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September 19, 2011

Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein

The bad news about Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter is that she’s preaching to the choir here. My husband and I both read this book, and came away more than ever firmly entrenched that girlie/princess culture is bad news for little girls. And not just because of the limited nature of the princess narrative and her identity, but because underneath it lies the trap of rampant consumerism. The great news, however, is that we can’t afford to join that culture anyway, which also comes with its own parenting challenges, but will  make so many other things easier.

Orenstein does a great job of showing that “princess culture” is such a recent phenomenon, and that signing up is just to play into corporate hands (and to get those hands into your pockets). That these companies are not simply giving consumers what they want, but are also intentionally coercing children into wanting consumer products that are expensive, and detrimental to the development of their self-image. She shows that companies are out to make a buck by gendering children’s toys (thereby ensuring that parents will have to buy two of everything), and also by inventing stages from toddler to tween to “pre-tween” so that nothing ever lasts more than a season.

Orenstein’s writing is funny, engaging, and self-deprecating as she draws on her own experiences as a mother negotiating the labyrinth of princess-dom. She doesn’t take cheap shots, most notably in her chapter on the child beauty pageant circuits. Many of her subjects are really easy targets, but Orenstein writes about them with sympathy, and also shows how their preposterousness is only a magnified version of most parents’ experiences with princess consumer culture, echoing those same old excuses: “But we’re only giving her what she wants” and “It’s doing no harm.” From reading this book, it becomes decidedly clear that neither of these statements are true.

Anyway, what’s strangest to me is that the choir Orenstein is preaching to isn’t all that big. I guess if it was, we’d all have nothing much to sing about. For me, one of the biggest surprises of parenthood all along has been that common sense is such a relative thing. It reminds me of when writer Carrie Snyder wrote about no-gift birthday parties in her parenting column (an idea we’ve since stolen), and got the most cruel (anonymous) responses, similar to those received by Orenstein herself when, as she writes, she first dared to suggest that princess-dom might not be doing our daughters a lot of good. Both mothers were accused of deprivation, which is not so unbelievable, I guess, when you consider that so many people think shoe shopping is exercising our democratic freedom (not to mention, how to be a feminist). Anyway, I guess what I mean is that these are the people who should be reading this book, but they won’t be, and that’s depressing.

3 thoughts on “Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein”

  1. melanie says:

    I just put that book on hold at my library after reading your review – but here too it will be preaching to the choir. And we also had no-presents birthday parties for F and M this year.

    I’ve always been such a choir girl. That’s where I met the Mister.

  2. alexis says:

    I loved this book. But the thing is that you don’t have to be a parent to read or appreciate this book. It was one that I wanted my mom to read too, because there were things that I know she struggled with, and things that I remembered from my own girlhood. I think I want my book club to do this book. I’ve already recommended it to numerous people.

  3. Carrie says:

    I want to read this book, now! It’s true, I got really vitriolic responses from anonymous readers, which kind of shocked me, but not entirely. Consumer culture is so deeply entrenched that standing against it, even in the most mild-seeming way, can be interpreted as a personal attack on individual freedoms and choices. Especially when, as you say, buying things is equated with freedom. But how can buying things equal freedom when we’re being sold these things/ideas without even realizing it?

    The phrase “buying into it” sounds awfully true.

    (Then again, I don’t get capitalism. The whole concept of infinite growth makes no sense to me at all, which probably disqualifies me from ever being a credible commentator on any economic theory. There’s a lot I don’t buy into …)

    Definitely sounds like a good book club book. Though my whole book club sings in the choir, too.

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