"Cinderella Ate My Daughter" ate my daughter's wish list

Last night, Z, CG and I were working on preliminary ideas for Z's upcoming fifth birthday party. When we first asked what kind of party she wanted, Z immediately said "Princess! Barbie!" because, I think, they are the obvious choice - not to mention pretty much the same thing. Pink. Tiaras. Dress-up. (BLEH.)

I gently said, "There are lots of options for party themes, would you like to talk about some other possibilities?" She agreed and we talked about sea creature/mermaids, superheros, horses, Little House on the Prairie, Fancy Nancy, Dinosaur Train... and when I got to the latter one, her eyes lit up and she started squealing: "Dinosaur Train! Dinosaur Train!"

We all love this show around here: Z loves the characters and information about dinosaurs and we adore its (relative) gender neutrality and its introduction of "I have a hypothesis" into our daughter's vocabulary.

So we're throwing our almost five year old girl a Dinosaur Train birthday party.

It's not exactly a coincidence that I helped guide her to that decision - and away from a Barbie/ Princess party - as I just finished reading Peggy Orenstein's "Cinderella Ate My Daughter". If you have a daughter and haven't already done so, I highly recommend you stop reading this post right now and go get yourself a copy of this book. It is an illuminating look at the insidiously omnipresent, stereotype-entrenching, hypersexualized girlie-girl culture. While reading, I found myself nodding and note-taking and shuddering with equal, frequent, ferocity.

Unfortunately for my oldest daughter, I also found myself jettisoning a large portion of her birthday wish list. Anything pink and Barbie and Cinderella on that list now has a big ol' blue line through it.

Of all of Orenstein's thoughtful, thought-provoking assertions, one stands out: that the overwhelming marketing of pink and princess to little girls doesn't provide for their protection and innocence like we naively assume, but rather, since it teaches our girls to primp and preen, to value their looks above all else, it is a de facto training ground for their later sexual objectification.

I believe that what we buy for our girls tells them what we think of them, what we expect of them, what is possible for them. There are so few strong female toys, movie characters, or even popular book characters (who aren't from before the turn of the century). Most are fairly limp and others derive any power or heroic qualities solely from their beauty.

The offerings in popular teenage role models are also troubling. Orenstein's dissection of the rise and fall of pop princesses, the baffling social media landscape and teen girl hyper-sexuality is enough to make me wish, if only for a moment, that I could take my girls to a desert island for their teenage years.

"... Britney [Spears] embodies the predicament of ordinary girls writ large. They, too, struggle with the expectation to look sexy but not feel sexual, to provoke desire in others without experiencing it themselves. Our daughters may not be faced with the decision of whether to strip for Maxim, but they will have to figure out how to be sexual beings without being objectified or stigmatized." (page 123)
Obviously what really resonated with me was some of her thoughts about hyper-sexuality in teen girls, something I will not deal with for some time, thank goodness. As it is, I am horrified at how suggestive even little girl clothing has become. The tarting up of our little girls is disturbing to me, as some of Z's friends watch movies meant for teens and just today were practicing their "runway walks". I wonder daily how to help her navigate a world which over-values beauty and allows for only the narrowest definition of femininity.

If we aren't going to totally remove our children from the dominant culture - something Orenstein perfectly refers to as "going Amish" - then how do we teach them our core values without rendering them social pariahs? None of us want our children to be left out of playground friendships, un-liked and picked on, because they don't know the cool TV shows or have the latest gadgets. But how do we raise our children to be critical consumers rather than naive drones who are irrevocably molded by the media that surrounds them?

I know we're supposed to limit their exposure to adult material and images whenever possible a well as talking as a family about advertising and media messages and CG and I do those things. We also try to broadcast our values in everything we do: how we dress, what we say about our bodies, their bodies, other people's bodies; what we watch, what we allow them to watch; what we buy for them and what we DON'T buy for them. I do think carefully about that stuff, most of the time, when I'm not overwhelmed by life and just hanging on by my right pinkie nail, and I will continue to do so.

Today, though, I am trying to figure out how to explain to a sweet, almost five-year-old girl that she won't be getting some of the things on her wish list. (Truly, she needs no more Cinderella items and wasn't going to get everything on her wish list anyway. Reading this book, however, sealed the deal.)

I wonder, too, how to help her deal with the fact that some of her princess-loving friends might not embrace the idea of a dinosaur birthday party for a girl. I feel weary knowing this is just one of the many battles to come. But I am willing to fight.

For them.


Edited to add:

Crap. Given some of the comments, it appears I gave y' all the wrong idea about Ms. Orenstein's book. Her book is thoughtful and engaging, personal and political, and it is in NO WAY preachy. Her book does NOT tell you not to get your daughters anything pink (I like pink too!) or to banish princesses (I wouldn't dream of it and Ms. Orenstein didn't either). Her book is about her own struggles to understand the deeper issues and nuances within the girlie-girl culture as she raises her daughter. Where my brain took me is my own responsibility.

(Sorry, Ms. Orenstein. I promise I won't be sending you my resume to be your book publicist any time soon.)


GratefulTwinMom said...

And fight you should. If nothing else, our job as parents is to represent our values in all we do and how we raise our children. The princess phase passes quickly for some and not so quickly for others. I wonder, too, if no matter how much we steer our children away from something they are unyieldingly interested in, will they continue to find a way to have it manifest in their lives? And if they do, does that mean they will go down a path when they're older that we tried so hard to keep them from? Scary. Keep fighting and let us know how it's going. I need all the help I can get.

Stephanie said...

Like GTM, I am on board with fighting the good fight while questioning how much sway we as parents really have over our children's choices and values. (Less and less as time goes on, I suspect. My values and choices are distinctly different from some of the choices my own parents made . . .).

The paragraph here that resonated most with me was when you wrote about how some of Z's friends are already (at age 4!) watching age-inappropriate shows and movies (and surely will progress to wearing age-inappropriate clothes, texting "OMG!" and other obnoxious tween behaviors sooner than later). I sometimes fear that the schools and neighborhoods that we have chosen just for their upper-middle-class-ness and emphasis on education and safety ALSO promote a culture of competitive parenting, adults wanting their kids to be "first" to do and know things, too much disposable income (read: drugs), and lack of supervision. One of the 2nd grade girls at Annie's school just got a CELL PHONE for her BIRTHDAY. GAAAAH. And it's THIS culture - the one that surrounds them - that's going to hold a lot of power in the tween/teen years.

At our house, with two little girls running around, we haven't encouraged OR discouraged the "princess" thing (though we certainly shield from media!). We have an active life, plenty of family time, and the allowance of (almost) everything in moderation, figuring that the princess phase, too, shall pass.

Cheryl said...

I will buy my daughter barbies and princess stuff. She loves to dress up. She will then go outside with her barbie, in her pink glittery dress and tiara, and dig in the dirt and play with her tonka truck. She also loves Dinosaur Train, and pretty much all of PBS' kids shows.

I don't think that eliminating the pink factor will solve the issue. For some kids, sure it will work, but for others the more you keep it away then the more they will gravitate towards it later.

Swistle said...

Ack! But I don't WANT to be persuaded away from pink and sequins! Elizabeth loves them and so do I. Is it okay if it's detached from other stuff? Like, she's never seen a princess movie or read a princess book, doesn't like fashion dolls, doesn't listen to Britney Spears, etc. Does it HAVE to be "wear pink sparkly shoes = future sexual objectification"?

Swistle said...

Reading comments inspires me to add that Elizabeth likes playing in the mud more than any of the other kids, and she likes worms. I don't see how forbidding her from being interested in pink and sparkles will protect her---any more than forbidding a boy from liking blue and mud will protect HIM from being an arrogant brute. I'm guessing it would all make sense if I read the book, but I feel like I don't have room for another Big Riled Up right now.

Barb said...

Haven't read the book, but I love her other book called Flux. While I have a son, I would still be interested in reading this book (since I like princesses and I am almost 30! ...should I admit that?!?!) Very thought provoking post!

Michelle said...

I've been debating reading this book. I agree with Cheryl. I think eliminating some of things won't do it. I've tried to let Peanut pick what she wants. If she wants tutus and princesses, I let her. If she wants trucks, I let her. I just try to model good behavior for her, much like what you said.

belinda said...

I attended a training today that was supposed to be about women and addiction. The training and the trainer were both *horrible* but I won't go there because it's not relevant to this post.

One of the things Peaches McCoy attempted to discuss was the fact that many women with addiction problems are hypersexualized, in a very superficial way. Sex is the only thing they have that has ever given them VALUE, and by that I mean, essentially, trade value. For some - many - it started when they were very young, whether through abuse, neglect, "traditional" female roles or otherwise, sex was the only thing that ever gave them the ability to get anything- call it power, attention, coping skills or simply the ability to put food on the table. They genuinely don't know that they are worth anything more than their pretty faces and attractive bodies- and what those faces and bodies can DO for them, can BRING to them. Without their physical attractiveness, they see themselves as without use, purpose, or influence.

But does that mean we should stop teaching them that they are pretty, attractive, etc.? That physical beauty has worth? I would argue no- because physical beauty DOES have worth. It is a scientifically proven fact. However, two other issues, simultaneously conveyed, are critical here: (1) the negating of Western media's hated-yet-revered physical beauty ideal (you don't have to be Princess Barbie to be beautiful) (2) there are many, many things besides physical beauty that make a girl/woman worthy.

Unfortunately, sex is one thing, if not THE thing, that is shoved down their little throats from the time they are self aware. And as you point out, they are learning that it is apparently (in their eyes) appropriate for them at younger and younger ages to be sexy, what with the tramped-up
little girl clothing and the catwalk practices (WTF?). It is EVERYWHERE, so it is constantly reinforced.

Now I always have to preface this with the caveat of: I am not a parent. Yet I don't see
anything inherently wrong with letting them be princesses, telling them that they are beautiful - as long as that is not the only thing that they have. As long as they also have confidence that they can: climb a tree, put together a
puzzle, tie their shoes, roller blade, draw a picture, swim in the deep end of the pool, problem solve, catch a fly ball, draft and maintain a budget... So that their beauty isn't the only thing keeping them afloat and if one day they suddenly aren't beautiful princesses anymore, their worlds won't come crashing down around them.

clueless but hopeful mama said...

I just added an edit on the end because I fear I gave some of you the wrong impression of the book. It is NOT preachy but does delve deeper into the current girlie-girl culture than I read any where else.

The princess phase does pass and I love glittery pink shoes as much as the next gal. But I think it's worthwhile looking deeply at the underlying assumptions behind the WHOLE thing. Little pieces here and there are one thing. But when you step back and take a look at the total picture, it's a different story.

I sincerely hope that this post makes more people want to pick up the book, not less! It is a well-written, fascinating book; one that I would recommend to all parents of girls.

Marie Green said...

I think it's all about balance. I HATED Barbie in college and vowed to never buy them. And I didn't. But they snuck into our lives, anyway, from others. But you know what? Unless they can play with them outside in the water table, my girls NEVER play Barbies. NEVER.

They do like to play dress-up, and again, princess dresses found their way into our home via gifts. But t hey also have lots of vintage dress-up clothes from their grandma's closet, as well as gymnastic and ballerina stuff. Their favorite though? First it was to dress up like Madeline (from the non-animated Madeline movie, based on the books), and THEN it was a long, long phase of dressing up like Laura and Mary from LHOTP.

They love bugs, jumping on our trampoline, and bike riding, probably more than anything else; but still those pink girly-girl things have found their way into our lives. I guess I'm finding comfort that they're not OVERLY interested?

I refuse- REFUSE- to buy them slutty clothing, and I think even some of the Target stuff is not "little girls" enough. Admittedly, much of their clothing is "girl colors."

Man, I hope we're not messing this up too much. I think about it often and will be reading the book, too.

Marie Green said...

Basically, I think that it's more about what's age appropriate. Letting girls/children watch only age-appropriate shows and movies, keeping them from participating in sexy dance classes, keeping their music "young", etc has been my goal.

I can't wait to read the book!

Kathi said...

I have the book and haven't read it yet. I am a bit scared. I went through a whole process when introducing Mira to Princesses when she was close to three. I put my feminism behind me and thought it was all OK. And the thing that sealed the deal for me is the she LIKES pink and sparkly. But now I do see the problem. She already says things like I have to be pretty (meaning she needs to put on her tiara) and is obsessed with jewels. I am taking it for a phase for now and one I will look at fondly when she discovers alcohol and boys while having keys to the car. But I do see how it can go too far if not kept in check. And maybe I will stop reinforcing it even though I know it is what she wants. How exactly did you explain to Z that she wouldn't be getting some of the things on her list?

Good Enough Mom said...

I have 2 boys. Maybe I'll throw my oldest a Cinderella party. He'd love it. (no kidding.)

Kara said...

Oh my goodness again. I have read exactly two posts on your blog, had never heard of you before, and I'm already thinking how I hope that maybe someday our paths will cross and we'll get to meet in real life. Because I'm pretty convinced we'd be best friends if we did! I'm seriously going to print this post and give it to my sister, along with a copy of that book. Now, I have to say, I was a littl earlier to this line of thinking. . .before my five year old daughter (and I have a two year old as well--we have so much in common!) was born, I told my husband that her nursery would be sky blue and grass green. That she would NEVER wear a Disney branded princess dress for Halloween. That while I would allow her to watch Cinderella and The Little Mermaid, there would be much more of our media time devoted to other things--Curious George, Handy Manny, etc. Not that I want them to be watching that much TV in the first place, but I wanted to be sure that any media time was for the most part not in the presence of princesses, Barbie, or heaven forbid Hannah Montana. My husband was pretty surprised when I laid this down for him. Because I am pretty much a girly girl. I wear dresses and skirts all the time, complete with pearls and lipstick. I love to be feminine. So I had to do some education with my husband about the difference between embracing femininity and bowing to the mass-media philosophy of what girls and women are. Big difference. Anyway, this is way too long already, but I just want to thank you for this post. I'm going to order this book asap. And regarding your "edited to add"--I didn't take anything you said at all to mean that this book is preachy. It makes me wonder if some people who jump to that are doing it out of some sense of guilt, over filling their daughters' rooms with Barbies, you know? By the way, when my daughter asked for a Barbie when she was three (because my sister's daughter had one), I said sure! I went to Target and bought one of their dolls (the name of the line escapes me right now)--dolls that are made to be the exact size of a Barbie, but made to look like a little girl. i.e. no hooker makeup, no boobs, a normally proportioned body. But still with long brushable hair and lots of (cute, appropriately innocent) clothes to change. Do you think my daughter hesitated for even a second? Demanded a "real" Barbie? Nope. Not even once. What she wanted was a doll of that size, with clothes and hair. A three year old doesn't realize that she's missing out on some unrealistic body proportions and tranny makeup, right? :) She's loved that doll ever since, and still plays with it at age 5 when her cousin pulls out her Barbies.

The bottom line: in my opinion, you're on the right track to raise a healthy, happy woman! I agree with your opinions and can't wait to read this book!

Anonymous said...

J! I returned to your blog after nearly a year and found this great post. You are such a gifted writer.

What would the equivalent book be for a boy? Perhaps there really isn't one, such is the strength of the princess archetype in our visual world.

I have to admit that when my baby announced himself as a he, I let out a sigh of relief. Could this mean no fighting against the TIDAL WAVE of gender-pigeon holing messages we give our girls? I admit to loathing pink, sparkles, Barbies, princesses, so would have had to go to great lengths to be a balanced parent of a girly girl, should that come to pass. During pregnancy I resisted pressure to find out the gender of my child ("but how will we know what to buy the baby" asked well-meaning relatives), thinking that the longer I postpone, the longer I have to relish the absence of that particular lens through which to view my baby.

Now, I say thank you for the onsies that have "lil' man" or "here comes trouble" and privately shove them into the revolving door to Goodwill. I have found that 'cross-shopping' yields interesting options for dressing O. Deep magenta romper for a boy? You betcha. When people at the post office ask me how my girl is, I don't correct them, I just say, "three months and change."

I like to keep my mind open to what he may become. Is this so that I can keep other people's ideas at bay? Give him as much room as is possible? Or perhaps I am just a green, idealistic parent pushing my own agenda.

Check back with me after the first year of preschool when my struggle is to keep him from making any object into a gun, we have to manage his time in front of violent cartoons, etc.

-Laura K

Anonymous said...

Thought this word cloud experiment would interesting to add. These are taken from the transcripts of ads targeting boys and girls. Not surprisingly, the most common words in products targeting girls? Love, magic, baby, style. Boys? Battle, power, hero, rapid.



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