Peggy Orenstein is no stranger to writing about girls and women’s issues. In her latest book, “Cinderella Ate My Daugher: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture” Orenstein sympathizes with parents of daughters who love pink and princesses.
As a mother of one daughter, Daisy, Orenstein asks and answers her own questions throughout the book. Her approach involves arguing with herself, questioning her own theories and having second thoughts about the answers. Parents may find themselves unable to discover what Orenstein really believes, but her self-interrogation offers a fresh perspective on the extensively analyzed subject of gender. Even after years of studying women’s issues, Orenstein shows that being a parent is quite different than being a scholar as she struggles with how to appropriately raise her own daughter in today’s girlie-girl society.
Orenstein discusses her struggle to raise Daisy to be happy and self-confident in the face of the pink, princessy girlie-girls who seem to rule the world. As we walk through the toy aisle, it takes very little effort to determine which toys are meant for girls. The color palette of girls toys is narrow; mostly pink, with some purple and turquoise accents. Orenstein takes us on a tour of the princess industrial complex, that isn‘t as innocent as its products lead us to believe it is.
She describes a toy fair, held at the Javits Center in New York, at which the merchandise for girls seems to come in only one color: pink. Pink jewelry boxes, pink vanity mirrors, pink telephones, pink hair dryers.
“Is all this pink really necessary?” Orenstein finally asks a sales rep. “Only if you want to make money,” he replies.
Girls seem to be attracted to pink princess toys (and bedspreads, and toothbrushes, and notebooks) from the time they can walk and talk, but why?
Orenstein says mass marketing is to blame. Disney alone has 26,000 Disney princess items on the market today, part of a $4 billion-a-year franchise that is the fastest-growing brand the company has ever created. And it’s a relatively new franchise as well. In 2000, a Disney executive named Andy Mooney went to check out a “Disney on Ice” show and found himself “surrounded by little girls in princess costumes. Princess costumes that were — horrors! — homemade. How had such a massive branding opportunity been overlooked? The very next day he called together his team and they began working on what would become known in-house as ‘Princess.’ ” Mooney’s simple idea yielded billions of dollars for Disney.
Another possible explanation for the girlie-girl phase is rooted in developmental psychology research. Orenstein finds that until as late as age 7, children are convinced that external signs — clothing, hairstyle, favorite color, choice of toys — determine one’s sex.
“It makes sense, then, that to ensure you will stay the sex you were born you’d adhere rigidly to the rules as you see them and hope for the best,” she writes. “That’s why 4-year-olds, who are in what is called ‘the inflexible stage,’ become the self-appointed chiefs of the gender police. Suddenly the magnetic lure of the Disney Princesses became more clear to me: developmentally speaking, they were genius, dovetailing with the precise moment that girls need to prove they are girls, when they will latch on to the most exaggerated images their culture offers in order to stridently shore up their femininity.”
For a preschool girl, is a Cinderella dress nothing less than proof to her classmates that she was born, and remains, female?
Throughout the book, the reader might find themselves wondering if Orenstein is for or against the princesses.
“It’s not that princesses can’t expand girls’ imaginations,” Orenstein explains. “But in today’s culture, princess starts to turn into something else. It’s not just being the fairest of them all, it’s being the hottest of them all, the most Paris Hilton of them all, the most Kim Kardashian of them all.”
Is today’s princess going to be sexting boys pictures of her naked self in the 9th grade? Definitely something for parents to think about. When it comes to raising girls, today’s moms have plenty to worry about: self-image, depression, eating disorders, and, of course, a culture that teaches women that their worth is as much about their beauty as it is about the intellect. It is generally our daughters, not our sons, that struggle most with early sexualization and attacks of the “mean girl.” Orenstein presents the conundrum of girls having to choose between being “for the boys” or being “one of the boys.” As parents, how do we decide the best option?
Orenstein says, “I refuse to believe parents are helpless. We can provide alternatives, especially in the critical early years when children’s brains are most malleable: choices that appeal to their desire to be girls yet reflect parents’ values, worldview, and dreams for them.”