Ours is a culture that is obsessed with the idea of women as royalty. Not in the lofty, noble sense that would imply that we are treated like royalty, i.e. deserving of respect and veneration — but in a more media-influenced, rhetorical sense that is simultaneously vague and totally particular. Terms like “princess” have pretty much been stripped of any traditional meaning (except the submissive part) and replaced with that of being hyper-feminine, pink-loving, spoiled, and completely appearance-reliant. And this royal, girlie-girl language is peppered throughout our cultural dialogue without any seeming awareness of what it may be inspiring. We still call little girls “princess.” Grown-up women dream of finding “Prince Charming.” Even if you are, say, the former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and you are being interviewed by an (apparently sexist) talk show host like Piers Morgan, you can expect questions like, “Do you dream of a fairytale wedding?”, and “Are you high maintenance?”
So when I decided to read Peggy Orenstein’s new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, it wasn’t because I’m trying to navigate the world of Bratz dolls and Hannah Montana for my own offspring. I’m only 20 years old and do not have or currently want offspring. I wanted to read it because I’ve watched the show Toddlers and Tiaras. I saw Piers Morgan’s cringe-inducing interview with Rice. I babysit a 3-going-on-4 year old who just adores anything pink, fairy-like, princessy, butterfly-laden, or all four combined — and the extremity of it all led me to wonder what I liked when I was a child, how that translates to who I am now, and how her (and all other young girls’) intense girlie-girlishness will inform who they become. Although Orenstein doesn’t come to many definitive conclusions herself about what to make of it all — which is partly why the book is so good — I found out a lot of stuff about the new culture of sugar, no spice, and everything nice.
For one, arguably the most important moment in the timeline of girlie-girl culture was the launch of the Disney Princess brand: separate female Disney characters from different movies that were grouped together in one line of products. A marketing ploy. The plague of Princess was upon us in 2000, when former Nike exec Andy Mooney came up with the idea after seeing a bunch of girls in homemade princess dresses at a Disney on Ice show. By 2009, Disney Princess had made $4 billion in sales.
And yet, Orenstein writes, “Part of the genius of ‘Princess,’ Mooney admitted, is that its meaning is so broadly constructed that it actually has no meaning.” But she is not satisfied with that answer. Clearly, Disney Princess (and the many other irresistible, but questionable, brands that promote the same things and affect girls in similarly unhealthy ways) has some meaning if it is making such an impact. And one thing that I know for sure about this generation, after reading Cinderella Ate My Daughter, is that image is being prided over most other things under the guise of girls now being able to “own” their looks, their sexuality, etc. But when it’s everyone’s top priority, it’s more likely that their preoccupation with appearance is not for their own benefit, but to please others.
“Though appearance shouldn’t dictate how [girls] are treated by others — let alone their self-worth — it does. Talent? Effort? Intelligence? All are wonderful, yet by middle school, how a girl feels about her appearance — particularly whether she is thin enough, pretty enough, and hot enough — has become the single most important determinant of her self-esteem (which, by the way, makes self-esteem itself a trickier concept than most people realize; it is not an inherent good but must be derived from appropriate sources). If Princesses, Moxies, and Mileys are not responsible for that exactly, Lord knows they reinforce it.”
While Orenstein starts with the goal of finding out the who/what/where/when/whys and the effects of the princess and pink phenomenon, other questions surface, and she ends up tackling more problems than you might have expected upon flipping open the book (which is hot pink, sparkly, and — unfortunately — looks from far away like teen chick lit). She dives into most issues after recounting situations with her daughter Daisy when she either didn’t know what to do, or regretted whatever decision she ended up making. When Daisy spots a sticker on a mailbox, for example, with an unflattering caricature of Hillary Clinton, proclaiming, “THE WICKED WITCH OF THE EAST IS ALIVE AND LIVING IN NEW YORK,” and asks what it says, Orenstein mulls over how to explain it to her — or if she should. Because the bleak truth is that, no matter what you look like, whether you’re Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin, your looks are going to be just as important as anything else if you are a female in the spotlight. (This brings to mind the current obsession over Michelle Obama’s fashion statements.)
The book covers nearly every corner of modern girlhood — from real, valuable reporting at a beauty pageant that shows you what Toddlers and Tiaras doesn’t: the humanity of the people involved, to Twilight, to our obsession with weight, to the underlying messages in fairy tales, to social networking. It becomes ever more apparent that the new girlie-girl culture is less bright and pink and hopeful and more of a dark, grim, overgrown forest. Because the people marketing not just these products, but a certain lifestyle, to little girls know that parents will take the easy way out. They will buy the marginally less sexy version of a Bratz doll — a Moxie Girlz Doll — because at least it’s not as bad. Since we’ve become numb to consumerism and to what’s appropriate these days, we are less hesitant and more likely to be taken advantage of. And while it may not affect us directly, we who have already learned a certain cynicism about advertising and the media, it has the potential to undo many of the important strides that have been made in the last half-century to advance the roles of women in the world. And that’s by targeting future women.
Orenstein won’t preach to you. Since she doesn’t have all the answers, she keeps asking questions. She’s not afraid to admit when things seem blurry to her, or to make sense of them out loud (well, on paper). And this persistence, this unwillingness to find an easy solution is what makes her reliable. And while at times it seems disheartening that the author seems to keep getting snagged by new obstacles, it also feels like she is the best possible guide through this unfamiliar, uncharted territory.