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Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein

September 4, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture. by Peggy Orenstein. 2011

What do you think of this picture? It was taken in a souvenir shop in Paris. Shocking, isn’t it? This explains why I had to read Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein when I first heard about it on Caroline’s blog. The mother of a 10 year old girl and a 7 year old boy had to read it. Peggy Orenstein admits that she hoped to have a son because she didn’t know exactly how to put into practice the feminist approach of education she preaches. I liked her honesty and the general tone of the book, half-memoir, half-research. I agreed with almost all her views on what she wants for her daughter and how she wants to raise her. She started this book when her daughter Daisy was confronted to mass marketing for the first time. Her aim is to decipher the codes imposed on us when we raise a girl. She points out very well the impact of marketing, the tendency to gender division and the general ground swell that being a woman is being pretty, a shopping addict and a chatbox. I’m not going to repeat what Caroline has already summed up in her review. (As an aside, she published today my answers to her questions about this book.) I’m just going to comment it and share my thoughts. It’s only my experience and my opinion and it isn’t backed up by researches.

Orenstein’s first shock was when Daisy started pre-school and got interested in Disney Princesses. “Is that harmful?” she wonders. After all, they teach to little girls that their goal in life is to be pretty and rescued by a handsome and brave prince. And they’re everywhere. In Europe too. I paused to think about Disney Princesses in our family. My daughter has a towel, a plastic glass, a drawing notebook. She had a princess dress but not a Disney one. She loved her plastic heel shoes that make noise when you walk, like Mom’s shoes. But she never really identified with the princesses. We don’t have those Disney DVDs and as pre-schoolers, my children liked other cartoons. My son was more hooked by Lightening McQueen than she was by Disney Princesses. And that was perfect for me. As a feminist, I view Cinderella and Snow White as pretty housewives waiting patiently for a prince to rescue them. Not really the kind of active women who take their destinies in their hands I’d like my girl to become.

Is it worse than when we were children? Peggy Orenstein thinks it is. I’m not so sure. The media has changed but the message is the same. We were fed by the same stories, only they were in books. We also learnt that what you need most as a girl is to be pretty and gentle and that your best achievement is to catch a prince. And there was no Dora the Explorer. What has changed is mass marketing and the loss of decency and good sense. I was astonished by casual sentences like this:

“Meanwhile, one of her classmates, the one with Two Mommies, showed up to school every single day dressed in a Cinderella gown.”


“About two-thirds of the audience at our local multiplex had been African American—parents with little girls decked out in gowns and tiaras—which was undeniably striking, even moving.”

When did costumes become regular outfits? In France, people will stare if your child is dressed as Cinderella, unless it’s Carnival. Don’t even think to bring your daughter to school in such attire. These clothes are not dresses, they are costumes. Children are smart. They make a difference between games and real world but if princess costumes become everyday clothes, it’s normal that they start thinking they are actual princesses. You don’t need a degree in psychology to figure it out. So you can say whatever you want about aggressive marketing, the Marketing VP of Disney is not the one who dresses your daughter in the morning, right? Just say No.

Then there’s the chapter on pink and how marketing imposes pink a THE girls’ colour. Incidentally, when I started reading the chapter about pink that I was wearing a fuchsia miniskirt with pink sandals. Am I a victim too? Pink is everywhere for little girls and it’s difficult to find cheap clothes that aren’t pink. Orenstein explains very well how splitting genders make families buy twice the same toy, once for their girl and once for their son. My daughter had her pink period but it’s over now.

I was appalled by the passage in the toy store in Manhattan, when Orenstein’s friend ends up spending more than $200 on toys. Again, the problem is not marketers, they’re doing their job. The problem is parents who can’t say no. In our family, children get toys for their birthdays and Christmas. In the meanwhile, they get books and small gifts on holiday. That’s it. If they ask for toys in a store, the answer is no. Always No. Even if they throw a tantrum and everybody looks at me like I’m Snow White’s wicked stepmother. Who said being a parent was always fun and nice? We have to hold our ground. We adults decide and frustration is part of growing up, part of life, actually.

Now about make up. I was surprised to read that “Close to half of six- to nine-year-old girls regularly use lipstick or gloss, presumably with parental approval; the percentage of eight- to twelve-year-olds who regularly use mascara and eyeliner doubled between 2008 and 2010, to 18 and 15 percent, respectively.” Call me old-fashioned, but for me, make up isn’t until at least 13 and the question “Should you let your three-year-old wear her child-friendly nail polish to preschool?” doesn’t require more than a 10 seconds thought. No is the answer. In France, girls don’t go to school with make up before Collège (Junior High)

How about this one: “So if a spa birthday party would make your six-year-old happy” In my experience, cooking a chocolate birthday cake with Mom and eat it with friends at her birthday party is what makes a six-year-old happy. Spa birthday parties are for teenagers at least and they’re toxic because they comfort girls in the idea that to be happy or feel good you have to do something for your body and because they promote non-mixed parties, as you can’t invite boys.

All these tendencies have strong consequences. First, “Both Princess and American Girl promote shopping as the path to intimacy between mothers and daughters”. And I think she’s right and this is a pity. I regretted that the author didn’t question more our consumer society. Everything is based on buying things. Becoming a woman is learning how to consume what marketing has decided to be woman-oriented goods and services. For me and Peggy Orenstein, raising a girl isn’t teaching her how to choose nail-polish. Second, it puts girls in ghettos and separates them from boys. She describes gender segregation in classes and there’s even a survey to try to develop mixed playing in school. In my experience, the segregation is not as strong here. Take birthdays. We’ve always had boys and girls at birthday parties. My daughter has boy-friends (in the sense of friends that are boys) and my son has girl-friends. I asked to other parents and we have the same experience. Things have also improved. My daughter plays football with boys in school. When I told her that when I was a girl, boys wouldn’t let girls play football with them she replied “They let me play because I’m good at it”. Sweet melody.

The following passage also struck me:

Hormones, genes, and chromosomes, then, aren’t quite as powerful as we tend to believe. And that has implications for how we raise and educate our children. “If you believe it’s all immutable, then what is the harm in plunking girls in a pink ghetto or letting boys get by without doing art or singing or all the things they used to like to do before they got associated with girls?”

For me, this is very American and I’m glad that Orenstein stands against it. From my French window and from books and films – how much they reflect reality is another debate – genders are more differentiated in America than in France. And there’s a deep tendency in America to believe in fate and genes are just a scientific name for fate. The difference between XX and XY is what defines female and male behaviours. Here, we tend to think it’s cultural. Of course men and women experience sex differently because their bodies are different but the way we raise children is what matters. I don’t believe that a girl is programmed to like pink, to chat, have mother instinct and other clichés about being female.

About growing up faster.

We have the impression that nowadays children grow up faster but I’m not so sure. I think we know better what they have in mind because they have a wider freedom of speech. True, they are exposed earlier to things like sex and sometimes school programs enforce the early knowledge. My daughter learnt everything about human reproduction in school. I didn’t have time to explain what periods are, the teacher beat me, he explained everything in class. (She’s 10, remember?) But do they understand it better than we would have at their age? Orenstein also notices:

As it is, girls are going through puberty progressively earlier. The age of onset of menstruation has dropped from seventeen at the beginning of the twentieth century to barely twelve today; pediatricians no longer consider it exceptional for an eight-year-old to develop breasts.

An acquaintance who lives in America told me that American paediatricians recommend giving organic milk to children to avoid the hormone doped regular milk. Early puberties can stem from too much of that milk and since American kids drink milk like ours drink water…

When I reached the chapter on social networks and on line BFFs, I was in an area I haven’t experienced so far. But I admit it worries me. I don’t know yet how we’ll handle that aspect of their adolescence and I agree with Peggy Orenstein when she states:

Gossip and nasty notes may be painful staples of middle school and high school girls’ lives, but YouTube, Facebook, instant messaging, texting, and voice mail can raise cruelty to exponential heights. Rumors can spread faster and further and, as the case of Phoebe Prince illustrates, there is nowhere to escape their reach—not your bedroom, not the dinner table, not while going out with your friends. The anonymity of the screen may also embolden bullies: the natural inhibitions one might feel face-to-face, along with any sense of accountability, fall away. It is easy, especially among young people, for behavior to spin out of control. Further, this risks exposing them to consequences they did not—or could not—anticipate.

That’s the cause of my worry. But let’s take one step after the other, right?

I thought Peggy Orenstein’s experience with looking for positive girl models in books and films fascinating. I never tried to look for them. Instead, I pay attention to buy neutral magazines and books. She isn’t satisfied by the experience either. The girls are strong and active but a little too active. They don’t need boys or men. They do everything on their own. It’s fine, but it’s not what she wants for her daughter.

I may want my girl to do and be whatever she dreams of as an adult, but I also hope she will find her Prince (or Princess) Charming and make me a grandma. I do not want her to be a fish without a bicycle; I want her to be a fish with another fish. Preferably, a fish who loves and respects her and also does the dishes, his share of the laundry, and half the child care.

That’s exactly what I want for my daughter too and I hope she has a good example at home.  

All in all, I think there are two different bad influences on our daughters’ development: the ones you can control and the others. I thought Orenstein talks too much about the ones you can, not avoid, but control: Disney Princesses, beauty pageant, make-up and sexualisation, Hannah Montana. As a parent, you have the power to say No. Plus, you are aware of these influences and you tend to think them through. As least I do. When my daughter receives a silly magazine named Julie which is a ten-year-old version of women magazines, I’m alerted and I talk about it with her. I’m not so preoccupied by those. It takes times and explanations. Yes, it’s not easy in everyday life and I don’t always spend as much time as I should talking to her. But then, do I want her to fear that every time she asks a question or talks to me, she’ll have a lecture?

I’m more concerned by the insidious representations of women that I don’t notice any more or those I can’t fight against. The T-shirts on the picture. Advertisements where half naked women seem always necessary to sell anything. The images in books in which the parent who cooks is always the mother. In cartoons and children albums, mothers wear dresses and are stay-at-home mummies. Fathers don’t wear pink shirts, work and don’t do housework. The neurologist Orenstein interviews explains that all these permanent images influence the way the connections are made in the brain in the same way that hearing French all the time makes of you a French native speaker who will never pronounce “th” like English-speaking people do. That worries me. A lot.

After reading this book, I’m decided to pay even more attention. It’s difficult to avoid constant lectures and not let it go at the same time. I didn’t succeed in explaining why I didn’t want her to subscribe to that Julie magazine. I don’t know what kind of adult she’ll be. I’m happy that she finds Hannah Montana uninteresting but I have to say no every day to gloss or nail-polish. Sometimes I think that my son has more pressure about what it is to be a boy. I’m also afraid that men are becoming as objectified as women, as the following picture shows:

It’s an advertisement and I took that picture in a grocery store. Men, fight against this!

  1. September 4, 2011 at 10:48 am

    Those pictures! I know that some women think it is only fair that men are sexualized as well. I cannot agree.
    I think after reading your answers to my questions and your post that the difference in cultural pressure is huge between the US and Europe. I’m sure there are also huge differences between individual European countries. Germany is far more Americanized.
    Contrary to what you say I found the man/woman difference huge in France and marketing in general is more sexualized. It is much more balanced in the German speaking and Northern countries (not in the UK). The importance of looks is also far more pronounced in France/Italy than in the other countries.
    In any case, it is a challenge, even for us who are no children anymore. I understand what you were thinking reading all that and wearing a pink mini-skirt. I’ve been thinking things like that.
    I think she is right, marketing strategies have changed but a few decades back it was even more difficult to find positive female role models.
    I have finally started Cordelia Fine’s “Delusions of Gender” and it is an eye-opener. She indlcuded tons of scientific research and I agree with other reviewers, it was high time someone tried to show that you cannot prove scientifically that men and women are that different.
    You mentioned in the answers that you do not agree with her view of Bella (Twilight). What did you mean?


    • September 4, 2011 at 11:26 am

      I wrote “more sexualised”, I should have written “more polarized” I agree with you, it’s important for a woman to wear make up, have nice clothes, etc…here. Just yesterday, I was chatting with someone at a family lunch and I was telling her I feel like a fish out of water in make-up shops. She looked at me and said “No one could tell by looking at you” There’s a pressure for a minimum feminity package I’d say: a bit of make up, no white hair, shaved legs… What I meant is that I feel that American society is more on the “us against them” theme or if it’s not like that in reality, that’s the image films give. I don’t think French films are that stereotyped. For example, I’ve never heard of harrassment in universities as a societal problem here. Perhaps we just don’t want to hear it.

      I agree with you, things have improved.When I asked my children if there are activities, jobs, things in three different questions that are only for boys or girls, the only answer I got was “bras, skirts and earrings”. Nothing about activities except Gym Rythmique and absolutely nothing about professions. I expected fireman or nurse; they surprised me.

      I’m deeply convinced that you can’t prove scientifically that women and men brains are different.

      I think Bella Swan is a positive character, the one in the books, not the one in the films. Contrary to was Peggy Orenstein writes, she is smart (it’s written she’s in an advanced learning program), she’s feminist in her way, as she objects when her father or Edward are too protective. (She “evades” when he doesn’t want her to see her friend) She refuses to be treated as a fragile little thing. She’s brave too. And she doesn’t care about clothes, make-up, gossips and doesn’t try to catch boys’ attention. She likes to read and she doesn’t resent being rather poor and not buying every new electronic device.
      Peggy Orenstein writes she understands why girls identify with her as she’s plain and rather slow and yet catch the hottest guy in the class. It’s reassuring for the regular teenager. True but the Prince Charming is a vampire, not a human guy. It has a cost to be the princess. All the time, S. Meyer describes the cost of every advantage: immortality also means boredom, everlasting beauty means you have to move all the time as people find it strange you don’t age. She also often mentions that Edward reached that perfect attitude over 80 years of practice. In her way, she also teaches girls there’s no need looking for Prince Charming, they don’t exist.


  2. September 4, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    Maybe the movie and the book Bella are quite different. I wasn’t too sure about what Orenstein wrote when I read it. There is a wave of anti-vampire feminism in the States (I’m not kidding). They seem to think that all those vampire books reinforce gender bias and that those men (especially the True Blood guys) are macho and bad. I agree that much of the appeal comes from the bad-boy image but I just think it is taking it all too seriously and that’s an interesting point that would need to be explored. It’s like what you wrote about the Disney Princesses. Little girls in France know they dress up like one, they do not think they become a princess. Maybe this is more blurred in the US.
    Clothes and make-up seem much more important in France, yes. We have line-managers from different countries, the only ones coming to work in skinny jeans and super high heels are those from France. I find this a bit sad. Looking nice and good, that’s really OK but why do you have to look sexy at work?


    • September 4, 2011 at 12:23 pm

      I never watched True Blood, I can’t tell. Aren’t those feminists still at the stone age of feminism? The “all-men-are-bad”?

      Why couldn’t you look sexy at work if it’s what you like to wear? What’s important is that you don’t have to turn into someone you aren’t.


      • September 4, 2011 at 1:33 pm

        I love True Blood. The series is far better than the books.
        As for work outfit. I think it depends on what you call sexy, in that particular case it was actually not sexy but slutty.


        • September 4, 2011 at 2:12 pm

          Then it’s more a question of work dress code than women outfit. It’s not appropriate as dirty hair or jeans in certain circumstances.


  3. September 4, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    Goodness, I am so glad that my son was able to grow up without all this rubbish being marketed at him!


    • September 4, 2011 at 2:15 pm

      Thank you for reading that very long post.

      It has an impact on boys too. What does it do to my son when girls chase after him in school and call him “mon petit chou à la crème”? (“my little cream puff”) Once he told me, “I know why they like me. It’s because I’m cute”


  4. September 4, 2011 at 5:13 pm

    Love your review, so in depth! It seems there are definitely differences between the US and France, and thank goodness. I was raised in a ‘just say no’ family in Canada and so the thought of doing all these things for your children is just… crazy? I also think umm… well… you don’t have to buy the stuff!


    • September 4, 2011 at 5:36 pm

      Thank you for dropping by and reading that looong review.

      Yes, if we say “no” and don’t buy these things, several children won’t have them and we stop the I’m-the-only-one-who-doesn’t-have-it process. In the end, they won’t sell them anymore.


  5. September 4, 2011 at 9:23 pm

    I think you make a good point about the targeting of children as consumers. I see some children screaming as they go by Mcdonalds as they want the rubbishy little toy packed in with the garbage happy meal.


    • September 4, 2011 at 9:47 pm

      Yes. I explain to my children that they put toys and sweets near the cash registers so that children ask their parents to buy them.

      Today, my daughter asked “What is marketing?” Believe me, it’s not easy to describe. I felt like Mafalda’s father when she asks “Tell me about the Vietnam War” or some other incredible question. I wonder how Max Barry explains this to his children. After a rather labored lecture, she said “I don’t want to do this as a job”. Then I realised that they didn’t understand half the plot of the film The Smurfs. (The stupidest children film I’ve ever seen. And I’m really polite.)


      • September 6, 2011 at 1:55 am

        Marketing is an insidious thing (in a lot of cases). Can’t imagine how I’d explain it to a child–except with some examples.


        • September 6, 2011 at 8:04 am

          That’s what we did, give examples.


  6. September 5, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    It occurs to me that there’s an assumed affluence in the book. Many Americans I suspect aren’t troubled by the issue of when to throw spa parties for their children, because they can’t afford them.

    That rather socialist point aside it’s an interesting book and one I’m aware of. I think the problem is greater in the US though, partly due to aggressive marketing and partly because the use of genetic theory in a deeply pseudoscientific way to explain cultural differences seems very deep rooted there. That latter trend I think has a big impact, and it’s not surprising it’s a trend which benefits marketing and promoting sales.

    I’ve seen arguments in US media that female preference for pink is genetic, but that’s a nonensense as anyone with the slightest knowledge of history is well aware. It’s a short step from that to “Math is hard” Barbie.

    I suspect the book will have most impact with people most like the author. Mothers who are concerned at the messages their children are absorbing but unsure how best to combat them. Actual change though would probably require a fairly radical societal shift and I don’t see that happening anytime soon. After all, it’s really a product of child-focused marketing and that’s not going away.

    On make up there I do think that American women tend to wear more makeup than European ones and that being seen without makeup is more of an issue there than in Europe. That’s not a criticism, merely a cultural observation.

    A small anecdote by way of close. When I was in my early teens I was in Scotland for a family Christmas one year. I had two cousins, brother and sister. The big toy that year was a robot that walked on its own, flashed lights and made noises.

    Christmas morning. Everyone opens their presents. My male cousin has a big walking talking robot. He’s delighted. My female cousin opens her box. She has a smaller walking talking robot, identical but for size.

    I knew what was coming next as soon as I saw what the adults had done. My female cousin asked why hers was smaller. “Because you’re a girl” she was told. I don’t think the adults in my family really did understand why Christmas day went rapidly downhill at that point and why she was so angry. They were of a generation where her getting a smaller toy was self-evident. We weren’t.


    • September 5, 2011 at 9:04 pm

      “It occurs to me that there’s an assumed affluence in the book. Many Americans I suspect aren’t troubled by the issue of when to throw spa parties for their children, because they can’t afford them.” It occurred to me too. It’s an excessive example, like hotels for dogs. However, Hannah Montana, Britney Spears and other lolitas (or “whoritas”?) touch the whole society through TV.

      I wasn’t pleased with that review, I didn’t manage to show the serious arguments she brought and the research she made.

      ” I suspect the book will have most impact with people most like the author. Mothers who are concerned at the messages their children are absorbing but unsure how best to combat them. Actual change though would probably require a fairly radical societal shift and I don’t see that happening anytime soon. After all, it’s really a product of child-focused marketing and that’s not going away.” It also occurred to me that she was preaching people who already believed in her cause. I also regretted that she rarely mentioned what her partner thought about all this. After all, he’s raising Daisy too. You’re right to say an actual change isn’t for tomorrow but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have to resist in our way.

      Something else. Yesterday I heard a radio program about women. The feminist Elisabeth Badinter explained that there’s a difference between American and French feminism. American women prone differentiation and argue that genders are “naturally” different. French feminists are more universalist, they think the difference stems from culture.

      I have no problem with make-up but it’s for teenagers, not little girls. (My daughter’s birthday is at the end of the month and she asked for a Hello Kitty make-up set. She won’t have it. I’m already trying to prove her that she doesn’t need it as she won’t be allowed to wear the make-up anyway, except on very rare occasions)

      I enjoyed your Christmas anecdote. I would have been pissed off too. The other day I tried to tell my in-laws that my son must do the dishes too. Not just my daughter.


    • September 6, 2011 at 1:57 am

      “It occurs to me that there’s an assumed affluence in the book. Many Americans I suspect aren’t troubled by the issue of when to throw spa parties for their children, because they can’t afford them.”

      Max, I saw a big party going on in the front of a house that’s about to be foreclosed. The parents had rented a portable inflatable castle which sat on the front lawn. There’s an irony to that.


  7. September 6, 2011 at 7:08 am

    What struck me is the fact that in the book, most families who send their children to beauty pageants which seem to be extremely expensive, are poor families… It did remind me of the poor families in Brazil participating in the carnival and going to huge expenses.


    • September 6, 2011 at 8:03 am

      You’re right. I had forgotten this. I wasn’t really interested in that part. It’s so extreme.


  8. leroyhunter
    September 8, 2011 at 3:28 pm

    I’m late commenting on this Emma. 2 of my 3 are girls so it’s pretty topical for me, although they’re so young that I hope I’m not going to have to worry about a lot of this for a while yet (might be naive of me to think that).

    The whole Princess thing has infiltrated our house as well. I don’t mind the toys and knick-knacks so much but the books are dreadful. I won’t read them anymore at story time, I try to cunningly distract and suggest something else. Like everything, there are phases where Little Mermaid (or whatever) is the favourite, then it’s on to something else. I think the most important thing is that the eldest (her sister is only 2) has a choice and range of things to read and be interested in. Hopefully that balances or dilutes the baleful mouse corporation influence.

    As to role-models, well I do all the cooking round our way so hopefully that gets me brownie points for breaking gender stereotypes.

    Guy’s point about kids kicking up murder when they want something is well made. I don’t think of myself as being strict but I’m always amazed by what other parents will tolerate. You can set the limits of proper behaviour wit a little bit of work and everyone benefits.


    • September 8, 2011 at 3:37 pm

      Thanks for sharing your experience.
      I agree with you. Books and magazines can be dreadful.
      And I also agree on the last point. But sometimes it’s hard and I wonder how single parents do: work, take care of children alone and do the housework.
      Unfortunately, in my experience, a good example at home is not enough. My husband washes the dishes. So I didn’t know where my son learnt that “men don’t wash dishes”. That’s what he yelled at me when I asked him and his sister to wash Tupperwares. He threw a tantrum, you can’t imagine. Well, he did it anyway.


  1. September 4, 2011 at 9:39 am

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