Book Review: Cinderella Ate My Daughter

It’s been awhile since I’ve reviewed anything (probably shows how much I’ve read lately!), but this book was so compelling I wanted to document my thoughts on it…

My husband and I have had on-going conversations over the course of our parenting about the impact of American cultural realities like the Disney princesses, Hannah Montana, and the ever-present marketing monster of materialism.  At first, I didn’t fully follow his thinking on why these entities might not be the best role models for our impressionable daughter.  He felt that they painted a weak picture of women, encouraged women to form their identity around a man, and sucked innocent children into the never-ceasing macine of American consumption.  Because I’d grown up with Disney, I hadn’t put much thought into its underlying message before, but his opinions made sense, and I could support his point.  Over the years, though, I’d occasionally wonder if he was really right.  I mean, don’t all little girls like princesses?  What’s so wrong with wanting to dress cute and act like a rock star?  Are beauty pageants really that bad or are they just harmless fun for little girls?   Is pink really the only color my little girl can wear?

In her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Peggy Orenstein addresses my questions in detail, giving specific examples about how beloved mainstream media female characters like Hannah, Cinderella, and yes, even my beloved Dora send very mixed messages to our daughters.  She cites studies, analyzes cultural trends, and digs into marketing tactics regarding the messages being sent to our girls through popular mainstream characters and cultural trends like pink and sparkly girl-oriented toys, pop-star role models turned pole dancers, and failed Disney princesses.

And while I never really disagreed with him, I now have the details to back up what my husband’s intuitive sense was.  Throughout the book, Peggy repeatedly examines a few ideas:

  • What messages do our daughters receive about who they should be from what they see on TV?
  • What do positive role models look like for girls?
  • How aware are parents of the impact culture has on what our children believe about themselves and the world?

While I don’t fully agree with all of her conclusions, I wholeheartedly concur with her basic premise that we shouldn’t thoughtlessly allow our daughters to form their female identity on characters whose deepest aspiration is to catch a man or wear a cute outfit.  I also deeply appreciate her conclusion that, in the end, our highest priority is to teach our daughters to “see themselves from the inside out rather than the outside in”.


1 thought on “Book Review: Cinderella Ate My Daughter”

  1. I go back and forth between wanting these models to teach girls they can BE and DO things, on the one hand, and that they are not defined by their titles or jobs on the other. This is, in a small way, a change of identity requiring much more thorough character development and representational wardrobe change I’m not entirely sure wee ones would follow well in such short periods of time or that would be as cost effective to include in the box. I also recognize that in the entertainment sphere, where movies and most toys fall, focusing on the career aspects does not often constitute a plot. In order to turn any activity into a plot, there has to be interaction with other characters who have some impact on how things will go. Even a story of an investigator, operating alone, is following a story created or impacted by some other entity (nature included). No one attains anything in total isolation. Consider all the social relationships portrayed, not just the prince and princess. Friendships, parental figures, evil figures, etc.

    I have a few suggestions to balance these limitations:

    1) Select characters they can be exposed to repeatedly that take on different roles. For example, on Sesame Street, Ernie or Elmo or Grover might be acting as railroad conductors one day, restaurant waiters another, and school pupils on a field trip the third. The serial nature allows children to see those characteristics that are consistent and therefore of the individual as compared to those that are temporary and therefore related to the role. If you choose a Disney princess or Barbie, who typically never grow or change, try to collect materials that offer a comparable “what’s she up to today?” series, even if done via mixed media (that is, films, coloring books, dolls, etc.). More thorough character development goes a long way. I, for one, have been FAR more impacted by Sesame Street than all of Disney and Barbie combined. Sesame Street dealt with issues like discrimination, divorce, and death, showing the learning and maturing process, and responsibility, they grew into over time. Choose dynamic, rather than static, characters and you’ll avoid a lot of stereotyping.

    2) For static models like dolls, buy/make different outfits that reflect a wide variety of roles, so the child creates the same serial effect. Today Barbie is a Flight Attendant, tomorrow a Chef, the next day a Dog Walker, etc.

    3) Choose activities where no one else is a role model, but the child herself, and perhaps a parent or people in actual life. Activities like mini play kitchens, doctor’s kits, even cardboard playhouses have them imagining themselves as doing various activities and playing various roles while remaining the same person on the inside, therefore cementing the possibilities through experience. It will matter less whether Cinderella ever did it if she herself did and remembers it. Don’t only give her pink, sparkly clothes to play dress-up in, create a whole theatrical wardrobe to work with. Write skits with more range. You don’t have to wait for someone else to sell it to you. I’ve always had really long hair; once I tied it under my chin, made a construction paper hat, and put on dad’s suit coat to play Abe Lincoln. I still remember the opening statements of his historic address because of it. And there’s a photo in the album. There are no photos of me in princess anything.

    Most importantly, though, I have to say this: I was most surprised when, as an adult, I came into relationship with Jesus to discover we really CAN live a fairy tale, with Him as our amazing, saving Prince who changes our whole world around and we as the ones who didn’t necessarily do anything to earn His favor. He provides everything we need, protects us, even comes for us on a White Horse (it’s right there in the book of Revelation)! When I went back and looked at those stories and images I had left behind long ago to pursue an over-worked, under-appreciated, stressed-to-sickness career of marginal fulfillment, I wish I had had just a little more princess exposure so it would not have taken me so many years and so much heartache before I was able to believe. I also would have avoided a whole lotta abuse by believing in my specialness more strongly. Repairing my self-image has taken years of hard work. I’m now twirly-happy as a little girl again, because hard as I worked to make the world love me they never fully did, but Jesus loves me deeply and has all along, unconditionally. I never had to earn it. That is the way I think most parents want their children to feel, and love truly is the most important achievement in life (just watch the news and see for yourself). It’s the location of the focal point, NOT the grand story, that’s the problem. Change the names of the princes in the books to Jesus and you’ve actually got an amazingly representative snapshot of the Bible in your hands.


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