Peggy Orenstein originally thought that tomboy cartoon character Dora the Explorer was a different kind of role model for girls. Dora didn't wear pink. Or dresses. Or obsess over clothes or boys or looks. But then, in later episodes of her show, Dora became a princess anyway and started saying things like "Vamanos! Let's go to fairy land!" In her new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, Orenstein looks at Disney Princesses, American Girls, and Barbies, all of which were originally rebellious counterculture icons when compared to the typical feminine images of their day but, over time, have succumbed to the same old media-induced gender stereotypes.
Barbie, of course, is the strongest example. While at first a powerful, independent woman—an autonomous flight attendant, nurse, and police officer—Barbie, Orenstein points out, now faces a familiar problem for women: "struggling to fulfill all the new expectations [society has] for them without letting go of the old ones." In this way, Orenstein's writing has a great sense of balance. She discovers red flags but also plays devil's advocate. Without being accusatory, she presents the simple facts of why most so-called positive media heroines (like Legally Blonde's Elle Woods) ultimately give negative or confusing messages to girls (like "I am woman, see me shop").
Orenstein began writing to help mothers prepare their daughters for an overly feminine culture. For years, she visited high schools, grade schools, and Girl Scout meetings to spread the word on avoiding gender stereotypes. But then Orenstein had a daughter of her own, and her perspective changed. In Cinderella, she inspects feminine culture from a mother's point of view and speaks to the challenges of pursuing strong, independent images for girls, and particularly for her own daughter, Daisy.
One of the most powerful aspects of Cinderella is the way Orenstein draws connections between genres, products, role models, and ideas. She compares the way young girls play dress-up (in frilly dresses and boas) to emulate Snow White to the way young adolescents dress up (in mini skirts and fedoras) to emulate Miley Cyrus. And the main difference between the Little Mermaid and Rapunzel, according to Orenstein? The former literally gives up her voice for a man, while the latter attracts a man with only her voice. (MIND BLOWN.)
It gets worse when Orenstein introduces terrifying statistics—readers learn about the 26,000 Disney Princess retail items (pencils, T-shirts, dolls) currently available, the $40 million per month that preteen girls spend on beauty products, and the 12,000 injections of Botox administered to girls aged 13 to 19 in the year 2009 alone.
But girls, Orenstein discovers, are not the only ones to be forced into rigid gender roles. In many ways, boys are stuck in just as many identity ruts. She reminds readers that few serious role models exist for boys who want to dance, wear pink, or aspire to be a Disney Prince (or Princess). And, as 4-year-old Daisy points out, "Did you know that girls can choose all kinds of things to wear, but boys can only wear pants?" While the author briefly touches on this double-edged sword of gender identity in the media (and, by extension, real life), she succeeds in teasing the reader with information but doesn't expand on her findings. Cinderella could surely continue for an additional 50 pages analyzing the effect of girly-girl culture on growing boys.
Overall, Orenstein deftly examines that tricky fine line of girly culture. Does banning Disney Princesses from a household protect young girls from giving in to gender stereotypes or teach girls that femininity—dresses, dolls, the color pink—is inherently bad? Orenstein seeks to prove not only to Daisy but to every toddler, tween, and teen that there are no "behavior[s] or toy[s] or profession[s]" that are unattainable or "mandatory for [the female] sex." Orenstein doesn't have any answers, but she does encourage readers to ask questions about gender-neutral freedom of choice for both girls and boys, be it the love of tutus or football jerseys or both.