Because of my recent rants about princess stuff, a friend recommended Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein. I finally read it. It was great.
It was great even through the lens of Orenstein’s preaching to the cliched choir (me). It was great despite how depressing it was to read what inspired the Disney Princess phenomenon–in 2000, a new executive at Disney went to see Disney on Ice, and noticed, to his horror, that the girls wore HOMEMADE princess dresses. In the small gowns, rather than creativity at the hearth, he saw a missed merchandising opportunity. Thus the Disney Princess brand was born. (And now we have girls clad in shiny, generic, made-in-China garb, rather than homespun results of someone’s invention.)
I live in Yellow Springs, Ohio, a bubble like Orenstein’s city of Berkeley, both places relatively more immune to over-the-top materialistic madness than much of the U.S. This book was great because it was reassuring to read someone thinking about how to revolt against the default definition of femininity as only and always about what girls look like rather than what they do. And not only is Orenstein thinking about how to revolt, she’s done her research. She backs up her arguments. As a journalist, she seems responsible in her work. Her credibility as a person in the narrative is crucial to how therapeutic this book was to read. Throughout, she’s grappling in plain view with the same questions other parents are.
It’s overwhelming to consider how to fight the subtle and unsubtle corporate power of entities like Disney. My four-year-old daughter saw the Disney Princess undies at Target, and it’s all she wanted. She could not be easily dissuaded. (I bought them.) The other day at Goodwill, I steered her away from the shelf of half-clad Barbies in the toy section. I lured her to the books, figuring that was safe and we could get out without her wanting to buy yet another “baby.” (She has always loved her “babies” and it’s often a struggle to convince her she has plenty of plastic mouths to feed.) In the book section, she found a shiny pink Barbie book called Little Sisters Keep Out. She does not know what Barbie is, though she’d seen them on the shelf. She saw the book’s cover and said, “It’s a princess book!” Ironically, I had just finished reading Orenstein’s book the night before. I stood there, holding my own literary find–a gorgeous illustrated Aesop’s Fables–and reminded myself I had grown up with Barbies, and I turned out okay. (Yet, like Orenstein, my self esteem was not helped by Barbie, nor by Seventeen Magazine, nor that iconic, tarted-up teen, Brooke Shields.) Like the “I grew up watching too much TV and I turned out okay” argument, my Barbie excuse thins when I think too hard about it. I bought both books, though I refused to read the Barbie book to her. I told her that I didn’t like the kind of story inside it. She said, “I love it.” I told her those kinds of stories say girls can only do certain things, like brush their hair, not run and jump and climb and do fun things like that. “But they go to the playground,” she said. (One picture shows the dolls sitting on swings. She decided she would read the book to her babies. She makes up stories about the plastic dolls in the photos, and we have a compromise.)
Now that we grownups realize what TV does to a young person, or what all-pink-all-the-time (not to mention the focus on how a girl-to-woman looks rather than how she feels) does to the feminine psyche, we have the power (the responsibility!) to make better choices.
For me, all roads lead back to Buffy. A slayer, a killer of demons. Always fashionable, sometimes wearing implausible slaying footwear (but hey, she’s the slayer!) she takes care of herself and by “takes care of herself” I do not mean a pedicure. In a dark alley, Buffy is the one kicking ass. The final paradigm shift of the end of the TV series still makes me cry, every time I think of it:
“From now on, every girl in the world who might be a Slayer, will be a Slayer. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power. Who can stand up, will stand up. Every one of you, and girls we’ve never known, and generations to come…they will have strength they never dreamed of, and more than that, they will have each other. Slayers. Every one of us. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?”
Buffy wasn’t taken seriously at first. She grew from a blonde teen cheerleader to a strong woman who changed the (fictional) world. She spawned a small academic field called Buffy studies. (And yet I found a Buffy dress-up game, where you can change Buffy’s clothing as if she were a paperdoll on the screen. Sigh.) The size of the problem of raising a strong, confident female person amidst well-funded and deeply entrenched corporate sinisterness makes me tired. I have no answers. But Orenstein’s book gave me hope. Maybe parents will read it and meet together, talk about alternatives to the madness. Maybe this kid’s parents read the book. Maybe this kid can help start the revolution.
Maybe we will start making our own costumes again.
9 thoughts on “Cinderella, what big, sharp teeth you have!”
Disney gets them at all ages, Rebecca. Their television programming promotes all of the stereotypes wrapped in the message that adults are stupid and popularity is all that counts. My 12-year-old daughter and I faced that battle. The more I rejected the shows, the more fascinated she became. I found that the best I could do was be aware of the messages and counter them conversationally. On another note, a video from the website Jezebel was posted on fb right around Christmas. It is of a preschooler named Riley, and she is pissed off about how “the companies who make all this purple stuff try to trick the girls into only buying purple stuff.” I hope you get to see it. It will make your heart glad.
I did see that video of Riley, and yes, it made my heart glad. I think it was pink stuff, but I know what you mean!
Great post, Rebecca! My girls are out of the Princess phase, for the moment (we have a bucket of Barbies in the Freecycle pile in the spare room), but it always seems to be something, of course, LOL. My older one has embraced the heroine of _The Hunger Games_ but still devoured the entire Twilight series (I’m hoping she doesn’t see sparkly vampires as the ideal romantic partner). That said, it’s hard to raise girls, particularly in a culture where beauty–and altering one’s looks to be beautiful–seems to be emphasized younger and younger. I will look for the Orenstein book.
Thanks! If you get to reading that book, let me know what you think. I’m sure there’s plenty to turn off everyone in some way, so I should be offering caveats, but there were some really resonant things for me. And if your daughter has not yet seen “Buffy” maybe it’s time. Of course those human girls get involved with vampires and werewolves (albeit ones with souls) and a human boy gets involved with a former demon girl, but… I love how the Buffy stories deal with black and white and all the shades of grey in between. (I’ve even noticed they sometimes use those colors, meaningfully, in costuming. So someone might have a white tee underneath a black hoodie, and so on. And often when a character is grappling with these big questions, she is wearing grey. I bet “Riley” would approve of that color choice.)
I’ve had very similar conversations with my daughters, trying to get out of reading princess/barbie books….it’s a rocky road we travel. Great post!
Thanks, Hillary. It helps me so much to know that there are many of us struggling with this delicacy.