The full title of this book is actually Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Line of the New Girly-Girl Culture. This is a book I would recommend to anyone with daughters – it’s aimed at parents of toddlers but covers issues that affect tweens and teens as well. In fact I would recommend this book even if you’re an aunt, like me, or interested in child development, or even just because you’re female. It will definitely get you thinking about what influenced you as a child and how girl-culture has changed (and stayed the same) since then.
Orenstein is a researcher who has been studying girls, education, and self-esteem issues for years. Her book Schoolgirls, published in 1995, had a huge influence on me, and I hope has been an important resource for the field of education. In that work, Orenstein studied whether classroom teachers devalued the work of female students and how that impacted girls’ self-esteem in adolescence. Interestingly, today the prevailing view in education seems to be that boys are in much more trouble than girls – and yet girls still have to deal with self-esteem issues in a way that most boys don’t, from body image to eating disorders to sexuality. There may be fewer restrictions on girls today but I’m not sure it’s any easier.
In this book, Orenstein focuses on phenomena that didn’t exist in the 90s. She is now the parent of a young girl herself, so she talks about her own struggles to raise her child in a gender-positive way.
To start with, one thing that’s different today is the way products are marketed to the youngest girls. Things that twenty years ago were marketed to tweens, and forty years ago were marketed to teenagers (like Barbies and makeup and cool clothes) are now aimed directly at your three year old. And I’m not a parent, but I’m guessing that turning down a three year old who wants “that pair of shoes” can’t be an easy thing.
And so we get the Disney Princess merchandise. In case you’re thinking the Disney princesses have been around for years and years, Orenstein traces the development of the marketing genius that is “The Disney Princesses.” It began in 2001, when a Disney exec went to a party and saw lots of little girls in (gasp) homemade princess costumes. He realized then that every girl wanted to be a princess (ugh) and who better than Disney to market it to them. And now, ten years later, if you have a young daughter those princesses are EVERYWHERE.
As a parent herself, Orenstein struggles with “how much princess is too much” given the overwhelming array of products aimed at her daughter. She has some really interesting discussions with other parents, and child development experts, around whether it’s the fairy tales themselves that should bother us or just the cute-and-prettiness of it all. The parents she talks to say “I don’t really want my kids to know the stories, since the princesses are just these helpless girls who get rescued by princes, but I don’t mind them feeling pretty and special.”
Orenstein comes to the opposite conclusion, actually. At least in the stories, the characters have context. Most of them (except maybe Snow White, who really does nothing) have to overcome adversity, show courage, etc. etc. We can and should be bothered that Ariel gives up her voice for the love of her prince, but at least we as parents can talk about those things. The problem with the princess merchandise, Orenstein concludes, it it’s all about appearance. She’s particularly bothered by the fact that the princesses just stare out at you from dishes, clothes, bags, etc. and they never actually interact with each other. If it was more about friendship, that would be different. But the princess idea is that the princess always stands alone. She is special and unique, which is nice, but also has no girl friends. (In the Disney movies, she has cup and saucer friends, or mouse or lobster friends, but girl friends? No.)
Do we know how all this princess-y stuff affects young girls? No idea. Disney says after all, they are just giving girls what they want. Orenstein explores two ideas I found really interesting. One is whether much of today’s girly-girl culture is in fact coming from today’s parents. Most of the mothers she talked to were raised by mothers in the 70s, mothers who worried about gender influences and tried to raise us in a more “gender-neutral” way. Those parents rejected gender-specific clothes and toys and minimized any emphasis on our appearance. They meant well — they wanted us to see all of our career and life options and feel good about ourselves. They themselves were rebelling against the strict gender roles of the 40s and 50s. The problem is that for a lot of us in our 30s today, gender-neutral felt like a suppression of female identity. The moms interviewed by Orenstein wanted their daughters to feel beautiful and special, to celebrate girlhood rather than suggesting that girls and boys should be the same.
Do girls inherently want everything to be pink and sparkly? No. In fact pink-and-sparkly didn’t really exist until this generation. Orenstein explores what we think is nature and what is nurture at this point. She traces the evolution of girls-and-pink to only a few generations ago – before that blue was considered a girl color, which is in fact why all the Disney princesses in the old movies wore blue.
What is “nature” for young girls, especially in the 3-5 year old range, is making some sense of who they are. This is when they first learn that girls and boys have different parts, so it is at this age that they first begin to define what that means. Orenstein learns that some gender differentiation at this age is actually developmentally important. Toddlers don’t understand that biologically their genders are fixed regardless of whether they act like a girl or a boy. So parents and teachers should actually look for healthy, positive ways for girls and boys to differentiate themselves, without completely separating the two groups.
One thing that Orenstein worries about is that today’s “pink-and-sparkly” culture for girls will cut them off from boys at an age where children should be interacting freely across genders. Soon enough in their development, the girls will only play with the girls and vice versa. But at these young ages their brains are still developing, and play with both genders is really important. Boys and girls play differently at these ages but the important thing is that both can learn from each other.
I recently told a pregnant friend that I would buy her a pink Legos set for her daughter-to-be, so she’d have some of those good spatial development toys that boys get. But Orenstein says no – first because the pink set is more expensive and much smaller than the “boys” set. Second because that pink set further sets the little girl apart from her little boy friends. If Joey comes over to play with Susie, and all of Susie’s toys are pink, Joey isn’t going to come over any more. Or he’ll bring his own toys with him, which means that both children have to play separately at an age where they can learn from playng together.
In the long term, researchers worry (but can’t conclude) that this may have a negative impact on men and women’s relationships. Orenstein looks at studies that show that girls raised with older male siblings have an easier time forming quality relationships. That makes sense to me – I had no brothers and boys felt like an alien species. So the less interaction that girls have with boys at a young age, the less they may feel comfortable interacting with them when they get older.
This book will give you a lot to think about, but it doesn’t provide answers. Orenstein raises a lot of issues that parents should think about, but the research isn’t there to say how all these things will impact our daughters.
The biggest problem with the book is that Orenstein jumps too quickly to other related gender influences on girls, like beauty pageants, the internet, clothes, and television. This is not a long book. She covers a lot of things too quickly, that don’t all feel connected, where I would have been happy for her to stay on the first topic. But she’s a researcher, and a lot of the things she’s talking about are too new for there to be any research. We can (and should) talk about the influence of social networking, for example, on teens and younger girls, but we can’t study it because it’s too new and changing all the time. Still, by the end of the book I felt like too much had been thrown at me, and in the end the Disney princesses are the least of your worries as a parent.
Orenstein concludes with some very good advice (I think) about parental limitations at different age ranges. For example, you can forbid certain things of your toddler, where it might be very counter-productive to forbid them of your teenager. At younger ages your child needs you to make decisions (e.g. what they can wear out of the house) and at older ages you can discuss issues with them, negotiate and compromise. With teenagers, you want to keep the conversation open and do things with your daughter (like social networking) rather than forbid it altogether (ensuring that they will probably do it behind your back).
I can’t imagine how tough it is to be a parent. I don’t know if this book will make you feel better or worse, but it shows there are no easy answers and no right approach to parenting. I hope you’ll find it as interesting as I did.