RogerBW's Blog

Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Peggy Orenstein 20 January 2017

2011 non-fiction. Orenstein breaks down various elements of the pink-princess culture as marketed to young girls.

This is a book of beginnings. Orenstein admits that she doesn't have all the answers: the marketers are saying "we just give people what they want", and excluding Disney merchandise from a young girl's life seems likely to cause a reaction to that exclusion, or to lead to "girlie" things being seen as inferior. But there is a difference between "your sexuality is something you should feel happy about" and "your sexuality exists to secure the attentions of a man, and that is Empowering".

There are doubtless more detailed analyses of the individual elements of the problem; Orenstein runs through various parts, including child beauty pageants (clearly pathological, but not in quite the way they've been presented, and thoroughly tied into exploiting the desperation of the American white underclass), the way in which Disney actresses are carefully "grown up" and sexualised all of a sudden, on-line interactions, the history of "grrl power" and how it was defanged, and so on. It's all fairly superficial, often based on Orenstein's own experience with her own daughter and those of her friends, though well-annotated and with plenty of references to other material; I wouldn't use this book as basis for arguments, but rather as a place to look for the real research. The style is jolly enough, in that magazine-article way that warns you ten paragraphs ahead that the end of the chapter is coming, but the book never gets into the hard stuff.

Even Dora the Explorer, who, according to Brown Johnson, the president of animation for Nickelodeon, was consciously developed as an alternative to the "Barbie image of girlhood," morphs into something else in the toy store. During a phone conversation, Johnson told me that Dora was drawn to resemble a real child, "not tall or elongated." She was envisioned as powerful, brave, indifferent to beauty. Her clothes were loose and functional, her hair cut in a simple bob. "Part of the DNA of Nickelodeon when it comes to gender portrayal," Johnson said, "is to not have everyone be perfect-looking."

But how did that square with what fans find on the shelves of Target and Claire's: the Dora Star Catcher Lip Gloss Bracelets; Dora's Let's Get Ready Vanity; Dora hair care kit; Dora Style Your Own Cellphone; Dress and Style Dora? The "adorable" boogie board? Wow! Way to counteract Barbie! I could almost hear Johnson purse her lips through the phone as she prepped the corporate damage control. "There's a delicate tension between the consumer products group and the production group," she said crisply. Followed by the familiar phrase "One of the important aspects of Dora's success is to not deny certain play patterns kids have."

I often got the feeling reading this book that 1970s feminism fell for a judo trick: its enemies gave way just enough to make it think it was winning, so the people with specific goals which had apparently been achieved would start to split off from the true believers who wanted to keep pushing. And then "a woman's entire job in life is to be pleasing to men" was turned round and re-presented as a choice that an empowered woman could (we obviously won't say "should") legitimately make…

I can't say what others' personal threshold ought to be: that depends on one's child, one's parenting style, one's judgment, one's own personal experience. 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. Meanwhile, the notion that we parents are sold, that our children are "growing up faster" than previous generations, that they are more mature and sophisticated in their tastes, more savvy in their consumption, and there is nothing we can (or need) do about it is—what is the technical term again?—oh yes: a load of crap.

It's short (and repetitive), and slight, and a little poorly timed (it predates "Let Toys Be Toys" and other such initiatives to remove unnecessary gendering from toy marketing; and it says nothing about the actual, genuine positive feminist message in Barbie cartoons, intermixed with the sales pitch). Without a real solution to propose, Orenstein sometimes comes over as panicking helplessly, or taking a promising line of argument and allowing it to degenerate into waffle.

In short, probably not worth paying serious money for, but an interesting start if you haven't already been digging into these issues.

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