Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Bring Me the Head of Cinderella

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

Laura Warner is always at her razor sharp best when she tackles the popular culture of parenting. Being a mother herself, she's quick to spot material that uncorks some of the cultural myths involved in raising children.

(Not So) Pretty in Pink: Peggy Orenstein's Cinderella Ate My Daughter

When I became pregnant, after finding out I was going to have a girl, I was ecstatic. No offense boys, but I had whole-heartedly embraced (and still do) the honour, and challenge, of being the first strong female role model to a new member of the future generation. The one aspect I was not thrilled about – aside from the thought of my daughter turning thirteen – was the impending pinkification of everything. The thought of my baby looking like the Pink Panther was too much to bear. So I, unsuccessfully, forbade all friends and relatives from buying her anything pink. For the first two years of her life, I draped her in a wardrobe much like my own: mostly blacks, browns and burgundies (picture a pile of dead leaves). Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against femininity (many of her dead leaf ensembles were dresses), but I find the frills and feathers all too frivolous, oppressive and often downright ridiculous.

Peggy Orenstein, journalist and author of such best-sellers as School Girls: Young Women, Self-Esteem and the Confidence Gap, shared this disgust with the colour and the girlie-girl culture overall. Prior to the arrival of her daughter Daisy, the thought of having a baby dipped in Pepto-Bismol, and many other stomach-churning issues, made her cringe to the point where she actually hoped for (yikes) a boy. Orenstein opens her latest book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture (HaperCollins, 2011), with this shocking revelation. Through this work, Orenstein examines the rise of girlie-girl culture and its impact on the women they become.

Princesses, courtesy of Walt Disney
Orenstein cleverly observes how the “Girl Power” of the early 1990s quickly gave way to the hyper-sexualization and commercialization of girlhood. In 2009, sales of Disney Princess merchandise alone hit the $4 billion mark. To make some sense of this princess culture, Orenstein set out to speak with parents, children, marketers, doctors, psychologists and academics. Trying to figure out how we got to this point, her work analyses the evolving image of the damsel in distress from the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales to the Twilight Saga “heroine” Bella. Was it a biological evolution? Was this some kind of post-feminism backlash? Was it a simple marketing ploy? Surely Disney did not pull this off single-handedly. Through her research, Orenstein does discover that children, after turning three, do naturally gravitate toward gender-specific toys. The availability and desirability of these toys, however, did have some (corporate) help. 

The real issue at hand, however, is the impact this hyper-feminine culture has had on young girls. The equation of unattainable standards of beauty, upheld by Barbie, Cinderella and Bratz dolls, coupled with sexual objectification and a damsel-in-distress philosophy that girls need to be looked after, is deadly. Orenstein stresses how the push for consumption combined with increasing pressure of body image is already taking its toll: between 2000 and 2006 the “number of girls who fretted excessively about their look and weight actually rose […] as did their reported stress levels and their rates of depression and suicide.”

A scene from Toddlers & Tiaras
Tying in other cultural movements sparked by the girlie-girl culture, Orenstein takes us behind the scenes to look at child beauty pageants through interviews with Toddlers & Tiaras (an American reality TV series airing on TLC) entrants. Her book also examines the plight of the child star, along with the sweetheart-to-tart evolution of so many so-called “role models” like Hillary Duff, Lindsay Lohen, Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus. Finally, she ties in the possible ills associated with social networking websites. While such sites are largely beneficial, they also serve as a cyber-bullying tool, making girls, who are already consumed with the need to feel accepted by their 622 “friends”, even more vulnerable.

These shocking revelations were enough to make one want to lock up their daughter(s) in a tower. Orenstein, however, quells the alarmism with her calm, realistic tone. Unlike many parenting books and self-help guides, Orenstein is not condescending. She does not blame the rise of girlie-girl culture on parents. While she holds firm that we do need to make an effort, she does not scold us for raising our children wrong. Orenstein does not claim to be an expert at any point. Instead she levels with the reader, empathetic that we, like she, are still trying to figure this thing out.

Auther Peggy Orenstein
Orenstein is also refreshingly liberal-minded. While she does warn of the sexual objectification of young girls, she does not hold oppressive expectations that women should stay virginal until marriage, an expectation that is as dangerous and misogynistic as the notion that a woman’s worth is measured by her appearance. She warns that what the rise of girlie-girl culture does is convince young women to want tofeel desired rather than to be desired, which robs them of sexual satisfaction. 

Finally, despite first impressions, Orenstein does not slam femininity. She does not support the extreme feminists who only let their daughters play with trucks. In fact, she stresses that such behaviour “disparages the feminine, signal[ling] that boys’ traditional toys and activities are superior to girls’.” There is a difference between men and women, boys and girls, and that’s a good thing.

Like most parents, Orenstein does remain in a state of confusion right up to the end. Giving her very best, she concludes that, while we have limited control over the images and products our children are exposed to, we still need to ensure our own values play an equal part in their upbringing. She states, very eloquently, that “our role is not to keep the world at bay but to prepare our daughters so they can thrive within it.” As a mom, Orenstein’s discoveries do make me a little nervous about my daughter’s happiness and well-being, hoping that I will be able to teach her to value her self-worth. However, I am also up to the challenge.

- originally published on May 18, 2011 in Critics at Large.

– Laura Warner is a librarian, researcher and aspiring writer living in Toronto. She is currently based in the Canadian Broadcasting Centre’s Music Library.

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