Saturday, November 26, 2011

Book Review: Cinderella Ate My Daughter

A mother I work with from time to time recently asked me if I'd read Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture by Peggy Orenstein. Then, a couple days later, I read about the book on NPR. How I missed this in February, when the article was originally published, I'm not sure. I was probably preoccupied with my graduate thesis defense, which was fast approaching.

I've taken a few (and yes, just a few) women's studies classes. My book explores paralleling stories of healing (eating disorder, serious injury) and growing up. I grew up feeling more comfortable with boys, and later men, than with girls and women. I'm torn between supporting the Hollaback movement and resenting that I need to/should support it--the equivalent of carrying a rape whistle or inserting the anti-rape condoms. In other words, street harassment, like rape, is something that happens. But I resent that I feel like I should have to defend myself against it at all--and that it's my responsibility to be prepared for that possibility and the emotional consequences.

The ideas presented in Cinderella Ate My Daughter are ideas I'm just beginning to explore--and simultaneously ideas that I've been exploring for a long time. I'm curious about the increasing number of eating disorders--and how they are beginning to appear in younger and younger children. I'm curious about the rise in make-up sales to children who haven't even reached double-digits. For that matter, I'm interested in knowing more about what I perceive as increasing consumerism/materialism not only as marketed to children, but as marketed to adults. I'd like to understand how the increasing pressure to read and know numbers up through 20 before a child starts kindergarten will affect both girls and and boys in the generation that's just starting school, and how this will define the haves from the have-nots. But more than that.

I'm curious about what it means to be female in America right now, and what it means to be female in general. I want to know if the division between girlie-girls and non-girlie-girls will cause a lasting division among women as this generation ages. I'm curious about why there's been the explosion of pink (and purple) in the girls' section of toy stores, shopping centers, and on the little girls I work with. And, I wonder about the messages we're sending girls--in an era when more women are taking science courses in college and entering the science field, but also in an era just before the generation of the girlie-girls Orenstein writes about.

Orenstein focuses, primarily, on cis-gendered (presumably) boys and girls, probably because that's her worldview. She nods, from time to time, to the idea that she'd still love her daughter, even if her daughter is a lesbian.Where this is inserted, it feels awkward, as though Orenstein is consciously trying to sound progressive. And, that being said, I think she is progressive. She wants her daughter to have sex before marriage. Long, long before marriage, in fact. But she's concerned about the early sexualization of girls, as well as the messages of "needing to be saved," or "being pretty," and that's what this book focuses on.

She cites one example of going to the Toy Fair and noticing that one particular banner (with pink script) says over, and over, and over, Beautiful, Pretty, Colorful. The other has the words Power, Energy, Heroes. Guess which one's for boys? She explores concern over pop-princesses and the exploitation of their girl-next-door wholesomeness especially as they get to the age where they try to step out of the pop starlet into young womanhood, possibly even starhood, over weight-issues and young women (and girls), over make-up and clothing and gender-associated playthings. Orenstein looks at the "harried, doing too much and none of it well" image of female superheroes as well as the hyper-sexualization of female superheroes when her daughter asks for a Wonder Woman costume for her sixth birthday.

And, I do give her kudos for exploring these issues as a mom of a young girl. I applaud her reading her daughter the Grimm fairy tales. I appreciate that she asked other moms for their opinions on the girlie-girl culture, and supports her writing with research (though some endnote markers would've been fantastic). I find her explorations more credible, and I'm more tolerant of the stumbles Orenstein takes as she works through these issues. In part, though I think the stumbles are intentional. She writes to impress a target demographic I'm not part of -- a part that wants to dismiss science (one Amazon reviewer blasts her for this early in the book after she talks about myelin sheaths and neural flushing, then in the same paragraph says, "Whatever that means."). But this also causes Orenstein to contradict some of her own thesis. We, as women (and men out there) should encourage the exploration of these terms if we don't understand them, rather than playing into a stereotype that talks down, at least to some extent to the audience.

This book seems particularly relevant to read right now, while fairy tale movies are coming out and/or are in post-production. The LA Times published a slideshow article in April on fairy tale movies for grownups. Included in the lineup: Red Riding Hood, Pan's Labyrinth, The Brothers Grimm, Snow White: A Tale of Terror. Movies coming out soon include Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror, Mirror; Jack the Giant Killer; and Dorothy of Oz. Orenstein even nods to the Twilight series and movies, which she calls (and I'd agree) a modern fairy tale. I would love to know why we're collectively seeking this immersion in fairy tale lands. It's not as though this is recent, exactly. Thanks to E, I could name off fairy tale based movies, TV shows, and mini-series that are current for a while. But I could also name a fair number from the past 20-ish years, notable only because the Disney Princess line, which inspires Orenstein's book, was only created in 2000. We were already moving in that direction. Someone just decided to capitalize on it (more).

Would I recommend this book to others? Yes. With reservations. I am not thrilled by the way Orenstein jumps to some of her conclusions unfounded. I'm also not thrilled with the lack of exploration of the other side of the girlie-girl culture, those girls who (for whatever reason) don't fall into that position. She begins to do that toward the end, as she notices her own daughter turning against women. Specifically Orenstein wonders if her messages have caused her daughter to see being a girl as a bad thing while being a boy--or at least liking boy things--is superior.

One of the major positive attributes of this book? I found it super-readable. Orenstein's style kept the book from seeming overly preachy and because she was exploring the topic as a mom and using a journalistic-style voice (more inviting, than say, an academic paper) I had a hard time putting the book down. I can't say that for most nonfiction books. But I would've liked to feel more depth, or at least seen more exploration. I wanted to keep reading.

What I would love to know if this book was longer: What is it about the girlie culture that these other girls reject, for instance? And what becomes of them as far as body image goes? As far as fitting in later in life? Or those people who don't fit the cis-gendered roles? Why, really, are these the messages we're sending to girls culturally now? What about girls who grow up poor and not white? What affect does culture this have on them, and are they affected in the same way?

But Orenstein does explore a lot of topics I'm interested in, a lot of topics I wish people talked, and researched, and wrote about more. And that's the primary reason I would recommend the book. To push this type of conversation back off the Internet (where, to me, it seems more prevalent) and out of college classrooms, and back into places where moms and women and girls gather, talk, wonder why everything is just so pink.

Let me know your thoughts on these trends--even if you don't read the book. I love to hear from you.

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