Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein
Nonfictionl 256 pgs
I like the princesses. I like Disney. And I love the movies. It wasn't until I became a mother that I really began looking closely at the messages my daughter might get from some of the Disney movies. The first time I put in the Little Mermaid DVD for her, I cringed inwardly as I watched the story unfold of a princess mermaid giving up her voice for a man who only throws her over for someone else because that's all he really loved in the first place--her voice. Sure he had doubts, but it did not stop him from moving on so quickly. That's just one of my maternal gripes with the movie. Of course, a two year old isn't going to pick any of that up, not really. My point though is that suddenly what seemed like a cute and romantic movie with great songs suddenly took on new meaning for me. Just another reason I really need to pay attention to the media and messages my daughter is receiving from what she is watching and listening to--and even reading.
Cinderella is the first princess my daughter ever identified and loved. Every princess was Cinderella for a number of months, until my daughter met Ariel and then later, in person, Aurora. She's never seen the movie Sleeping Beauty, and has no interest in it at this point. At the writing of this review, the only other princess movie she has seen is Pocahontas, which she has liked enough to sit through twice so far (yay!). I haven't been able to interest her in Mulan yet, but that's one I hope she will fall in love with over many of the others. (This is where I confess that my absolute favorite animated film, behind Tarzan is Beauty and the Beast, which has the worst message for girls in terms of love changing a man from beast.)
Mostly though, my daughter is most content with her Jake and the Neverland Pirates and Doc McStuffins (who I am a huge fan of myself). Oh, and Henry Hugglemonster and the Octonauts. She adores the Octonauts.
Still, as she gets older, I am sure she will start paying more attention to the stories of the princesses, and that's something I worry about. I don't want my daughter to think she needs a man to rescue her. I don't mind romance in a story, but I like the idea of equal partners. I hate the message that a woman needs a man. I have nothing against men, but in my line of work, I see too many instances where women define themselves by their man. And it irks me no end. Plus there's the whole issue of beauty being so important. It is, unfortunately, in our society. Important, I mean. Too much value is placed on the perfect face, the perfect hair and the perfect clothes. The perfect body. I don't want my daughter growing up feeling she has to fit into some pre-formed notion of beauty.
The author isn't suggesting girls shouldn't play as princesses or play with princess toys. For many children, it is a natural part of childhood. Rather, she wants parents to be aware of the influence media and the like have on their daughters and what messages they are receiving.
It isn't just about the Disney Princesses though (a concept created in 2000 as part of an ad campaign based on the public's marketing trends in regards to the princesses). Our young daughters are exposed to a myriad of mixed messages from all different directions telling them what they should want, what they should look like and how they should behave. As much as I would like to shield my daughter from much of it (the harmful parts), I only have so much control.
The author goes a little into the history of toys aimed at girls, the various doll brands out there. I found it all very interesting, especially how innocently many of these endeavors began only to become something else entirely in the end. For example, I knew very little about the American Girl trend before reading this book, but from what Peggy Orenstien describes, however, I can get behind the idea of them--even if not the consumerism and the price tag.
There were other aspects of the book that spoke to me, validating what I already knew. How parents' behavior and words, even about themselves, influence how are children see themselves. I am trying to cut the word "fat" out of my vocabulary, although it's been difficult. On the other side of the coin, I've been telling my daughter she's beautiful since birth. We all thought it was funny when she, at one, was going around telling everyone, "I"m beautiful." Have I damaged her irrevocably by constantly telling her how beautiful she is? Of course not, but the doubt is there. I know I mean well. I am talking about beauty on the out and inside. She doesn't know that though. Labels themselves can be dangerous, influencing how we see ourselves and how we respond to outside stimuli.
I was really drawn to the work being done by Child Development Professor Carol Martin and her colleague Richard Fabes with their Sanford Harmony Program at Arizona State University. The two are looking into the play habits of boys and girls, including the way children tend to clump together in play with their own genders. What influence would encouraging cross-gender play have on children's perceptions of the other sex in the long-term? As Orenstein writes, the study's "goal, over time, is to improve how boys and girls think of and treat the other sex in the classroom, playground, and beyond: to keep their small behavioral and cognitive differences from turning into unbreachable gaps." By encouraging play between boys and girls, the hope is to make their goal a reality. The ramifications overall could impact adult relationships in a positive way. So, yes, I got excited after reading that section of the book when I saw my daughter playing with a little boy at her daycare that evening. It also made me think of another incident I witnessed not too long ago in which my daughter wanted to play with a couple of boys but they told her she couldn't because she was a girl. (I liked that one of the boy's dad's spoke up to encourage his son to let her play--girls can do anything boys can, he told his son.)
I have nothing against girls being girls and boys being boys. I've taken plenty of psychology and child development classes in my day, even a gender studies class. I just want my daughter to know that her options are open. I don't like the social messages out there that promote appearance as number one and that girls and boys have to fit one category or the other. I don't mind my daughter playing with dolls or that she likes to play in her little kitchen or even have tea parties. I just want her to have a choice and know that she has a choice. I want her to know that trains and fire engines are not just for boys.
I liked when the author talked about being hypocritical, because I feel that way sometimes. I tell myself I'll never let my daughter have this or that, but I end up giving in. My daughter is more girly girl than I had initially hoped. She likes pink despite my best efforts early on to steer her away from it (I finally gave in and now she has so much pink, it's crazy). I had hoped to guide her away from the princesses, but that, too, seems to be impossible. I could fight it more, I suppose. But I want also to support my daughter in who she is and let her make some of her own choices. Plus, I like to see her happy. That doesn't mean though that I can't or won't step in to guide her and influence her in ways I think will build her good character, help her be confident and stand up for herself and yet generous and compassionate.
There is a section in the book that talks about children and the internet, touching on the dangers and influences that children will come across. Children are getting online younger and younger, and as much as we want to control and limit their access, they are often more technologically savvy than their parents. This is the chapter that scared me. It's not new information, but it is something every parent must think hard about.
Mouse prefers to play with dolls and play in her little kitchen. She enjoys playing with blocks and building things. She likes trains and trucks. She misses her soccer classes in between seasons. Mouse likes to pretend she is a princess, but she also likes to pretend to be a doctor and a pirate. At two and a half, I think she is off to a good start even as I fumble through the opening chapters of parenthood.
As I read Cinderella Ate My Daughter, I felt a sense of relief in a way. Peggy Orenstein had gone through just what I'm going through. She had many of the same concerns and questions about perpetuated gender stereotypes and the media and how to maneuver in today's culture as a parent. Because of that, she decided to do a little research and what we have is her book. Cinderella Ate My Daughter is entertaining, educational, and self-affirming. It offers food for thought, to be sure. And it also made me realize I'm not alone.
You can learn more about Peggy Orenstein and her books on the author's website.
You can learn more about Peggy Orenstein and her books on the author's website.
Source: I purchased both the hardcover and e-copy of this book for my own reading pleasure.