This is my twenty-fifth book review on What Hannah Read. I feel quite proud. What’s more, I started this blog six and a half months ago, so maybe I’ll also be able, for once, to achieve my goal of having read 50 books within the space of a year.
I have to thank my friend Katie for lending me this book as she (correctly) thought it was relevant to my interests – feminism, parenting, rants – it’s all good. Cinderella Ate My Daughter sets out to analyse the implications of the “girlie girl” culture that surrounds modern female children, and in doing so takes a long look at the sexualisation and the commodification of childhood. (Word is telling me sexualisation and commodification are not words, but I’m sure they are. If not, then blame my addled-due-to-sleep-deprivation mama brain.) Although I am the parent of a son rather than a daughter, I found that many of the topics put forth in the book were still pertinent to me, and even non-parents would, I believe, find it interesting from an theoretical point of view (and they wouldn’t have to then worry about having to find away to avoid the pitfalls of this culture described in the book either. Win win!)
The book’s title is derived from the plethora of Disney Princess products available for young girls, and the many other similar, non-Disney –but-still-princess items which infiltrate their lives. Apparently Disney Princesses didn’t exist as a group until around ten years ago, and then they were only brought together as a marketing ploy, which makes me feel (even more) incredibly cynical towards the whole thing. What’s more, due to ol’ Walt’s beliefs about the way stories should be told, the princesses are not permitted to be presented as knowing each other (as they are supposed to exist in separate realms) and so on items which feature several princesses they are never shown to be making eye contact. There’s something a bit creepy and disembodied about that – these women standing around near each other, zombie-like and not actually interacting. Peggy Orenstein gives some page space to the old debate of whether princess stories are harmful to girls: bringing them up to believe all that matters is getting rescued by a prince and looking good whilst you sit around waiting for him to show up. I’m pretty sure I realized this was a load of guff before I reached primary school so it was a bit old hat for me to read about, but if there are any people out there who hadn’t thought of this before it would no doubt be interesting (and I recognize that Peggy Orenstein couldn’t exactly omit it from a book of this nature). What I found most interesting about this section of the book was her “experiment” in reading the Grimm versions of the fairytales to her primary-school age daughter. She did not reject the gore and lack of glitter, but embraced them! This fills my malcontented heart with joy.
Related to the princess issue is that of the overwhelming presence of pink in products designed for little girls (or in unisex products, which I’ll come to later). Why on earth is pink the colour for little girls anyway? It’s completely arbitrary and nonsensical. Did you know that pink used to be considered the colour for boys until around 100 years ago, as it was the pastel version of red, a strong, masculine, heroic, bloody colour? Whilst blue was deemed appropriate for girls as it mimicked the colour most often sported by the Virgin Mary? (Well, you do now.) Anyway, pink has become the default option for girls, to the extent that they may feel anything else is “for boys”, Peggy Orenstein talks about her daughter being criticized by other girls for not having the pink (i.e. girl’s) version of particular items, which is very sad. All options should be available to all children (which is statement of such obviousness I can’t believe I’m having to say it).
Cinderella Ate My Daughter asks whether marketers are correct in their defence of (to paraphrase) “pink and princess-y is what little girls want”. Well, I didn’t much want it, for one, and I don’t think today’s girls are one homogenous group who all want the same thing, either! Children are blank slates, and very susceptible to advertising (until they are seven they can’t distinguish between commercials and programming on TV*) telling them that, yes, this is what they want; and to peer pressures – pretty much all kids (and adults, to be honest) want to fit in with their classmates and friends, to be liked. So, if they want pink and princess-y, is it a genuine desire, or something purely culturally rooted? And how to handle this if you are the parent of a girl – do you restrict access to demonstrate that her interests are allowed to be as broad as that of any boy’s, or does that create a “forbidden fruit” effect? Is restricting access sexist in itself, as you are decreeing all things “feminine” as inferior? The only answer really is to encourage your child to have critical thinking and to be able to, even on a rudimentary level, deconstruct advertising, which is a tall order, but something I will certainly at least try to do!
* And a depressing, but related, point to this is that when children play with toys that relate to a TV show they tend to merely re-enact the narratives they have seen on the show, restricting their imaginative play. When so many toys are cross-marketed this is a very sad state of affairs, and makes me feel (more?) determined to be one of those annoying mamas who heavily limits TV viewing.
Peggy Orenstein also includes a (limited, after all this topic could be a whole other book really) discussion of the celebrity culture around girlhood, largely focusing on the Disney Channel and the progress from virginal to “slutty” that so many of its stars have made (no-one I have ever followed, but Britney Spears, Hilary Duff and Miley Cyrus are mentioned). Until a certain age, these stars are “expected” to be squeaky clean, and then undergo a transformation into posing nude and “going wild”, sudden sexualisation taking place almost as a rite of passage, and linking to the Virgin/whore divided view of female sexuality. It is damaging for children to witness this, not because Peggy Orenstein (or I) want to deny them their sexuality, but because we want it to develop at an appropriate age and in a healthy way, where sex is for pleasure and not a commodity, where women (and men) are sexual because they want to be, not because they feel they have to be.
The book’s penultimate chapter addresses teenage (primarily teenage girls’) usage of Facebook. Most are apparently “on” it, and many have dizzying numbers of “friends”. I’ve written about my hatred of Facebook before (here), but this opened up new facets of inner debate for me the matter. Firstly, I was an uncool teenager. I’m an uncool adult too, but it doesn’t seem to matter so much these days as adults are (generally) more accepting and I’m not stuck in a school all day with people who think it counts for something. Had Facebook (and widespread use of the internet in general) been around when I was a teenager in the late 90s, I’d have been on it. I probably would have met like-minded people through it, as I have as an adult; but I would also have been an easy target for cyber bullying as described within this chapter, which can easily tear girls to pieces. I remember what it was like to be ridiculed as a teenager, and it’s not something I would want anyone else to go through. Yes, you can keep your Facebook privacy settings up, but knowing how two-faced teenage girls can be to their “friends” I don’t think there is a way for them to completely protect themselves against bullying online (or “irl” for that matter) – but I think the opportunity to make friends may trump that concern. The other rant-worthy aspect of Facebook (which is also true of social networks designed for children, with greater restrictions and opportunities for parental control) is the way it encourages users to define themselves by the products they like, and in turn become advertisers for those brands and products. Which reminds me why I dislike Facebook in general – it is anti-creative and sucks people into endlessly sharing and reading about the mundane details of their and other people’s lives, instead of, god forbid, reading a book or taking a walk in the sun. it commodities our experiences and our selves.
Cinderella Ate My Daughter was an interesting, and rant-inspiring read, for which I have to give it a metaphorical high five. Peggy Orenstein also mentions (albeit briefly) the riot grrrl movement, so (sticking with hand gestures here) thumbs up to that too. I have held back from giving it a 5 star mark however as I did not find her writing style wholeheartedly gripping, and because I would have appreciated more suggestions of how to address the issues she raised.
^ This post was brought to you with the assistance of sleeping Freddie. All the best ideas were his.