For the past two decades Peggy Orenstein has had her finger on the pulse of contemporary girl culture. The author of three acclaimed books on girlhood as well as a poignant memoir about her arduous journey to motherhood, Orenstein takes on mass marketing and the Disney machine in—Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture—her latest book just published in paperback.
Orenstein sends her dispatches from places as varied as toy fairs and the toddler-tiara pageant circuit. She doesn’t claim to be covering uncharted territory in these venues, but to be exploring these landscapes anew with a pink lens. For pink is the predominant color in this mega-industry of anointing Disney princesses and the glittery hoopla that comes with the coronation.
I love Orenstein’s unique take on “there is nothing new under the sun” when she writes that 5 year-old beauty contestants are like “museum portraits I had seen of eighteenth-century European princesses—little girls in low-cut gowns, their hair piled high, their cheeks and lips rouged red—that were used to attract potential husbands, typically middle-aged men, who could strengthen the girls’ families’ political or financial positions.” How different is that mindset from a mother telling her 6 year-old daughter that, “one of the judges is a man so be sure you wink at him.”
I spoke with Orenstein when her book was published in hardcover and she noted that the “Disneyfication” of the princess phenomenon boosted the company’s sales to 4 billion dollars last year. Here’s another statistic that astounded me: ‘Tween girls spend 40 million dollars a month on beauty products. These girls are doing a lot more than using Bonne Belle’s Lip Smackers. Ten year-olds are buying fruit-scented Nair to get rid of unwanted body hair. Eight to 12 year-olds are convinced that they need the anti-wrinkle cream that Wal-Mart markets to them. Wrinkles at 12? ? These are examples of a trend descriptively referred to as ‘kids getting older younger’ or KGOY.”
How did this insanity begin? When did it escalate? Here’s the short answer. Parents and grandparents have bought the complete princess package. For starters, a Disney survey reported that parents equated the word princess with safe. Accordingly, Disney has created a world where an infant’s onesie announces her royal status. From there it goes on to elaborate costumes that emulate princesses from Cinderella to Tiana—the first African-American princess in the Disney lineup. Companies dip DVD players, cameras and the more standard purses and jewelry boxes in pink.
In the midst of this marketing blitz, Orenstein acknowledged that as a Jewish woman she bristles at the word “princess.” “It was a slur for me growing up. It wasn’t something you aspired to. It brought up issues connected with materialism, which is why my traditional Jewish mother didn’t let me have a Barbie. She felt Barbie focused too much on clothes and looks.”
Orenstein, the mother of 8 year-old Daisy, is personally on the frontlines of girl culture. Daisy occasionally appears in Cinderella Ate My Daughter and it seems she’s a wonderful chip off the old block. When a girl layered in pink—pink helmet, pink bicycle—challenges Daisy’s preference for a green dragon helmet and neutral colored bike, Daisy tells her that her choices work for boys and girls.
Orenstein points out that Daisy is a little girl who’s as comfortable in overalls as she is in party dresses. Girls as well as boys are among her close friends. She’s also a little girl with a Japanese-American father who asks her mother why a Jewish person can be called a Jew, but a Japanese person cannot be called a JAP. Daisy will someday learn that the same racial epithet extends to Jewish women as well. Orenstein explains to her that, “meanings shift over generations.” The play on words leads Orenstein and me back to our conversation about the Jewish American Princess stereotype. “I think calling women JAPs ,” she says, “was a way for Jewish men to express self-hatred, discomfort with ethnicity and their own difference.”
Orenstein’s commitment to Jewish girls has also extended to serving as a curriculum consultant for Rosh Chodesh, It’s a Girl Thing. “It was important to me that a bat mitzvah not be seen as a bar mitzvah in drag, but as an aspect that belongs just to our daughters. I don’t want my Jewish womanhood to be generic or adapted from men.”
And how does Orenstein cope as a mother with this engulfing princess culture that attracts our girls like a moth to a flame? “I fight fun with fun. You can’t say no to everything, but you can give your girl broader choices to articulate her desires and her need to express herself as a girl.”