How Disney Devours our Daughters

This review of Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Today’s Girlie-girl Culture by Peggy Orenstein appeared in rabble.ca on May 5, 2011.

A brand-new father told me that the (Toronto) hospital nurse wrapped his baby with a blanket which was blue on one side and pink on the other. She swaddled with the blue side out, then realized the newborn was a girl and re-swaddled with the pink side out. All this, about five minutes after birth.

How much of a little girl’s affinity for pink, princesses, and primping in front of a mirror is innate, and how much is cued by others, starting at infancy? Peggy Orenstein, a New York Times writer and expert on girl behaviour, argues that inborn gender biases (if any) are now hugely amplified, even distorted, by today’s culture which informs little girls that their happiness is predicated upon a hyper-feminized appearance.

Marketers now routinely target very young girls with objects of desire that emphasize traditional gender roles and the importance of looking good, even overtly sexualized, all in the name of empowerment. According to cosmetics company Bonne Bell, lip gloss use begins at seven. You may have read about the clothing company Abercrombie launching a padded push-up bikini for seven-year-old girls (they subsequently withdrew it after complaints). These aren’t isolated instances of marketing genius, but the logical extension of a campaign that starts very early. Disney’s Princess line begins at diapers, and features 26,000 items for girls of all ages; sales in 2009 amounted to four billion dollars. And that’s just Disney; when you take into account Mattel (Barbie), Nickelodeon, and all the other companies telling parents that their products encourage girls to explore their femininity, and telling girls that the acquisition of clothes and accessories will enable them land a  husband and be happy, things begin to look…scary. Almost conspiracy-like.

When most people see a conspiracy, they also see crap. Orenstein’s super-power is to unpack the conspiracy theory into episodes that persuade rather bludgeon, and she has two mighty weapons at hand. First is a chatty, intimate, humorous tone, where all readers are Orenstein’s BFFs; the book is engineered less as manifesto than the musings of a very smart (but non-threatening) mom looking out for her daughter. She constantly cites studies that show that the emphasis on beauty and play-sexiness increase girls’ chances of falling prey to eating disorders, risky sexual behaviour, depression and more, and yet, Cinderella… is a fun read, seemingly driven by concern rather than fear.

Orenstein’s second weapon is a rather noble insistence on exploring every side of every issue; it never appears as though the author has an agenda to push, other than making sure that her daughter grows up happy (now, argue with that). Princess stands for entitlement, passivity, and prescriptive consumerism, but as Orenstein muses, it’s also shorthand for special, and which parent doesn’t believe her daughter is special? While attending a beauty pageant for five-year-olds, Orenstein finds that she “could sympathize with the [parents’] pride”; upon learning that one of the participants had a sibling with severe physical and mental disabilities, she notes that the parents might view the pageant as an affirmation of the young girl’s normalcy. And when Orenstein’s six-year-old daughter finally rejects Disney Princesses, saying they’re all about “I’m so pretty, Handsome Prince, won’t you rescue me?”, Orenstein rejoices, but typically, also faces self-doubt and guilt: has she brainwashed her child?

Many rabble readers may feel Orenstein over-argues the obvious; heck, I doubt any will disagree that Canada should emulate Sweden and ban advertising to children under twelve. This book will not fortify the sort of parents who’ve cut cable, buy no-logo clothing, and who worry about the potential social ostracism of their boat-rocking offspring. Cinderella Ate My Daughter is targeted towards middle-of-the-consumer-spectrum parents who feel an unarticulated but gradually escalating discomfort with present-day cultural constructions of girlhood. And here lies the value and appeal of this book. It has the statistics to prove Disney apologists wrong, enough intellectual horsepower to show how companies make mugs of moms plunking down $110 for an American Girl doll, and the wit to never frame its argument in a judgemental tone. Gift this one to the picket fence-sitters for Mother’s Day.

5 responses to “How Disney Devours our Daughters

  1. Glad to see you enjoyed reading this one. Definitely a good one for fence-sitters you are right!

  2. Awareness and taking the time to analyze, deconstruct and form personal opinions takes the power away from social machines. Daughters are too precious not to recognize the choices we make for them and encourage in them. Good article! MMF

  3. @Amy: The fence-sitter will probably fall leftward now!

    @Meagan: Thanks for commenting, and YES! Could not agree more!

  4. Scary stuff, isn’t it? Natasha Walters in her book ‘Living Dolls’ wrote about this sort of thing, though she took a different tack, and spoke more to older girls and women about gender assumptions. This one sounds like another to add to my TBR pile.

  5. @Ela : I should check that out–haven’t read it.

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