As a mother watching her eight year old daughter hurtle headlong into tweendom, with its requisite obsessions with Katy Perry and jeggings, I read Cinderella Ate My Daughter eagerly, my enthusiasm tinged with a faint but beseeching desire to be told what to do. Peggy Orenstein’s compelling (and alarming) book addresses the culture in which our daughters are growing up, and takes as its central task an exploration of the new set of pressures that girls face today. Along with high standards for performance on the field and in the classroom, girls are still expected to be pretty and thin. Far from replacing the old expectations, these new ones have simply piled on top, making the burden of perfection for our girls even more stifling.
Initially, Orenstein addresses the topic of body image, sharing familiar if disheartening data about how early girls become aware of and dissatisfied by their bodies. “Talent? Effort? Intelligence?” she writes. “All are wonderful, yet by middle school, how a girl feels about her appearance – particularly whether she is thin enough, pretty enough, and hot enough – has become the single most important determinant of her self-esteem.” This discussion of body image then leads to Orenstein’s main thread, to wit, the interplay between a young gir’s fantasies of Disney princesses, and the messages that princess culture then sends to our daughters.
Orenstein asserts that part of the unspoken promise of the Disney Princess brand is that it will keep our daughters safe. The pink and plastic world of Cinderella and Snow White may be replete with contradictory messages and an overemphasis on appearance, but it is a safe place devoid of sexuality and threat. Eventually, this world gives way to that of Hannah Montana and the Wizards of Waverly Place, and the real-life “princesses” take the place of cartoons. But then these actresses grow up, and suddenly Miley Cyrus appears almost naked on the cover of Vanity Fair. Of course this is deeply confusing to the girls who loved her as Hannah Montana. The natural maturation of the teenage girls whose pre-sexual identities are fused with beloved, role-model characters renders even more complicated the already-rough terrain of adolescence. “The virgin/whore cycle of pop princesses, like so much of the girlie-girl culture pushes in the opposite direction, encouraging girls to view self-objectification as a feminine rite of passage.”
Orenstein’s last chapter focuses on the increasing power and reach of the Internet and social media and how both contribute to the commoditization of girlhood. In a world where girls think of themselves in terms of their “profile” earlier and earlier, material identifiers like what movies, songs, and celebrities you like and what you wear become increasingly important. Sexuality and identity have become, Orenstein asserts, a performance. Girls see that “hotness” and being sexy carries power with it, but they also observe the speed with which a girl who uses this can be taken down (as a “slut” or a “whore”).
A final statement brings this set of discussions of themes of girlhood to an alarming crescendo:
It would be disingenuous to claim that Disney Princess diapers or Ty Girlz or Hannah Montana or Twilight or the latest Shakira video or a Facebook account is inherently harmful. Each is, however, a cog in the round-the-clock, all-pervasive media machine aimed at our daughters – and at us – from womb to tomb; one that, again and again, presents femininity as performance, sexuality as performance, identity as performance, and each of those traits as available for a price. It tells girls that how you look is more important than how you feel. More than that, it tells them that how you look is how you feel, as well as who you are.
There are no conclusions at the end of Orenstein’s book, only a reminder that “our role is not to keep the world at bay but to prepare our daughters so they can thrive within it.” I closed the book and found myself angry yet again, in some primordial way, at that old edifice, The Patriarchy. As women finally near equality in our culture, garnering rights and achievements that were unimaginable even recently, the strictures of expectation grow more suffocating. Is this an ongoing way to muffle our power? A sly, subversive way to keep us secondary?
Certainly. But then I ask myself how much women must take responsibility for those same expectations and stereotypes. I’m sure that not everyone running Disney or childhood beauty pageants or Internet companies is male. Still, most women I know share a deep discomfort with the themes that Orenstein so provocatively explores. How do we determine where these embedded expectations and norms come from, so that we might begin to unseat them? I don’t have answers, but I do know that awareness and thoughtful exploration such as that in Cinderella Ate My Daughter is the only place to start.