I went to a little girl’s birthday party a couple years ago, and remember the makeshift decor of the room - it looked like the inside of a jewelery box, or the satin bunting you see on the opening of I Love Lucy. Everything was princess-related – even the cake had a princess doll’s torso burst through the cake, and its icing was a matching, sickly pink. I looked around in slight disgust, and my friend shrugged and said, “Girls will be girls…”
According to writer Peggy Orenstein, it may not be that simple. In her fantastic book Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, Orenstein examines the aggressively-pushed pink culture that’s targeted toward little girls. Take a stroll through the girl toy aisles of Target, Walmart or Toys ‘R’ Us, and you’ll see what Orenstein is highlighting: costumes and outfits made for little girls that would look more natural on hookers or drag queens. You can also see lines of PVC boxes, lined up like coffins, with Barbies smiling back at you. Not to be outdone by the other companies, Disney has also inserted itself, by lines of merchandise that push its iconic princesses – Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Belle, as well as newer heroines like Jasmine and Mulan.
So what does all that mean? Well, Orenstein’s not really sure, but she’s concerned because she has a little girl, who she’s trying to raise to be a healthy, confident woman, and often feels undermined by the girlie-girl culture that seems to prize beauty and clichéd femininity over intellect. She interviews toy execs, grilling them about the thought behind these Pepto-Bismal-colored products – and they all remain refreshingly frank, admitting commercial interest as a motivating factor.
Orenstein also examines other aspects of little girl culture that seem to bring out the cuteness - namely baby beauty pageants. A fascinating chapter, the author meets up with some pageant moms and what could’ve easily been a condemning chapter on child exploitation, ends up being a more nuanced look at how some parents transfer their desires, hopes and frustrated dreams on their kids. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still grotesque, and Orenstein never for one moment thinks that parading tiny tots in bikinis and makeup that would shame a Vegas showgirl is okay. She describes the routines – often with five and six-year-olds flirting with the male judges, winking and making suggestive poses and dances, that would make most readers cringe. But she also calls out viewers of shows like TCL’s Toddlers & Tiaras, accusing them of joining in on the gross titillation in the guise of high-minded judgement of the contestants’ parents.
Watching her little daughter and her little girlfriends, Orenstein wonders if this almost instictual pull towards the girlie-girl culture is biological. She talks to sociologists and researchers who examine gender differences between boys and girls, trying to see what can be done about these differences and how the resulting inequities can be diminished. Traditional feminism reads that if there are any gender differences, there so minimal that they shouldn’t impede opportunities – Orenstein obviously ascribes to this theory, but she’s still concerned that her parenting may be denying her daughter something innate.
After reading Cinderella Ate My Daughter, I was left with more questions than answers – why do we ascribe certain behaviors, interests and fashions towards little girls. Also I wonder what is the consequence. In the book, Orenstein puctures the liberal mom/dad notion that toy guns promote violence among children – so maybe insisting that a little girl leaves Barbie behind, in favor of blocks isn’t the right thing to do; and Orenstein shows that the answers aren’t necessarily easy – she writes of wanting her daughter to enjoy all aspects of her girlhood, which may include girly pink stuff. You won’t finish the book with a concrete solution on how to raise a little girl who’s bombarded with naval-baring images of Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, Hilary Duff or Lindsay Lohan – but Orenstein’s voice is an important one in the chorus against sexism.