Barbies Gone Wild

Peggy Orenstein’s new book on girl culture.

I’ve always felt suspicious of parenting books. Like any flavor of self-help manual, they seem largely to cash in on our insecurities by providing glib and repetitive answers to complex or even unsolvable problems. The worst ones undermine whatever innate belief we might have in our own abilities and opinions, leaving us more confused than before. A large percentage of the reading public, however, disagrees with me. Self-help books, and specifically parenting books, are big business. And so, in picking up Peggy Orenstein’s new book about raising girls, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, I hoped to learn what I’d been missing.

I was pleased to discover that reading Cinderella feels like what I imagine it might be like to sit at a cafe with Orenstein, whose writing style is engaging and conversational without being dumbed-down—an ideal combo for taking on the cultural ills that threaten our daughters. Orenstein’s main concern is the princess problem. As I or any other mother of young daughters can attest, Disney dames and Barbies-gone-wild seem to grab little girls in greater numbers and with greater intensity with every passing year. Who is to blame for this pink menace? Is it the marketers, who are producing more and more pathologically monochromatic and prettified products? Is it the parents (and aunts, and grandparents) who continue to buy these toys? Or is this actually not a problem at all?

 There’s real pleasure to be derived from reading Orenstein’s sane and reasoned dissection of this phenomenon. She interviews the Disney exec responsible for the birth of the Disney Princess concept that, 10 years later, has landed some permutation of Ariel, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, or Belle in every American household containing a girl-child between the ages of 2 and 10. The exec suggests that Disney princess props allow girls to expand their imaginations. Instead, Orenstein finds that during a drawing exercise at her daughter’s preschool, boys imagined themselves as everything from animals to insects, snack foods to superheroes, while girls were uniformly princesses, fairies, butterflies, or ballerinas. Even Sesame Street seems to be playing to this trend: In the diverse pantheon of its current Muppet characters, the only two major female Muppets are Abby Cadabby (a pink fairy), and Zoe (a ballerina). The show’s producers explain that attempts at other girl Muppets flopped with their audience. Does this mean that all these marketers and producers are merely catering to biology? Orenstein decides to find out.

After wading through a swamp of pink playthings at NYC’s annual Toy Fair, Orenstein debunks the intrinsic pink/girl link by showing that as late as 1930, the color divide was reversed, with boy infants sporting pink baby wear and Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty wearing blue gowns. Then, she interviews a neuroscientist whose research shows that there’s an inherent biological basis for toy preference and aptitudes—even female monkeys prefer dolls to cars. However, that same scientist cites a study that shows that encouraging boys and girls to play together will broaden their interests and abilities. Orenstein’s conclusion? That while it makes economic sense for the toy industry to create gender-specific toys, it makes parenting sense to keep the toy color spectrum broad and to schedule co-ed play dates.

Little of this will constitute news to Orenstein’s readers. Rather, the comfort of reading a book like this comes from recognition. Just as there’s no reason for a childless reader to pick up a book on potty training, there’s not much call for anyone other than a middle-class, left-leaning parent of a young girl to pick up Cinderella. But if you’re in the target group, you’ll probably find that Orenstein is voicing more articulate, thoughtful, and better-researched versions of your own observations and concerns. Orenstein cites a study showing that between 2000 and 2006, girls grew more concerned about their looks and weight, and displayed higher stress levels and rates of suicide and depression. Your average progressive parent probably already sensed the corrosive effect of sexualized dolls (Bratz) and role models (Miley Cyrus), but Orenstein will validate their intuitions with her statistics. She concludes that a 21st-century girl is supposed to be a high-stakes combo of high-achieving and pretty that’s arguably more unrealistic than anything foisted on her predecessors. This isn’t exactly a revelation, but it feels nice to see it in print.

In her chapter exploring the effect of social networking and virtual worlds on girls, Orenstein cites a study that demonstrates a recent uptick in narcissistic personality traits among young people, resulting in a sharp decline in empathy, as well as difficulty in maintaining romantic relationships. Orenstein is certainly not alone in linking such trends with the rise of sites like Facebook, which prioritize self-promotion. She speaks with a professor about girls who sext, and concludes that in a culture where such sexual performance becomes a norm, girls become alienated from their bodies and their desires. They conflate how they look with how they feel. This feels depressing and true, and also like due diligence. Cinderella never delivers an observation that might change, rather than reinforce, its readers’ views on girl culture.

According to Orenstein, her daughter’s own princess fixation started when she was around 3 and faded out about a year later. One of Cinderella’s many clever factoids is that the childhood phases we now take for granted—toddler, tween—were established by marketers rather than doctors or child specialists. The expanding universe of parenting books demonstrates that this doesn’t just apply to the clothing and toy industries. In the course of a child’s lifetime, she (or he) will pass through a bewildering number of developmental stages, all of which are being redefined and dissected by the authors of new parenting books. Will reading a book about each and every phase help you to become a better mother or father? Probably not, but Cinderella has shown me that’s not necessarily the point. The book reads like the intellectual equivalent of getting takeout on a night you don’t have the time or energy to cook. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I can’t help but feel that if Orenstein could have stepped outside herself a little, she might have delivered something more.

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