Today I Read…Cinderella Ate My Daughter

Cinderella Ate My DaughterToday I read Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of New Girlie-Girl Culture by Peggy Orenstein.

When Peggy Orenstein’s daughter was born, she was determined to raise her without falling into the princess trap. You know the one–the girl dressed in a hopelessly elaborate and glaringly pink gown, dreaming of the day her prince will come without actually getting up and seeing what’s taking him so darn long.

She began with the question of why girls love princesses so much, but quickly moved onto *do* all girls love everything princess, or are they trained to love princesses by the world around them? And where did this Princess Culture come from, and why? And is Princess Culture really a bad thing? What are the alternatives? And how can she save her daughter from the ravenous princess monsters?

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I found this one a while ago at my local Chapters, and I admit, it was the extremely pink glitter on the cover that drew my eye. Then the title, because I like fairy tales, especially the rewritten modern ones where princesses kick ass. I read the dust jacket and it sounded interesting (and it was $5), so I bought it and read it that night. So, kudos to the person who designed the cover, it worked.

I’m a little ambivalent about the Disney Princesses–I love the movies and the songs, but when I think about their storylines and characters critically…well, there are a lot of problems, as well as a lot of good things. Belle was (is) my favourite, because she had brown hair and brown eyes and liked blue and reading, just like me! But when I was eight I discovered Star Trek, at which point I was done with princesses and moved right into action figures. You can’t dress them up, but they move a lot more and phasers are way cooler than purses. And every last action figure was in the boys’ aisles of the toy stores.

Orenstein never quite comes to a definitive conclusion about what she thinks about Princess Culture. She clearly did a lot of research into a very complicated subject, but that complicated subject by its nature has no simple answer. Nothing but pink and princesses and stereotypically feminine and the drive to be blonde/blue-eyed/thin/pretty/nice/pretty/thin/perfect/pretty/thin is definitely bad for girls and the boys who have to interact with them, but is a little bit of princess okay? How much? Does the drive to get girls to like STEM subjects and playing with Lego and toy cars mean that we’re just stigmatizing those girls and later woman who do like cooking and cleaning and dollys and raising children? And what does that mean for boys who like traditionally feminine pastimes and toys?

Orenstein’s research included trips to Disneyland, the international Toy Fair in New York, American Girl Place, Pottery Barn Kids, and a child beauty pageant. She interviewed the man who came up with the idea to market the Disney Princesses together, the director of an eating disorder clinic, parents of pageant kids, and the parents of her daughter’s friends.She did research on media and marketing to children, the history of children’s toys and the gendering of those toys, child psychology and development, the origins of fairy tales, current toys for boys and girls, and what and how kids actually play. She talks a lot about how all of this research impacted how she was raising her daughter, some of her parenting decisions and what went into her thought process, discussing toys and stories with her daughter and trying to understand why she liked or didn’t like them. It’s not really intended to be a scholarly work–it’s an exploration of what princess culture means to her and for her family, and to what extent she wants to let her daughter participate and how she plans to subvert it and teach her daughter to think critically about consuming media.

This book really hit home for me in several ways. I have a little niece who’s just over a year old. Her mother loves everything pink and refuses to dress her in blue or even much green and yellow, because she thinks that adults will be confused and think that Niece is a boy if she’s wearing blue. Why the opinions of total strangers matter, I have no idea. So on one hand, FeministMe who took the women’s studies classes really wishes that Mother would lighten up a little, because green and yellow and blue and purple and red and black are all nice colours. On the other hand, AuntieMe sees all the pretty frilly dresses in the stores, and I only have so long to dress her up like a little doll before she learns to say no. Though incidentally, Niece doesn’t really like dolls–she keeps pushing them aside for her books and her car and her piano. (go niece go!)

To compound this, I worked in a children’s clothing store. The clothing was extremely gendered–all of the boys’ clothes were blue and red and sports and monsters, and all of the girls’ clothes were pink and glitter and princess and butterfly and shopping and hearts. There was very little gender-neutral stuff for infants (which is a problem for people when they need a gift and the parents have chosen not to find out the gender before the baby is born), and there was absolutely no gender neutral stuff for over the age of 18 months. Very rarely there would be an older girls’ shirt that mentioned sports or reading or math, but the majority were I’m Daddy’s Little Princess, I’m Mommy’s Favourite Shopping Buddy, I’m Cute, Sweet, and Pretty, etc. The boys’  shirts were just as bad, since there were no reading or cooking or shopping shirts, just skateboarding and basketball and ugly monsters and silly faces. But as someone working in the store, you have to play up the “oh look at how cute this is, I love it!” for the merchandise.

I liked this book. I don’t think it changed my mind on any important issues, but it did try to explore them in a thoughtful way, while still admitting to the writer’s bias–after all, the reason she did any of the research and writing was because she was against raising her daughter to be a princess. I guess the question that every parent, and adult who significantly interacts with a girl, has to ask themself is is their girl a princess and what does being a princess mean?

*BTW, Orenstein has a page on her website that lists modern princess books, movies and toys for different ages that teach girls about princesses with gumption, drive, and smarts. And I’d add to the list for YA Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles, featuring Princess Cimorene who goes out looking for adventure because being a princess is boring; just about anything by Tamora Pierce, especially the Tortall series about a girl who wants to be a knight (ignoring how disappointed I was by Battle Magic because usually she’s really very good); and I’m really enjoying Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles series (I’ve already reviewed Cinder and Scarlet and Cress is coming up on my to-read list).

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Of course, girls are not buying the 24/7 princess culture all on their own. So the question is not only why they like it (which is fairly obvious) but what it offers their parents. Julie may have been onto something on that front: princesses are, by definition, special, elevated creatures. And don’t we all feel our girls are extraordinary, unique, and beautiful? Don’t we want them to share that belief for as long as possible, to think that—just by their existence, by birthright—they are the chosen ones? Wouldn’t we like their lives to be forever charmed, infused with magic and sparkle? I know I want that for my daughter.

Or do I? Among other things, princesses tend to be rather isolated in their singularity. Navigating the new world of friendships is what preschool is all about, yet the DPs, you will recall, won’t even look at one another. Daisy had only one fight with her best friend during their three years of preschool—a conflict so devastating that, at pickup time, I found the other girl sobbing in the hallway, barely able to breathe. The source of their disagreement? My darling daughter had insisted that there could be only one Cinderella in their games—only one girl who reigned supreme—and it was she. Several hours and a small tantrum later, she apologized to the girl, saying that from now on there could be two Cinderellas. But the truth was, Daisy had gotten it right the first time: there is only one princess in the Disney tales, one girl who gets to be exalted. Princesses may confide in a sympathetic mouse or teacup, but, at least among the best-known stories, they do not have girlfriends. God forbid Snow White should give Sleeping Beauty a little support.

Let’s review: princesses avoid female bonding. Their goals are to be saved by a prince, get married (among the DP picture books at Barnes & Noble: My Perfect Wedding and Happily Ever After Stories) and be taken care of for the rest of their lives. Their value derives largely from their appearance. They are rabid materialists. They might affect your daughter’s interest in math. And yet… parents cannot resist them. Princesses seem to have tapped into our unspoken, nonrational wishes. They may also assuage our fears: Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty may be sources of comfort, of stability in a rapidly changing world. Our daughters will shortly be tweeting and Facebooking and doing things that have yet to be invented, things that are beyond our ken. Princesses are uncomplicated, classic, something solid that we can understand and share with them, even if they are a bit problematic. They provide a way to play with our girls that is similar to how we played, a common language of childhood fun. That certainly fits into what Disney found in a survey of preschool girls’ mothers: rather than “beautiful,” the women more strongly associate princesses with “creating fantasy,” “inspiring,” “compassionate.”

And “safe.” That one piqued my interest. By “safe,” I would wager that they mean that being a Princess fends off premature sexualization, or what parents often refer to as the pressure “to grow up too soon.” There is that undeniable sweetness, that poignancy of seeing girls clomp off to the “ball” in their incongruous heels and gowns. They are so gleeful, so guileless, so delightfully delighted. The historian Gary Cross, who writes extensively on childhood and consumption, calls such parental response “wondrous innocence.” Children’s wide-eyed excitement over the products we buy them pierces through our own boredom as consumers and as adults, reconnecting us to our childhoods: it makes us feel again. The problem is that our very dependence on our children’s joy erodes it: over time, they become as jaded as we are by new purchases—perhaps more so. They rebel against the “cuteness” in which we’ve indulged them—and, if we’re honest, imposed upon them—by taking on the studied irony and indifferent affect of “cool.”

Though both boys and girls engage in that cute-to-cool trajectory, for girls specifically, being “cool” means looking hot. Given that, then, there may indeed be, or at least could be, a link between princess diadems and Lindsay Lohan’s panties (or lack thereof ). But in the short term, when you’re watching your preschooler earnestly waving her wand, it sure doesn’t feel that way. To the contrary: princess play feels like proof of our daughters’ innocence, protection against the sexualization it may actually be courting. It reassures us that, despite the pressure to be precocious, little girls are still—and ever will be—little girls. And that knowledge restores our faith not only in wonder but, quite possibly, in goodness itself. Recall that the current princess craze took off right around the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and continued its rise through the recession: maybe, as another cultural historian suggested to me, the desire to encourage our girls’ imperial fantasies is, at least in part, a reaction to a newly unstable world. We need their innocence not only for consumerist but for spiritual redemption.

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