book review: cinderella ate my daughter

cinderella ate my daughter cover

I was thrilled when I saw that Peggy Orenstein’s book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, was available at my library. I love reading/talking about gender and pop culture, so I happily devoured the four-star reviews on Amazon while I waited for the book to come on hold for me.

I picked up the hardcover yesterday and read it all day. I was enthralled with Orenstein’s voice. She talks about complicated gender/consumer topics in a way that makes you feel like you’re chatting with an old friend in a coffee shop or in a school hallway waiting to pick up ‘the kids’. She is hilariously honest about her struggle (and bouts of ping-ponging hypocrisy) to raise her daughter in a way that protects her from princessification without raising her in a bubble or brainwashing her. It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed reading a book so much (or devoured one so quickly). Well, for about half of the book.

Unfortunately, the thing I liked most about Orenstein’s writing is also what makes it weak– it’s too casual, too informal to be informative. Perhaps it’s because this is a part-nonfiction-part-memoir book, or perhaps it’s because Orenstein is a journalist and not a scientist… but it really bothered me that she throws around a bunch of studies in the book without explicitly naming them. That’s not quite true in the technical sense– Orenstein does leave the reader with “notes” at the end of the book, where she offers blurbs for some studies/articles/terms by the page they come up on in her book. She also has a bibliography and gives her own book an index by subject. But these notes strike me as a flippant (or lazy?) way of citing sources and shows that her efforts are more spent persuading the reader than exploring the subject. As she doesn’t use footnotes or paragraph annotations, I frequently found myself irritated with how she justified some of her claims and what kind of authority she was on girls anyway. I didn’t realize that she even had notes at all until I was at the end of the book. It would be easy to miss this all together– by the time I found her sources, I had mostly lost interest.

The reader must be informed about most of her topics to keep up with Orenstein in the first place. She races quickly from one complicated topic to the next, for which she rarely offers backstory or new perspectives. This rushed pace ends up feeling like the book is comprised of haphazard summaries rather than adding any new thoughts to debates on feminism, child development, and media. Perhaps this problem is inevitable because the book’s aim is just too broad. It starts out about toddlers and Disney/princess culture but then it’s also about tweens, beauty pageants, Facebook, race, Barbie, Hannah Montana, Orenstein’s own childhood, sexting… the chapters seem without order or purpose. About halfway through the book, Orenstein starts derailing into segments that stressĀ  that, sigh, things were so much simpler/easier when we were girls and the world for the new generation is just too scary. Orenstein actually writes at one point (in response to the ‘phenomenon’ “Anal is the New Oral”):

I find myself improbably nostalgic for the late 1970s, when I came of age. Fewer of us competed on the sports field, raised our hands during math class, or graduated from college. No one spoke the word “vagina,” whether in a monologue or not. And there was that Farrah flip to contend with. Yet in that oh-so-brief-window between the advent of the pill and the fear of AIDS, when abortion was both legal and accessible to teenagers, there was– as least for some of us– a kind of Our Bodies, Ourselves optimism about sex. Young women felt an almost solemn, political duty to understand their desire and responses, to explore their own pleasure, to recognize sexuality as something rising from within. And young men– at least some of them– seemed eager to take the journey with us, to rewrite the rules of masculinity so they would prize mutuality over conquest. That notion now seems as quaint as a one-piece swimsuit on a five-year-old. (p 172)

Gag. It’s the kind of mom voice I’d expect from a sensationalist episode of Oprah. This ‘back-in-my-day” pessimism is pervasive in the second half of the book and not only is it weird, but it undermines her previous arguments. Additionally, the text’s attempt at ending on an “uplifting” note a chapter later feels random, forced, and unfinished.

I had hoped that in reading this I would find cultural critique, further reading resources, or new arguments. I guess that like those sensationalist Oprah audience moms, I was suckered in by the catchy title and promising review blurbs.

I’m still on the lookout for interesting (and insightful) books/articles/films on gender, media, and human development. Please leave me suggestions if you have any!