Cinderella Ate My Daughter, by Peggy Orenstein

Four stars, read in August 2011.

This is an excellent book. Orenstein covers several issues in only 192 pages, so obviously she doesn’t reach the depth she could for any given topic—but that’s actually something I like about it. Instead of trying to be a definitive work, this is a short, accessible introduction to and summary of the subject of raising girls in a pink commercial world, and it provides a lot of direction in where to go for further study.

There are too many pieces of information I would love to share—facts and statistics about the Disney Princess franchise, Barbie, American Girl, Bratz/Ty Girlz/Moxie Girlz (what she calls “girlz-with-a-z” culture), Disney Channel stars, toddler beauty pageants, etc.—but there’s a passage near the beginning that I think illustrates pretty well the importance of giving this some thought.

I have never seen a study proving that playing princess specifically damages girls’ self-esteem or dampens other aspirations. And trust me, I’ve looked. There is, however, ample evidence that the more mainstream media girls consume, the more importance they place on being pretty and sexy . . . Even can-do girls can be derailed—and surprisingly quickly—by exposure to stereotypes.

Here she references a study in which college students enrolled in advanced calculus classes were asked to view a series of television commercials: four neutral ads (for a cell phone, a gas station, a pharmacy, and an insurance company; no humans in the commercials) and two that depicted cliches (a girl bouncing on her bed in excitement over acne medicine, and a woman drooling over a brownie mix). A second group of students was shown four neutral ads interspersed with two “counterstereotypic” ads—one showing a woman talking about health care and one showing a woman impressing a man with her knowledge about cars. One of the tasks both groups were given was a difficult math test, on which the women shown the cliched ads did significantly worse than both the men and the women who’d seen the counterstereotypic ads.

Let me repeat: the effect was demonstrable after watching two ads. And guess who performed better on a math test, coeds who took it after being asked to try on a bathing suit or those who had been asked to try on a sweater? (Hint: the latter group.)

Meanwhile, according to a 2006 study of more than two thousand school-aged children, girls repeatedly described a paralyzing pressure to be “perfect”: not only to get straight As and be the student body president, editor of the newspaper, and captain of the swim team but also to be “kind and caring,” “please everyone, be very thin, and dress right.” Rather than living the dream, then, those girls were straddling a contradiction: struggling to fulfill all the new expectations we have for them without letting go of the old ones.

If, unlike almost every Goodreads reviewer who gave it less than four stars, you can get past the fact that the author comes from a different lifestyle than you do, I think you will agree that the book addresses a serious issue—even if you don’t agree with Orenstein on every issue. (I mostly do, with a couple exceptions.) I will probably want to own this book for the sheer amount of information that’s packed into relatively few pages, and I’m anxious now to check out all the references I got from it. Definitely a useful read.

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