Saturday, April 20, 2013

Peggy Orenstein: Cinderella Ate My Daughter

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This book made me realize: I'm an asshole when it comes to liking books. It's possible that in the past I have felt that thb was this way: every book I recommended was just "so-so" or had a million problems with it. But after reading "Cinderella Ate My Daughter" and finding a million problems with an overall pretty good book, I've realized that either a) I am hypercritical/picky about books or b) I'm turning into my father. (Turning into? Both?) In 1995, Peggy Orenstein wrote "Schoolgirls," and, as an impressional teen, I still remember how important that book was to me. The big issue then was self-esteem, and Orenstein nailed it.

The big issue now with girls is, well, actually I have no idea, because I'm a grown up and I don't have kids and don't really pay that much attention. But I do notice how pink is back, and how pink, combined with consumerism, is somehow supposed to be empowering for women (fight cancer, buy something pink!). I also notice how Disney is *the thing- you sort of have to live on a tropical to not see small children in Disney princess outfits. I haven't found a tropical island to live on. And of course there's the hypersexualization of young kids, although that seems to have cooled off as a topic when obesity came around. Now we talk about fat and take it for granted that kids wear bikinis and tight tee shirts and sparkly booty pants. It's not weird that they do- it's weird that we don't talk about it. Remember when we didn't have reality tv? Remember when we didn't have reality tv that involved 5 year olds dressing like beauty queens? It's hard to remember, and I'm not kidding.

So Orenstein's "Cinderella Ate My Daughter" is a welcome look into this bizarre land of what it means to raise a girl now. Only... it's either a piece of reporting (Orenstein mentions a couple of times that she's a journalist), or it's a diary of a mom trying to raise her kid right (in Berkeley), or it's a sociological piece, or it's... none of the above. And at 192 short pages, it's none of the above successfully. Not very helpfully, the publishers have given it the BISAC codes of 1. Girls-Psychology, 2. Femininity, 3. Mothers and daughters. I wonder what Orenstein would make of that- a whole section for girls?

"Cinderella" touches on so many things that I want to know more about. Orenstein clearly did a lot of work for this book- or to raise her own daughter after decades of working on this stuff. She says upfront that she was hoping for a boy, and who can blame her? It's a nightmare out there for raising a strong, confident girl: one who wants to achieve without falling into the traps of either rejecting society's norms to to the point of being an outcast but also without accepting them to the point of needing to be beautiful, weak and adored for her external beauty. So did Orenstein write this book because she had learned all of this stuff and had a wealth of knowledge to share (I wouldn't blame her)? Or did she write the book but not quite go deep enough into any of the subjects? We get snippets of each phase of her daughter's age and along with it, snippets of information: why the Disney monopoly is dangerous, what the pink marketing trend is all about, why playing together cross-genders is important, etc. But there is clearly so much more to say. Just when I got involved in a discussion about dolls or Miley Cyrus, time to hear about Orenstein's daughter and then move on.

But I'm not sure this is really a flaw with the book. The book is very readable, Orenstein is very humble and honest about reality: she knows she's a feminist and she knows that society is a tricky place to navigate as a feminist. She doesn't think she has all the answers as a mom, or as an "expert." I just wanted more, and I have a feeling that Orenstein has it, just not in this format. Give me more, dammit! Great topic, poor execution.