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

All the expertise in the world doesn’t prepare a parent to face the vagaries of American culture that lays itself pink, shiny, and bejewelled at the feet of a young girl.

Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie Girl Culture

Publisher: Harper
Length: 244 pages
Author: Peggy Orenstein
Price: $25.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2011-01

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?

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