Book Notes: Cinderella Ate My Daughter

Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein Ever since my daughter Winnie was born three years ago, I’ve been struggling with princesses. Well, with princesses and with all that seems to come along with them. The emphasis on beauty, the focus on being desired/getting married, the assertion that girls can’t (or wouldn’t want to) do the same things as boys. And, the PINK. The pink, pink, pink.

I didn’t find out Winnie’s gender while I was pregnant. Those few months, I realized, would be the only time when no one would put any expectations or limitations on my child based on gender. I stocked up on gender neutral clothes and, for the first several months of her life, Winnie (and I) avoided the issue entirely. I thought I might be off the hook, at least until kindergarten.

I quickly realized, as many parents have before me, that I could not keep everything princess-related out of her life. Win’s response to princesses was instant and intense; she was smitten from her first “happily ever after.” Even if I could maintain a strict embargo with land of Disney, it might not be the wisest course. That “no” starts to lose its power when overused, and one risks actually raising the allure of the prohibited item. (I read once that Barbara Kingsolver had banned all Barbies from her home until she overheard her older daughter tell a friend, “When I grow up, I’m going to have all the Barbies I want.”) So, instead, I decided to develop a mindful and balanced approach to the princess problem. But, I wondered, what ever would that approach be? When I heard that Peggy Orenstein had written a book about this very issue, I couldn’t wait to read it. I thought, finally, I would find some answers.

I didn’t find answers in the literal sense because, as with everything in parenting, there are no hard rules. Parenting styles are as individual as parents, and we use our unique instincts and values to guide us. But what I did find was a thoughtful – and thought-provoking – exploration of princesses and of girl-focused media in general. Orenstein covers everything from princesses to pop music to Facebook. She examines most of these issues through the lens of her own parenting experience, and the discussion reminded me of ones that I’ve had many times with girlfriends. I found myself chuckling as I read, and devouring the text with much more relish than I usually can devote to non-fiction.

Beyond being entertaining, the book is informative and eye-opening, particularly to anyone currently entrenched (as I am) in the daily battle with a young girl over princes purchases. In one particularly fascinating chapter, Orenstein lays out the history of how the idea of “Disney Princesses” as a marketing concept came to be. Now, that set of smiling, coiffed gals is so ubiquitous that it almost seems as though they must always have packaged in this form. But, of course, they haven’t – seven princesses from vastly different stories plastered side-by-side on everything from bed sheets to dinner plates, with a whole line of books and movies of their own, to boot. These princesses are stripped of much of their individuality (what little there was to start with). Beyond hair color and costume, there isn’t much to differentiate them. Reading the Disney princess books, you can’t help but reach the conclusion that all of the princesses love to read, sing to small animals, ride horses, and dance ballet, all while waiting for Prince X to come along.

There are many reasons why it seemed easier, at first, just to keep the princesses out entirely. Orenstein explains one very simple reason why parents might want to re-think that strategy: parents want their young daughters to socialize, to play the games that their peers are playing. And, from where I’m sitting, she’s right. At Winnie’s preschool, playing princess is many of the girls’ choice for daily amusement. If a girl’s not down with donning the tiara, there aren’t many alternatives.

Secondly, Orenstein worries that banning the princesses outright might send her daughter the message that anything associated with being a girl is wrong or inferior. I saw this happening in my classroom when I taught third grade. Sometimes one or two girls would decide, and inform the others, that pink was forbidden. One class I taught became so caught up with the idea that not only would the girls not wear pink, they would not even touch pink. They teased by chasing each other with some found pink item, and the chased girl would shriek and run away yelling as if the slip of pink construction paper was a murder weapon. Heaven forbid any unknowing parent might actually send her child to school dressed in something of that hue.

I would never want Winnie to get the idea that activities, ideas, or preferences associated with femininity are undesirable. I want her to know that she does not have to act like anything she is not in order to be worthy or successful. Whether she chooses to wear pink ruffles or green leather or a baseball uniform, these choices are hers to make, not to delegate to her peers or, worse, to an ad exec sitting at his desk and wondering how to make a buck off her.

Which brings me to another point from Orenstein’s book that I enjoyed very much. That we, as parents, are allowed – and, in fact, that it is our jobs – to shape and mold our children’s values to the extent that we can. Too often we abdicate this tender role to corporations by allowing ourselves and our daughters to be influenced to an extreme by advertising and media pressure. During one chapter, Orenstein relates an incident in which her daughter critiques the princesses in a way that very much mimics her mother’s sentiments. I sensed Orenstein’s pride in this moment but, also, a hint of her guilt, as if she might be wondering, Who am I to put words in her mouth? But then, she reasons, “If Disney could try to brainwash my child, I supposed I could, too.” Who are we? We are parents. And it is time for us to take back control from the companies that exert immense influence on our spending habits by telling our daughters which doll/movie/cd/software to want next.

Though it seems an obvious concept, let’s not forget that we teach our children about priorities and values by setting sensible limits, which means that we get to say no. There were plenty of times when I did not get what I wanted from my parents, and I am not scarred by these experiences. Far from it, I can say with certainty that I learned lessons about how to spend money, about dealing with disappointment, and about using my imagination and available resources. When I buy my daughter a princess toy, that might be harmless enough. But, if I plunk down my money over and over for all kinds of princess paraphernalia that she demands, not only do I let her know that I think princesses are just great, but I also let her know that it’s okay to buy more and more, to consume at whim, regardless of actual need. Soon enough, we’d find ourselves on a most terrifying roller coaster of consumerism that might have no end. In Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Orenstein does a wonderful job of scaring the mindful parenting back into us. She shows us that, though the princess phase does end, it does its job of priming the pump for all the Moxie girls and Disney pop stars that came after.

I, for one, am inspired to engage in the kinds of open conversations that Orenstein describes having with her daughter and with her fellow parents. With these conversations, with our spending choices, and with the limits we set in our homes, we take back control from these corporations and we tell them what we do want for our daughters. Most importantly, we tell them, as my daughter might say, “You’re not the boss of us.”

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