Monday, April 8, 2013

CINDERELLA ATE MY DAUGHTER


Review of CINDERELLA ATE MY DAUGHTER by PEGGY ORENSTEIN

I approached this book with no small amount of skepticism. While the issues rank high on what's important to me, I knew my final opinion would depend how Orenstein handles the content. She didn't disappoint. First off, even when I completely agree with an author, it's off-putting when passion descends into ranting; I'm pleased to say these essays struck me as constructed with care and thought. Orenstein also finds humor in what can be a depressing topic. Last, I appreciated how openly she shares her own experiences as a mother, even owning up to when she might make mistakes, send mixed messages, or be hypocritical.

For anyone thinking, "Okay, so what is this book about?" it's a look at girly culture and how we raise daughters. Orenstein examines everything from toys to movies to social media to body imagine to beauty pageants. One criticism: the focus remains analytical rather than proactive. If you're looking for solutions in these pages, you'll be disappointed. For that matter, if you devour feminist literature and want some new insights, you might find CINDERELLA ATE MY DAUGHTER rather same old, same old, except for some specific statistics and quotes.

Still it's a thought-provoking read that touched on many issues close to my heart. Early on, Orenstein addresses the concern that men and boys might be more limited by gender than women, or at least just as much but in different ways, a thought that crosses my mind every time I notice sexism against men. For one specific, simple example, consider clothing. Women fought for the right to wear pants and fought longer to wear them without judgment. Men or boys who wear skirts are still ridiculed and bullied. However, Orenstein mostly only raises this concern so she can specify that her book will focus on girls. She did, though, contribute a sad anecdote about a father happy to buy his daughter a hot wheels set but furious when his son begged for a tutu.

Orenstein also calls out a common fear in feminist circles: is the message that women can be anything sometimes contorted into women must be everything? Some women, rather than feel they've been given more freedom and more options, feel an absurd pressure to be both feminine and masculine, to be traditional and boundary-pushing, to do all the housework of a stay-at-home mom while maintaining a busy career, etc. Ideally, feminism provides women with more choices, but some garble the message into further criteria added to the list of what makes an ideal woman. I laughed out loud at a quote from Orenstein’s daughter Daisy: “How come…Mulan has to be gentle and strong but Shang is only strong? (p. 188)” Yup, smart kid.

Near the end, there's a well-presented discussion of how appearance, sex, confidence, body image, self-esteem, etc. all tangle together. I resonated with the look at why sexually forward girls disturb some people. There's nothing wrong with a sexually forward woman. Promiscuity, provocative clothes, flirtatious behavior, etc. is neither evidence for or against a woman's overall confidence and strength. Note, though, I wrote "woman," not "girl." Females flaunting and showcasing their bodies and sexuality turns disturbing when they're not adults but children and most likely too young to even understand why such behavior earns attention. Orenstein posits, with research backing up her claim, that this trend of sexualizing young girls leads to confusion later in life regarding these topics of sex, appearance, etc. As some suggest, early sexualization teaches girls to be sexy, but not to feel sexy. It becomes a kind of performance and the girl...well, the doll.

On these lines, Orenstein laments that somewhere along the feminism road the pursuit of physical perfection became the epitome of female empowerment. I'll keep this paragraph brief, mostly to cut off my potential rant, but consider every movie (or book) in which the turning point for the female star solving her problems and getting what she wants is...drumroll, please...a makeover.

I also nodded my head as I read Orenstein's assessment of Hollywood, in particular the trend of female child stars proving they're adults now by - yes, you guessed it - undressing. Too often a risqué magazine spread marks the public transition from girl to woman.

Of course, I didn't agree with Orenstein’s every claim. Her interpretation of the children's book THE PAPER BAG PRINCESS makes a prime example. For those unfamiliar with the story, in this picture book a dragon kidnaps a prince and the princess rescues him. After defeating the dragon, she's filthy, and no doubt sweaty, and wearing a paper bag, since the dragon burnt all her clothes. Disgusted rather than grateful, the prince tells her to return when she looks more like a princess, so the princess decides she's better off without him. Orenstein says the princess' ultimate spurning of the prince disappointed her because she views it as a rejection of men. She wants her daughter to be strong and independent, but she still want her to be open to love. However, I read the story differently. In my mind, the princess spurns one man. The distinction between our interpretations is whether or not you view the prince as one individual or as standing in for the entire male gender. I could go off a tangent here about how certain characters, especially those of minorities, are often forced to represent an entire group. In fact, Orenstein addresses this herself when she talks about “The Princess and the Frog,” the movie with Disney's first black princess, who unfortunately became weighed down by all the expectations around her. The first black Disney princess isn't as remarkable as some think. (Arguably, more shameful that it took so long.) What will be remarkable is the second and the third and the fourth until there's no longer any commotion about a black princess. But returning to THE PAPER BAG PRINCESS, in my opinion the princess didn't reject all men; she refused to settle for a jerk who won't treat her right. A fantastic, feminist moral by my standards!

As I mentioned, some critique this book for being all complaints with no solution. I guess it depends on what you expect from the author. I view it as a platform for discussion. I don't think one should keep their mouth shut about a problem because they don't have a perfect solution. Some people might not even notice the problem and perhaps if the individual speaks up, someone else might have a solution they hadn't considered. As for myself, I think the only way to deal with a culture that certainly isn't going to change overnight is discussion. I personally like Disney movies, but that doesn't mean I don't see flaws or grumble about painful messages. We're quick to box things into "like" or "dislike," but it's far more productive (as I do on this blog every week with reviews!) to pinpoint and express what aspects you like and which you don't. We can't shelter girls or women from the world or filter out the messages we don't want them absorbing, but we can encourage debate and discussion, encourage questioning. In other words, encourage active thinking over passivity.

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