Cinderella May Have Eaten Peggy Orenstein’s Daughter, But Who Ate Cinderella?

[5 June 2011]

By Subashini Navaratnam

Reading Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie Girl Culture, one realises that Michelle Obama has sold herself and American society short by waging just the one war on obesity. My takeaway from reading Orenstein is that there are other more significant wars to be fought: The War on Pink; The War on Sparkle; The War on Disney; and perhaps most crucially of all, The War on Marketers and Market Forces that Make Parents Buy Pink and Sparkly Things from Disney For Their Daughters.

Orenstein, as the publicity material tells us, has garnered a reputation as a “girl expert” after the publication of an earlier book, Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self Esteem and the Confidence Gap. In Cinderella Ate My Daughter, her focus as girl expert is brought home by the fact that she’s now a mother of a young girl, and that all the expertise in the world doesn’t prepare a parent to face the vagaries of American culture that lays itself pink (it never goes away), shiny, and bejewelled at the feet of a young girl.

Orenstein writes, “It is tempting, as a parent, to give the new pink-and-pretty a pass.” But it becomes clear that the collusion of capitalism with mainstream culture means that even a stage of life that is supposed to be “innocent” and untouched by the ugly tentacles of market forces – girlhood, childhood – has succumbed to its vice-like grip.
Orenstein is for the most part an inquisitive and attentive writer, and so her survey of American girl-culture runs the gamut of the Disneyfication of princesses and fairy tales, to the wily embedded marketing prevalent on every inch of internet real estate. In between, she takes a broad overview of the role of science while carefully avoiding falling into the pitfalls of choosing either one stance: “biology is destiny” or “it’s all socialisation, stupid.”

Yet, because of the nature of the book and the audience for whom she’s writing – presumably other relatively well-off parents of bourgeois America – her explorations often fall short. Where she spends time observing how marketers and advertisers pimp their wares for young girls, she neglects to take the analysis further to see how consumerism seeps into the lives of the parents in rigid and gendered ways. How do mom and dad buy stuff and engage with their shopping experiences?

Orenstein speaks to quite a bit of parents, and barring one African-American mother who comes up in the large chapter and one child-pageant entrant’s Latin-American parents, one gets the assumption that the parents Orenstein speaks to are of the same racial demographic as hers. They’re probably also of similar class background. Not that this is a surprise; Orenstein is going to interview the parents she knows and interacts with on a regular basis, after all.

But reading Cinderella Ate My Daughter it appears as though she missed or elided opportunities to further query the cultural norms that perpetuate middle-class American parenting – in particular, the parenting of girls. What is the labyrinth of cultural codes and expectations that undergird the fetishisation of girlhood, for example, and the stringent emphasis on femininity, innocence, wholesomeness, and sanctity as embodied in the daughter?

While observing young girls – some as young as five – prepare for beauty pageants, Orenstein talks to some of the parents and finds some of her initial resistance and judgment of pageant-parents crumbling in the face of the multifarious personal experiences. One particularly ambitious and competitive mother of five-year old “sparkler” Taralyn turns out to have an older son who is mentally and physically disabled. Orenstein muses about Taralyn’s parents’ investment in their daughter’s young, girlish perfection:

“It seemed that, for a variety of reasons – a disabled child, the hope of upward mobility, an escape route from small-town life – these little girls had become the repository of their family’s ambitions. That made a certain kind of sense. Historically, girls’ bodies have often embodied families’ upwardly mobile dreams: flawless complexions, straight teeth, narrow waists – all have served as symbols of parental aspirations.”

This may well be the case, but isn’t this precisely the problem that needs unpacking? What cultural codes operate on an overt and/or a subconscious, symbolic level that girlhood and femininity is infused with so many layers of meaning not just for the girl herself, but her parents, her family, and her community at large? Orenstein doesn’t want to pass moral judgments on parents making hard choices based on the limited scope made available to them, and that is a commendable instinct in any writer analysing social trends.

At the same time, she overemphasises the complexity of individual choices without really making a sustained and incisive effort toward connecting it to larger cultural and economic factors that are systemic and exert great force on parents to cultivate homogeneity in their daughter’s lives, whether they want to or not. Neither the commodification of girlhood’s innocence nor the commodification of womanly sexuality (repackaged and sold for young girls) exist in their own bubble. It’s worth nothing that commodification of adult women’s experiences also freezes it into two opposing yet irreconcilable polarities: the virgin/whore dichotomy, and this is reflected in what is at play with the American culture of girlhood.

This plays out in Orenstein’s own analysis, where she refrains from making judgments on parents who force/encourage/coerce their daughters to trade on their wholesome and sweet and potentially sexy girlishness for money, but doesn’t quite hold back her contempt when discussing pop stars like Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears.

A distressingly-titled chapter, ‘From Wholesome to Whoresome’ plays up the antagonism between what society sees as “good girl femininity” vs. “bad girl sexuality”. Sure, there is something fundamentally disturbing about how coded images of sexuality are being packaged and sold to girls who are simply too young to conceptualise sexy and what to do with it, but is it the nudity and sexuality that is bothersome, or the ways in which these images of girlhood and womanhood are framed and circulated?

Why is it easier for Orenstein to attack Britney Spears for not having worn panties in public without really critiquing the culture that encourages photographers to plant themselves and their cameras between the legs of female pop stars, and the culture that devours these photographs and circulates them endlessly?

Good Girls / Undesirable Girls

“Our daughters… will have to figure out how to become sexual beings without being objectified or stigmatized,” writes Orenstein, while happily indulging in a bit of her own stigmatizing. “Slutty”, “skanky”, “whorish” are words that are sprinkled relatively liberally throughout this chapter, yet Orenstein seems to be remiss as to how female sexuality has always been framed and stigmatized within this framework for a long, long time.

Over here are the good girls and good-type of sexuality I want my daughter to have, Orenstein seems to say, and over there are those bad girls with their “skanky” sexuality and their fishnets. Middle-class America has always been good at policing the cultural norms and mores of its society, and Orenstein never pauses for a moment to consider how she herself may be implicated in this, even as she bemoans the unnaturally “full lips” of supposedly too-sexy dolls and the pouts adorning the made-up images of young starlets. Aren’t full lips just a facial feature that some girls are simply born with? There’s something distasteful about Orenstein’s constant imagining of full lips on a girl as the harbinger of an orgiastic apocalypse.

In a later chapter she speaks to a mother (and Orenstein is largely speaking to mothers) of a teenage boy, whose female friend had sent a picture to his computer of herself naked from the waist-up. His mother says, “We’re trying to teach our son that women are not playthings. How are we supposed to do that if a girl sends him something like this?” Orenstein concedes that this is a “good question”.

I’m not a parent and I wouldn’t know the uncertainty that comes in a situation like this. Presumably, parents can’t mumble, “Awkward,” and leave the room when this occurs. Still, deeper questions linger. Isn’t it possible to teach sons to respect women as human beings and not playthings even when the women before them, be it a photograph or another form, are half-naked? Or are only certain girls, who dress a certain way, who aren’t too forward with their bodies and their sexuality, deserving of being treated as not “playthings”? 

Orenstein’s “I’m not judging, I’m just here to observe and wonder about things” stance takes a ludicrous turn when she gets to the subject of weight and bodily self-image. A friend of hers, Holly, who is blessedly thin and all those other good things, has a daughter, Ava, who is unfortunately on the large side and, Orenstein tells us, has a large appetite, to boot. Orenstein’s commitment to being open-minded in considering the reasons why fat is viewed as repulsive in contemporary American culture is filtered through her own daughter, Daisy’s, revulsion to the character of the Fat Lady in the card game Old Maid.

“Where did that come from? I never, ever comment on my own body size in front of her and certainly don’t mention hers.”

Orenstein wonders if Daisy picked it up from her classmates, from the movies, from the media… and then entertains this possibility:

“Could revulsion toward overweight people be natural? After all, the Bible warns against gluttony, and the ancient Greeks preached (though did not always follow) a doctrine of moderation.”

Right. Because fat people, and fat people only, embody gluttony in a way thin people never do. Thin people, after all, are never gluttonous or greedy or have large appetites or eat more than they should. And this is in the Bible, so it must be natural, and Daisy was born with this thought imprinted in her subconscious, and Orenstein and her husband’s view of fatness has probably no bearing whatsoever on how her daughter might have been shaped or encouraged to view it.

In the final chapter, race makes an entrance through the mention of one particular African-American friend, and a short discussion about Disney’s The Princess and the Frog. The conversation prior to this had largely revolved around white Disney princesses and white female stars and presumably white friends and their white daughters – because when someone is not white, Orenstein makes a note of it.

It’s interesting that race doesn’t factor more deeply in her assessment of “girlie-girl culture”, considering that Orenstein’s own daughter is half-Japanese. One wonders about the implications of a white girlie-girl culture and its impact on girls of different ethnicities. But this, after all, is just one book and I get it – how much can one book cover, after all? 

I share Orenstein’s concern about the superficial homogenisation of girl culture, but not her easy assumptions about sexuality (good vs. bad), and gender expression (masculinity and femininity as clear-cut results of being a boy or a girl). Cinderella Ate My Daughter was perhaps conceived, written, and marketed as something of a light, not-too-demanding piece of nonfiction with a slight dash of paranoid middle-class hand-wringing about “Our girls! Our girls!” It loses focus precisely because it elides the important, uncomfortable issues of how parents, as part of the larger culture, are implicated in this dual process of fetishising and denigrating femininity and the female experience, while making easy targets of everything that is “skanky” and “slutty” without questioning the assumptions itself.

This is not to say that the media and mainstream culture are not to blame, but they do not exist above and beyond everything else in a vacuum. As someone who is not a parent, I enjoyed the voyeuristic look into middle-class America’s obsession with its daughters and the bizarre, profoundly painful ways it is manifest – in beauty pageants, for instance. But no amount of energetic prose and blandly funny asides could erase the general tedium of the book – tedium that could have been avoided, one thinks, had Orenstein taken some risks with her thinking.

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