Peggy Orenstein presents an interesting perspective on the branding of young girls in Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture. Orenstein investigates how children have been separated into groups based on their gender: boys are blue, girls are pink. This marketing begins at birth and continues throughout childhood and eventually has an impact on young representations of self. This book is a very personal project for Orenstein, who noticed that her own daughter, Daisy, had absorbed these female stereotypes without any parental influence. Orenstein infiltrates a children’s beauty pageant, an American Girl store, and a children’s toy fair in order to see through the eyes of marketers in order to understand what girls are being sold and why. The impact does not stop at Barbies though, as Orenstein also investigates the impact that movies and the Internet have on today’s girls. Unfortunately, Orenstein also largely leaves out the opinions of young girls and fails to show the widespread positive effects of consumer culture on them.
Growing up myself in the heyday of Disney, I related with many of the marketing schemes that Orenstein mentioned. It’s surprising, the large extent to which pink and princess culture has been burned into every little girl’s mind. One explanation that Orenstein gives for the continued relevance of “princess” is that parents want their little girls to stay innocent and chaste. Children’s beauty pageants are a perfect representation of this concept. Encouraged by their parents, these young girls cake on make-up and strike sexy poses, while still representing “innocence.” This ironical concept also follows stars, like Miley Cyrus, throughout their careers. Cyrus, like many other stars, was meant to represent childhood innocence to young girls. But like every girl, she eventually had to grow up. Orenstein cites the infamous Vogue cover where Cyrus posed nude, with the exception of a well-placed sheet, and how parents everywhere were horrified. Whether Cyrus “broke free” through this Vogue shoot, or in a music video where she danced in a schoolgirls’ uniform à la Britney Spears, she eventually had to grow up. Orenstein shows the public’s continued willingness to allow girls to “provoke desire,” but then being horrified when they “experience it themselves.”
Orenstein’s arguments fall flat particularly in her chapter on children on the Internet. Orenstein argues that social media sites are just another place for children to be bullied or marketed to and disregards the numerous research that professors, like Rebecca W. Black and Henry Jenkins, have done on the positive aspects of certain sites; websites designed for young children, even specifically designed for young girls, that have been shown to foster a sense of community and empowerment among children. Orenstein also belittles online friendships when online realms have, in fact, become a place where those who feel alone in real life can find a community they can relate to online. What Orenstein fails to do is really delve into what girls themselves think. She has one section where she interviews two 14-year-old girls, but for the most part she spends her time making broad generalizations about their time online. She replaces how girls actually feel with the what parents, psychologists, teachers, sociologists, and Orenstein herself, believes girls should feel. As a result, although her book is a surprising account of the impact that marketing could have on girls—and indeed does have on some—Orenstein fails to show how girls have pushed back against these marketing techniques and found ways to construct their own identities and communities in this new consumer culture.
Peggy Orenstein writes on girls, culture, motherhood, and growing up female. She has written for the New York Times, Salon, Elle, USA Today, The Oprah Magazine, The New Yorker, Discover, More, and Mother Jones. Orenstein has also contributed to NPR’s “All Thing’s Considered.” Most recently, she is the New York Times best-selling author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture and Waiting for Daisy. Her past novels include, Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Kids, Love and Life in a Half-Changed World; and the best-selling SchoolGirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem and the Confidence Gap. She graduated from Oberlin College and lives in San Francisco with her husband and daughter.