Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From The Front Lines of the Girlie-Girl Culture (Harper, 2011) addresses the conflict that arises when culture begins to define little girls. A mother and writer, Orenstein grapples on a personal level with the values she wants to instill in her daughter and how Disney princesses and the messages of identity that they send our daughters encroach upon those values. Resisting the princess culture is a hard-won battle, but as Orenstein shows us in the end of her book, and her daughter’s fifth year of Disney consumption, it is possible.
Every mother and father today is forced to contend with the Disney princess culture that appropriates in very subtle ways the way our girls see themselves. The princess war is quite controversial, even among mommy bloggers, for there are a great many sites dedicated to redefining girls so that Barbies and princesses do not have a louder and more detrimental influence upon girls than their actual parents.
A billion dollar industry, girls cannot go anywhere without being exposed to the pinkified, girlified, and Disneyfied mentality that represents the princess existence. As Orenstein points out in very frustrated yet profound ways, navigating our daughters safely through this treacherous and unempowering girlie-girl culture of tiaras and makeup is like being in the “front lines” of war. The kind of war we cannot win simply by attacking head-on. We have to be smarter, wiser, and more patient.
The enemy does not only consist of Disney marketers and Andy Mooney, the Nike executive who saw a need and fed the need for princesses all over the world, but also a culture that doesn’t see anything wrong with dressing little girls like dolls, with princess gowns, tiaras, and shiny, glittery glass slippers with heels. While the staunch and empowered feminists from the Victorian era up to the seventies fought to give us an identity complete with voice, power, and choices, it seems that our choice as a culture insists on finding power through our looks. And many women fall for it.
Orenstein quotes Susan Douglas’ Enlightened Sexism, wherein Douglas posits that in today’s culture,
We can excel in school, play sports, go to college, aspire to—and get jobs—previously reserved for men, be working mothers, and so forth. But in exchange we must obsess about our faces, weight, breast size, clothing brands, decorating, perfectly calibrated child-rearing, about pleasing men and being envied by other women. (p. 18)
Douglas accurately depicts here what is going on in our society and why mothers are so insistent on glorifying and proliferating the princess culture. Subconsciously, we are apologizing to men for appropriating masculine power once we embark on their public spheres of businesses and making profit. We have to remind them that we are still women, soft, pliable, and ready-for-bed. We may make as much money as they do, but we are still women—their women. And we can be subdued.
But as much as this subtle and unvoiced acquiescence exists between men and women, our girls suffer because of it. As toddlers they are princess-ed, but by the time they reach pre-pubescence, they are all raunched out. They learn about sex and being sexy long before they should even know the terms, let alone act on them.
Our little princesses learn the art of pleasing others by looking pretty and cute, twirling in circles, their glittery dresses sporting Ariel, the princess who gave up her voice to get a man; Cinderella, the abused princess who lived in tatters until her Prince came and gave her riches; Belle, an avid reader who yearned for adventure but settled for only one—the love of a gruff and undeserving beast; Snow White, the sweet and domesticated princess who took care of and cleaned up after men; and Sleeping Beauty, who slept away her life until a man came into it and awoke her with a kiss.
Our pre-pubescent girls on the other hand, learn the power their sex appeal—via their dress and makeup and jewelry—has on the members of the opposite sex. By the time they are twelve, they know how to wield power over boys through sex—and not for their own pleasure, but for popularity and the approval of the boys in their school.
And because of this, the princess and raunch culture that persists in defining our girls’ identities and potential, our girls are suffering. Orenstein addresses this issue through research conducted by the American Psychological Association. According to them,
the girlie-girl culture’s emphasis on beauty and play-sexiness can increase girls’ vulnerability to the pitfalls that most concern parents: depression, eating disorders, distorted body image, risky sexual behavior. (6)
When some people ask, what’s the harm, here is the answer. This is the harm. The men and women who market all these toys targeted for girls—all pink and purple and glittery—strollers, babies, princesses, Bratz, and Barbies—these men and women don’t care about our kids—our girls. They care about the money. Short and simple.
When we purchase these products, we enable these businesses, and we enable what is happening to our girls—we enable the eating disorders, the early sexual behaviors, the negative body images, the nastiness that occurs between girls, and even the entitlement that boys have over girls.
We represent the culture that we live in—we help define it—and we enable it to progress as it does. This Princess culture—the Barbie and Bratz cultures—they all thrive because we think there is no harm in them. Perhaps because we come from childhoods that didn’t have them. But the harm is ever-present. It exists. These products are detrimental to our girls and our culture. We are raising over-sexualized children. We are raising unempowered and objectified girls who objectify themselves for the approval of others. And we are raising boys who benefit from it.