In honor of my daughter’s upcoming fifth birthday, I’m posting on her favorite topic: princesses.
This is not a post that she would necessarily like, though, since it involves neither tulle nor a prince. (Good thing she can’t yet read.)
This week, the book that gave voice to many parents’ internal conflict (including mine) over their daughter’s princess obsessions has just been released in paperback: “Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girly-Girl Culture,” by Peggy Orenstein (Harper, 2011 ).
Orenstein was already an astute commentator on the American girl culture and in the year since “Cinderella” was first published and became a best-seller, her name has become synonymous with feminist parenting. I reached out to her to ask about her reaction to the book’s reception and what, if anything, has changed since it was first released . I also asked her about her overall thoughts on raising American girls today.
She had much to say.
Below, I’m posting the first part of our interview, which focuses on the book. I’ll provide the rest in a second post.
In the meantime, add your thoughts on princesses — a topic that Orenstein, and many of her fans, believe is more fraught than frivolous.
When you first set out to write “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,” did you have any idea how much interest it would generate?
Yes and no. I didn’t start out thinking I’d write a book. Initially, I published a story in the New York Times Magazine about what I was seeing as the mother of a pre-school girl (who is now a third-grader). Honestly, I’m not sure [the editors] understood the issues, or how interested people would be in them. I had proposed it as a cover story but they said “No.” Not that I’m bitter (much). I think they assigned it part to humor me.
Anyway, it came out on Christmas Eve 2006 and shot up the most e-mailed list, hovering there along with the latest crisis in the Middle East. And people really debated the piece on blogs and parenting sites and listservs. It was divisive, even though I wasn’t taking a hard stance so much as just asking, “What’s going on here?”
I got nearly as much hate mail as fan mail on that one. So, I felt like I’d struck a nerve and that got my attention. Hence the book.
In the interim, though, between when I decided to write it and when it came out, the “princess industrial complex” only got bigger. Toddlers & Tiaras came out. There was an increasing unease over the Kardashianization of little girlhood. More people were fed up, even alarmed.
So, while the reception of the article made me think I was going to have to...come out swinging when it was published, really defend my premise and my research, the response instead was overwhelmingly positive. Overwhelmingly. And not just among people I would have thought of as like-minded.
I had a great experience, for instance, on the Laura Ingraham Show because she has a little girl. It turns out that, regardless of politics, parents are not liking the lessons in narcissism, materialism and the importance of the external that is being sold to their daughters as femininity these days. Now, when we talk about what to do about it we differ, but at least we agree there’s a problem.
What’s new in the paperback edition?
There’s a transcript of my appearance on “The Diane Rehm Show.” She was so engaged and engaging as an interviewer — she has grandchildren, so these issues were very close to her heart. And, I’ve included fascinating research on how girls and women are portrayed in film and on TV that was funded by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and conducted by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. They’ve looked at all aspects of women and girls in front of and behind the camera: how many there are, who speaks, who is in crowd scenes, who wears what. And there were so many findings I probably wouldn’t have noticed, like in G-rated family movies females comprise less than a third of speaking roles.
Once you’re told that you can’t stop thinking about it (in fact, my husband has occasionally rolled his eyes and said, “Can’t we just enjoy the movie?”). And that their portrayal — how they dress, for instance — is as sexualized as that of women in R-rated movies. Then there’s the rundown of their professions. Geena Davis has dedicated herself to raising awareness and making change on this issue. I have so much respect for her.
Has your thinking changed or evolved on the subject since the original publication?
Your thinking ALWAYS evolves after a book is out. Then you want to pull the whole thing back and start over. It’s just always interesting to see what hits with people.
There was a strong response to the notion that girls are being taught that self-absorption is the same as self-confidence. There was a strong positive reaction to my discussions of the way nurture becomes nature and the importance of cross-sex play during the pre-school and early elementary years. That’s been an interesting argument to develop because it’s not just about “sexism” (not that I should qualify that with a “just”) but really makes people pause and think about the society we’re creating when we hyper-segment kids, when we make them feel so “other” as girls and boys. And, all of that while acknowledging there are some differences between the sexes, though the variance is probably even wider among each sex.
The thing I’ve been thinking a lot about in terms of what I want to continue with has to do with the way girls learn that sexuality is a performance, learn to conflate sexualization and sexuality and the long-term impact of that as they get into high school and college. So, I’m really interested in pursuing that.
And, finally, in my desire to find more alternatives for people. I’ve really gotten into fairy tales. I just love fairy tales. And so many of them feature strong, active heroines because fairy tales were oral history told by women for the most part. It’s just the ones Disney chose (and his and his followers interpretations) that are problematic. Except for the goriness. That is a problem in reading them to children. But for grown-ups or older girls, they are magnificent.
How do you feel about the Disney princess phenomenon, and Orenstein’s take?