Book Review: ‘Cinderella Ate My Daughter’ by Peggy Orenstein

CinderellaThis book was interesting on many levels, despite many things that the author glosses over. Cinderella Ate My Daughter takes a look at how the rise of “Girl Power” in the 1990s (also known as third-wave feminism) has sexualized girlhood at an alarming albeit not surprising rate. Somewhere in the ’90s and ’00s, the author examines how the pursuit of physical perfection among girls has suddenly become female empowerment and something that will make them strong, despite being a concept that is literally an oxymoron and, obviously, very problematic. By taking a look at Disney princesses (old and new), Bratz dolls and Disney Channel, Peggy Orenstein poses an important question: playing princess is just make-believe and all girls grow out of it, or do they?

I first became interested in Peggy Orenstein after I had to read an article she wrote for the New York Times called “What’s Wrong with Cinderella?” for a class about two years ago, and I finally decided to get around to reading the book that she eventually expanded that article into. The article takes a look at how the rise of “girlie-girl culture” has found new ground in the 2000s, reminding us that prior to the 1980s, girls and boys’ toys weren’t always so gendered into pink and blue; it was merely another marketing strategy that proved widely successful. In Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Orenstein talks to the marketing executive behind the idea of creating a brand of Disney Princess merchandise, Andy Mooney, who claims that they were “just giving girls what they wanted.” But time and time again, Orenstein points out that the line between desire and coercion, especially when it comes to young girls and princesses, is very easily blurred. For example, Disney Princess merchandise is all fun and games until you realize it’s only the conventional princesses like Cinderella, Belle, Aurora, and Ariel who get top billing – strong and badass princesses like Pocahontas or Mulan often take the backseat (and, notice that if Mulan does appear on princess merch, she’s often wearing the Chinese formal wear that makes her miserable in the movie and not her warrior gear, which helps her save an entire country). Another example is that the popularity of Barbie dolls transitioned quickly into the Bratz dolls in the 2000s, which essentially promoted provocative clothing as a way for young girls to appear strong (this idea can very easily be found in a variety of other merchandise marketed towards young girls as well). Orenstein even reminds us that, when she first arrived on the scene, Britney Spears was marketed to girls no older than six – and was always dressed in clothing that can be described as nothing short of skanky. But the real question is, are these girls any stronger than the Cinderella from 1950 who essentially represents the patriarchal oppression of all women? Orenstein also draws our attention to the rise of princess culture on Disney Channel who, beginning in the early 2000s, started to market a different kind of Disney princess. It arguably began with Hilary Duff on Lizzie McGuire, who was a relatively normal preteen girl who dealt with the everyday embarrassments of middle school. But Hilary Duff would later appear in a theatrical film based off the series where she sang that “what dreams are made of” is becoming a pop star…and the dream only bloomed from there. By 2006, Disney debuted the one and only Hannah Montana, which sealed the deal for promoting to young girls that the ultimate dream was getting famous. Even when the premise of a Disney Channel series didn’t involve ordinary girls becoming famous, I can still recall an unusual amount of time dedicated to proving that Disney teen stars like Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato were “just like you – but living the dream.” But what dream exactly? The pressures of stardom at a young age? Growing up too fast? Life in the fast lane is hard but no matter what, it’s worth it? Sounds like Hannah Montana, Camp Rock and Sonny with a Chance could have benefited form listening to the song “Lucky” by Britney Spears – if there’s nothing missing in her life, why DO these tears fall at night?

While Cinderella Ate My Daughter is a really interesting read, one can’t help but notice that Orenstein consistently and blatantly ignores things that don’t fit her argument or her thesis, not to mention the fact that she can never really decide where she stands on things like whether or not princesses are a bad influence for her daughter. For example, she spends an entire chapter talking about the Disney Channel culture of promoting to young girls that getting famous is what everyone should aspire to and that’s a very valid and interesting point, especially to those like me who also grew up watching Hannah Montana, Camp Rock and Sonny with a Chance (except I was a boy so these ideas don’t really apply to me, unless you think they’re what made me gay). However, Orenstein blatantly ignores That’s So Raven, which was on at roughly the same time as Lizzie McGuire and Hannah Montana, and was a series that had a beautiful star with curves who wasn’t afraid to embrace them not to mention not afraid to shine a light on various issues such as body image and racism, but there’s no mention of that. There’s also the issue that Orenstein is basically examining girlie-girl culture among middle and upper class families, given that there’s no way in hell all families would be able to afford to buy their daughters American Girl dolls, but again, no mention or acknowledgment of that. There were also chapters that don’t bring much to the cultural conversation whatsoever, like when she examines Internet culture among young girls (yeah, we know it’s dangerous, you’re not the first one to tell us that, Peggy). The same thing applies to the statistics and secondhand experiences she uses as examples and proof throughout the book – they don’t really add any new understanding to the subject at all. One key example of this is when she examines baby beauty pageants, and follows a family whose daughter has been in pageants for years and she’s only six. Beauty pageant culture is a whole other story, and while she does make a lot of very valid points about it, it doesn’t really add anything to her own discussion about girlie-girl culture. But I did appreciate the watered-down feminist criticism she brings to the neighborhood moms whom she asked about their opinions towards young girls and princesses, as well as her own conflicted views towards whether or not her own daughter should be allowed to like princesses (that, to me, seems like a whole other issue on it’s own, because banning a girl from liking princesses seems counterproductive). And her conflicted views are real, because it’s hard to pick a side in the mainstream culture we live in. I just thought Orenstein might have actually picked a side by the end of the book, but no. Overall, an interesting book that I would recommend to anyone who likes feminism and has a daughter, or for anyone who grew up loving Disney princesses and still gives it way too much thought (like me). 4/5 stars.

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