Monday, January 21, 2013

review: Cinderella Ate My Daughter

My gender-myth-busting holiday reading this year was the entertaining Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Line of the New Girlie-Girl Culture (2011) by US author Peggy Orenstein. Orenstein not only questions the narrow, gendered nature of products aimed at young girls, but also the commodification of their nascent sexuality.

Perfect Christmas reading.

With a rapidly growing and increasingly independent daughter to guide, Orenstein navigates her way through literally thousands of gendered products that peddle narrow and confining definitions of girlhood. They seem to offer the pursuit of physical perfection (for later pursuit of a perfect prince) as virtually the only route to female empowerment. Mass commercialisation has spread that message faster and younger than ever before (or so I’m told in the book’s dust-jacket). Knowing all this - or, at least, fearing it - what do you do when you’re confronted with the reality of young daughters who want princess dresses, glittery make-up, Bratz dolls and Hannah Montana CDs?  

This book is Peggy Orenstein’s attempt to answer that question.

Orenstein’s mode of address is intriguing in its mix of the confessional and investigative. She opens by confiding to the reader ‘why she wanted a boy’. As a noted public commentator on raising girls in a number of earlier works, she was suddenly stricken at the thought of having to put her money where her mouth was. Or, as she puts it, ‘What if, after all, I was not up to the challenge myself? What if I couldn’t raise the ideal daughter? With a boy, I figured, I would be off the hook (pp 1-2).’ In an earlier post, I blogged  about how I had had similar, if temporary, misgivings.

The more personal parts of this book are tales of her ‘trial-and-error’ approach and rueful admissions of what appears to be failure (e.g. finding out that her three-year- old daughter was fully conversant with the story of Snow White - when Orenstein herself had never told her the story - and was able to use it to manipulate other kids to find her ‘the right princes’ among the little boys present pp 11-12). As the review in the New York Times noted, she argues with herself, questions her assumptions, attempts a answer and then has second thoughts. It’s as if you’re right there in the consciousness of a another parent, not a detached ‘expert’ of the kind I’ve discussed in a previous post.

Orenstein traverses a number of topics in this book: 
  • the pinkification of a little girl’s world as represented in an annual industry toy fair displaying thousands of pink products (‘why has girlhood become so monochromatic?’ p 35); 
  • the craze for princess-everything (considered by a number of parents to be a ‘safe’ outlet that ‘fends off premature sexualisation’ p 24); 
  • the development of Disney Princesses from 2000 onwards (ever noticed how they never look at each other when they’re pictured together? Disney Princesses are emphatically not about friendship and female solidarity p 23); 
  • fairy tales (including the ways in which their narrative tropes recur - particularly, as the title makes clear, that of Cinderella, who is swept off her feet by a handsome prince. Twilight, anyone?)
  • child beauty pageants - admittedly well-trodden ground but Orenstein takes a different angle: reality programmes like Toddlers and Tiaras offer audiences a voyeuristic experience: ‘They also reassure parents of their own comparative superiority by smugly ignoring the harder questions: even if you agree that pageant moms are over the line in their sexualisation of little girls - way  over the line - where, exactly, is the line, and who draws it and how? (p 76)
  • and, bringing the book right up to date, electronic media including the gendered use of virtual worlds and social media (which can lead to increased bullying - and studies have shown that girls are more subject to online victimisation than boys)

Adding up all these things, Orenstein (and the reader) can’t help but conclude that conventional cultural scripts concerning femininity for girls are ambivalent at best, and an impediment to healthy development at worst.

But, having identified all that, what is a parent to do? Lock her daughter up like a latter-day Rapunzel? Be the parent who says ‘no’ to everything? Or makes her daughter into a figure of fun - or, worse, a target for bullies - amongst her peers?  Orenstein doesn’t offer firm or glib answers, but a narrative of her own attempts to answer those questions.

One example of Orenstein’s confusion is when she learns of a friend’s 14-year old son’s nonchalant response to a topless photo from one of his female classmates (and not even one he knew well). Orenstein was initially torn between amazement at the girl’s bravado and apparent body confidence but also a nagging suspicion that ‘something didn’t sit right’ and that this might be old-fashioned sexual objectification dressed up in the more modern guise of Facebook and (pseudo-)empowerment. An expert in human sexuality studies helped her articulate what was behind her mixed feelings:

Girls like the one I have described are not connected more deeply to their feelings, needs or desires. Instead, sexual entitlement itself has become objectified; like identity, like femininity too, it, too, has become a performance, something to ‘do’ rather than to ‘experience.’ Teasing and turning boys on might give girls a certain thrill, even a fleeting sense of power, but it will not help them understand their own pleasure ... [or] allow them to assert themselves in intimate (let along casual) relationships. (pp 170-171)

I enjoyed this book a lot, although it had some limits. It sometimes spoke a little too much of its own bubble - a privileged, Californian, liberal enclave - to be totally relatable. It also focussed almost exclusively on the gendered experience of girls, something Orenstein acknowledges at the outset. This is largely because she has a daughter and not a son, so the issues are more personally pressing for her in a way that those affecting boys aren’t. I’d be interested to read a similar account that focussed on boys. 

When it comes to talking about the construction of gender, however, focussing on girls is not an intrinsic weakness. The process of gendering girls and boys is linked. In her landmark 1990 book Gender Trouble, theorist Judith Butler describes gender not only as performative but also as productive: it forms part of a heterosexual matrix, which juxtaposes ‘approved’ heterosexuality with ‘subversive’ homosexuality. In the normative view of the relationship between sex, gender and sexuality, conventionally masculine males are meant to desire conventionally feminine females. Masculinity and femininity - which comprise the 'gender ' part of the matrix - are most heavily policed as the visible signifiers of sexuality. A feminine male therefore becomes suspect, as does a masculine female. This is called the shaming and policing of gender, and it affects boys and men as much as girls and women. Orenstein’s book might focus on the gendered world of little girls, but this also impacts little boys, not least in how they will perceive their female family members and friends, and, later, potential partners (well, if they’ve got the script ‘right’, that is ...)

On the plus side, I appreciated Orenstein’s wit and self-awareness: in ‘It’s All About the Cape,’ she lamented the dearth of female super-heroes who could provide alternatives to the mania for princesses. Looking back with nostalgia on her own Wonder Woman phase, Orenstein wanted her daughter to experience a similar sense of invincibility, freedom and power. A little later, however, she admits: ‘I did a little digging about Wonder Woman. It turns out her real name was Diana, daughter of Hera, queen of the Amazons. That makes her, of all things ... a princess.’ (p 158)

What I most appreciated about this book, however, is that Orenstein put herself out there: her ideals, her rude awakenings, her daughter’s (sometimes unwitting) challenges to her deeply-held beliefs. She doesn’t advocate total abstinence from a gendered, consumerist culture - as if that were possible - but rather taking an informed and aware approach (advertisers are not your friend). She closes by sharing the insight she has gained along the way:

Our role is not to keep the world at bay but to prepare our daughters so that they can thrive within it. That involves staying close but not crowding them, standing firm in one’s values, while remaining flexible ... I’m not saying we can and will do everything ‘right’, only that there is power - magic - in awareness. If we start with that, with wanting girls to see themselves from the inside out rather than the outside in, we will go a long way toward helping them find their own happily-ever-afters. (p 192)

Let's see how it works out ....