Cinderella Ate Her Daughter. Now She Knows Why.

cinderella ate my daughter, peggy orenstein

Why your daughter's princess phase is manmade.

Update: If you’re in the NYC area and interested in hearing Peggy Orenstein, Nickelodeon exec Tom Ascheim, and New York Times Magazine media columnist Virginia Heffernan discuss how marketers target kids, check out “Cinderella Ate My Daughter, SpongeBob Ate My Son: The Reality of Marketing to Kids.” It’s an event being held at the 92nd Street Y Tribeca on Tuesday, April 26, 2011 at 7pm. Tickets are just $12, it’s co-sponsored by Slate‘s Double X, and should be a really interesting discussion. Hope to see you there!

Peggy Orenstein knew enough about girls to know that when she got pregnant, she wanted a son. Naturally, the author of Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap and countless articles on girl culture gave birth to a girl. Like many other mothers of daughters, she fought the good fight: steering her daughter from pink, purple and all things princess.

And yet … her girl, Daisy, went down the pink, sparkly path anyway.

So Orenstein set out to understand what was driving this new girlie-girl culture and why, after all the isolating and head-turning efforts to keep it from her daughter, Daisy still succumbed. She writes about reports on her experience and looks into the marketing of girlhood in America in her new book Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture.

Orenstein’s book starts with the history of the Disney princesses. She starts not decades ago when the films were first shown in theaters, rather in 2000, when a Nike executive took over Disney’s product division in 2000. One trip to a “Disney on Ice” show, where countless little girls were sporting their homemade princess outfits, and before the clock struck midnight, he had created an entire line of dress, tiaras and wands — no imagination necessary! (Just 50 bucks, please.)

Next thing we knew, Disney princesses and pink were on everything. No, really, everything. Though girls have played dress-up and princess since the dawn of time, the new official princess line for Disney took over — not only the sales but the imaginative play of it all. And, get this, it’s not advertising or direct marketing that is getting girls to go all DP: It’s you.

Orenstein points out that Disney puts very little into market research for its DP line, which earns the company gobs. Instead, they just let the moms offer the princesses to their little girls, moms whose loving memories of Snow White or Cinderella make them want to share the joy with their daughters.

When daughters are ready to step out of the glass slippers and into something for the more mature Kindergarten and first grade set, Disney’s got you covered too. This is how shows like “That So Raven” and “Lizzy McGuire” took off. And Hannah Montana was waiting in the wings for the tweens.

Of course it’s not all on Disney. There are Bratz Dolls and Barbie and Nickelodean and all of that. Everyone is trying to capture the little girls’ market share and to do so, they’re appealing to girlie-girlness. Because it sells! (Question: Has anyone tried anything else?). Even Sesame Street is getting in on the act with Abby Cadabby — Orenstein writes about how AC’s nose was a huge issue, which is why it’s cute as a button now.

Orenstein also spends time on social networking sites for young girls, toddlers-and-tiaras-type beauty pageants and the whole mani-pedis for 8-year-olds thing.

This girlie-girl culture is, I think, one of the biggest surprises of raising a girl. I was not only stunned at the sheer volume of pink stuff that is available to girls but also aggravated that nobody else seemed to resent it like I did (turns out, Peggy Orenstein was). Of course, years out on it, I see that in order to buy a gift for a young girl, you have to be very creative if you’re going to avoid the this-is-for-girls/this-is-for-boys trap. You can’t just show up at Target — with its color-coded aisles — and pick something up. What I had hoped the grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends wouldn’t foist on my daughter, I realize now was really their only option.

Orenstein ends on a hopeful note — that marketers and movie execs are catching up to us feminist moms who were totally caught off guard. Pixar is actually going to release a movie with a female protagonist — its first ever. And Disney released Tangled, the Rapunzel story without a totally hopeless and helpless princess at the center. (Though I wasn’t crazy about the cliched depiction of gay men, but that’s a post for another day.) I’ll throw in Mattel’s Barbie and the Three Musketeers movie. Surprisingly, shockingly! Not totally offensive.

Having realized that I can’t change other people’s buying habits — and that’s really not my role — I instead have focused on lessons about marketing and the media, what some people think about girls and boys. I try to make my girls aware of the messages and what marketers are saying and also talk about how certain ads and TV and movie scenes make them feel. I fear my poor girls are the only ones for whom a trip to the American Girl Doll Store is also an opportunity to discuss store layout and product display with a follow-up discussion on how they felt in the showroom.

Books like Orenstein’s kind of feed beasts like me who refuse to lie down and let smart marketers get at their kids. I hope other parents at least consider what she has to say. Cinderella may be a helpless, tiny-footed gold-digger, but she’s a tough cookie with a voracious appetite for young girls.

I don’t want her snacking on mine.


Image: PierceMatty Publications

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