A feminist critique in the guise of a chat with a friend, Orenstein's book inspires parents to rethink girlie-girl culture.
Blame it on the princess. A nice girl like her, she does more damage than you think. She encourages daughters to emphasize prettiness, even physical perfection. She hooks them on frothy tutus and pricey spa services. Cinderella and her 5-year-old followers don't venture far from the princess construct when it comes to playtime -- OK, maybe ballerinas and fairies are all right.
Perhaps, too, her royal highness causes girls to grow up with unrealistic expectations of future husbands.
On Christmas Day 2006, the New York Times Magazine published an essay titled "What's Wrong With Cinderella?" in which the San Francisco-based writer (and St. Louis Park native) Peggy Orenstein worried over the implications of her daughter's princess obsession. The overwhelming reader response inspired Orenstein to take the thinking a step further: Her new book, "Cinderella Ate My Daughter," starts with Disney's consumerist vision of a pampered girlhood, but it progresses through other prepackaged notions of femininity -- beauty pageants, sexy Bratz dolls, saucy Facebook profiles.
At one point, Orenstein quotes a historian who claims the culture becomes fascinated with girlie-girls whenever there's economic turmoil (think Shirley Temple). For the most part, though, the book doesn't endeavor an anthropological reason for the princess onslaught. Nor does the author indulge the alarmist tone we associate, often erroneously, with feminist critiques like these.
A veteran journalist and magazine editor, Orenstein sticks to straight observation and sensible commentary on the stupefying effects of mass-marketed girl culture. She reports on a shopping trip to the well-intentioned American Girl store. She talks with teens about the delicate art of crafting their Facebook profiles. She even introduces her daughter to violent Grimm's fairy tales, in which Orenstein finds more enterprising women than in the more populist sanitized versions.
To underline her arguments, Orenstein peppers her writing with plenty of science. She consults experts on eating disorders, gender differences and sex-specific marketing. She hauls out studies on self-esteem and body image. Sure, there is the occasional bout of predictable hand wringing. But mostly Orenstein uses a friendly, deceptively informal approach to present a well-researched case against fairy-tale-style femininity. Her tone is so approachable, in fact, that the book has the feel of a meandering coffee chat with a super-informed friend. As a result, "Cinderella Ate My Daughter" is entertaining as well as useful, not only for parents of daughters.
Christy DeSmith is a former editor at the Rake and Mpls.St.Paul magazines. She lives in Boston.