A brand-new father told me that the (Toronto) hospital nurse wrapped his baby with a blanket which was blue on one side and pink on the other. She swaddled with the blue side out, then realized the newborn was a girl and re-swaddled with the pink side out. All this, about five minutes after birth.
How much of a little girl's affinity for pink, princesses and primping in front of a mirror is innate, and how much is cued by others, starting at infancy? In Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Peggy Orenstein, a New York Times writer and expert on girl behaviour, argues that inborn gender biases (if any) are now hugely amplified, even distorted, by today's culture which informs little girls that their happiness is predicated upon a hyper-feminized appearance. Marketers now routinely target very young girls with objects of desire that emphasize traditional gender roles and the importance of looking good, even overtly sexualized, all in the name of empowerment.
According to cosmetics company Bonne Bell, lip gloss use begins at seven. You may have read about the clothing company Abercrombie launching a padded push-up bikini for seven-year-old girls (they subsequently withdrew it after complaints). These aren't isolated instances of marketing genius, but the logical extension of a campaign that starts very early. Disney's Princess line begins at diapers, and features 26,000 items for girls of all ages; sales in 2009 amounted to four billion dollars. And that's just Disney; when you take into account Mattel (Barbie), Nickelodeon and all the other companies telling parents that their products encourage girls to explore their femininity, and telling girls that the acquisition of clothes and accessories will enable them land a husband and be happy, things begin to look...scary. Almost conspiracy-like.
When most people see a conspiracy, they also see crap. Orenstein's super-power is to unpack the conspiracy theory into episodes that persuade rather bludgeon, and she has two mighty weapons at hand. First is a chatty, intimate, humorous tone, where all readers are Orenstein's BFFs; the book is engineered less as manifesto than the musings of a very smart (but non-threatening) mom looking out for her daughter. She constantly cites studies that show that the emphasis on beauty and play -- sexiness increase girls' chances of falling prey to eating disorders, risky sexual behaviour, depression and more, and yet, Cinderella...is a fun read, seemingly driven by concern rather than fear.
Orenstein's second weapon is a rather noble insistence on exploring every side of every issue; it never appears as though the author has an agenda to push, other than making sure that her daughter grows up happy (now, argue with that). Princess stands for entitlement, passivity and prescriptive consumerism, but as Orenstein muses, it's also shorthand for special, and which parent doesn't believe her daughter is special?
While attending a beauty pageant for five-year-olds, Orenstein finds that she "could sympathize with the [parents'] pride"; upon learning that one of the participants had a sibling with severe physical and mental disabilities, she notes that the parents might view the pageant as an affirmation of the young girl's normalcy. And when Orenstein's six-year-old daughter finally rejects Disney Princesses, saying they're all about "I'm so pretty, Handsome Prince, won't you rescue me?", Orenstein rejoices, but typically, also faces self-doubt and guilt: has she brainwashed her child?
Many rabble readers may feel Orenstein over-argues the obvious; heck, I doubt any will disagree that Canada should emulate Sweden and ban advertising to children under 12. This book will not fortify the sort of parents who've cut cable, buy no-logo clothing and who worry about the potential social ostracism of their boat-rocking offspring.
Cinderella Ate My Daughter is targeted towards middle-of-the-consumer-spectrum parents who feel an unarticulated but gradually escalating discomfort with present-day cultural constructions of girlhood. And here lies the value and appeal of this book. It has the statistics to prove Disney apologists wrong, enough intellectual horsepower to show how companies make mugs of moms plunking down $110 for an American Girl doll, and the wit to never frame its argument in a judgemental tone. Gift this one to the picket fence-sitters for Mother's Day.—Niranjana Iyer
Niranjana Iyer is a freelance writer and book reviewer based in Ontario. She blogs at Brown Paper.
Thank you for reading this story…
More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.
rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.
So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.
And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.