moms and even a Disney executive. It also cites research by psychologists, sociologists and neuroscientists.
While Orenstein makes her point of view known, her book is far from polemic. The author makes strong arguments, but she’s also exceptionally intellectually honest, disclosing doubts and respectfully exploring counter arguments — a rarity in an age when provocation and polarization pay. “Cinderella Ate My Daughter” is an enjoyable and important read, not just for parents of young girls, but for anyone concerned with issues of gender, influence and equality.

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