Cinderella Ate My Daughter (and she’s coming for yours…)
March 4th, 2011

Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter* reads a little bit like a post-feminist woman’s anthem: We are facilitating the indoctrination of our young girls to the detriment of our entire culture.  Yadda, yadda, yadda.  That said, I’ve never heard our national anthem performed at the start of an event and thought, “Is this really necessary?  Can’t we just skip this part?”  The answer is obviously No.  We can’t skip this part.  We go over it and over it and over it because it is important; too important to ignore.

I plunged into this book from a place of unsure footing.  Was I reading it as a former girl?  Was I reading it as the possibly-future mother of a girl?  (Right now I have one son, although we plan to have more kids.)  Or was I just reading it as a curious adult who likes to keep her finger on the pulse of our culture?  I didn’t know.  But by the end of the book I realized, it really didn’t matter.  The cultural tidal wave presented in Cinderella ultimately affects us all – whether parents, teachers, hiring managers, or anyone else.  If you know a woman or girl under the age of 25, you have come face to face with Princess culture whether you realized it or not.

To grossly over summarize the premise of the book, it is about how American adults (with the power of the purse) have allowed a marketing bonanza to preordain for their daughters how they play.  And permitting that preordination of play weaves a complex web of side effects that can, if left unchecked, trap our girls (and eventually our young women) into the worst possible versions of themselves.

Synergy! That business school buzzword bounced around my brain as I read Orenstein’s book.  The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  It is not any one aspect of Princess culture that will become our young girls’ undoing.  It is the aggregate effect that scares me.

Each of these things accounts for just a drop in the bucket.  But take a look at the bucket and you’ll realize how significant each drop is.  The onslaught of pink clothes and toys since 2000 at some level tells girls that they must love pink in order to be a girl.  The generic princess fairy tale tells them that they must be beautiful and well mannered and patient and helpless (and that all there is to wait for in life is a man to rescue you).  The pint-sized pageant set sends most parents running scared (while smugly congratulating ourselves that our girls don’t participate in such warped worlds).  Yet what exactly is the pageant circuit if not merely an exaggerated version of the princess culture that most girls live and breathe day in and day out.  Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, and Selena Gomez teach girls to whore out their virginity as badge of honor.  And online social networking sites further entrench the idea that the self is not something carefully cultivated from within, but rather a brand to be marketed to people she may or may not actually know in real life.

It starts with a plastic tiara.  But it ends someplace much more sinister.

This isn’t to say that if I have girls I won’t let a Sleeping Beauty costume cross the threshold of my home.  As I said, no single component of the Princess culture can take down an adolescent girl alone.  This means that I don’t have to be the princess police.  But it also means that I do have to take care in deciding what to permit and what to deny.  I will have to talk with my daughters about the culture they participate in.  I will have to know them well, understand to what extent they are internalizing their entertainment, and rein things in when necessary.  Orenstein herself confesses multiple moments of confusion and misstep.  I don’t expect to be any different.  Like many things, my own awareness will be an important first line of defense.

This whole world is still an arm’s length away from me.  But even if my family turns out to be all boys, I’ll still be glad I’ve read this book.  I might have come to this conclusion on my own, but one line toward the end of the book made the point obvious to me.  In the ninth chapter about the influence of the online world (which was probably the freakiest chapter in the book) Orenstein tells the story of a friend who found on her 14-year-old son’s computer topless photos of one of his classmates.  The parent commented, “We’re trying to teach our son that women are not playthings. … How are we supposed to do that if a girl sends him something like this?”

And that, my friends, is why this matters to everyone.

As I reviewed all of my margin notes after finishing the book a passage in the chapter on pageants caught my attention.  Orenstein tells the story of a young pageant heavyweight (figuratively, not literally, of course) whose home life is complicated by a severely handicapped brother.  She explains that the pageant world perhaps gives this girl a time and place in which she can pretend that her life is as perfect as it looks.  Orenstein continues:

And isn’t that, at its core, what the princess fantasy is about for all of us?  “Princess” is how we tell little girls that they are special, precious.  “Princess” is how we express our aspirations, hopes, and dreams for them.  “Princess” is the wish that we could protect them from pain, that they would never know sorrow, that they will live happily ever after ensconced in lace and innocence.

Written like that I might sign up for a powder pink ball gown myself.  But that’s not the end of it, is it?  Because even within the confines of a Disney movie there’s more to the story, isn’t there?  The great irony here is that the description above doesn’t even reflect the fairy tale.  Their lives are not so rosy as this.  These princesses are not valued for any of their abilities or intelligence.  They are frequently embattled against evil queens, step-sisters, or other enemies.  They are usually trapped in some way until a man can rescue them.  They are given two choices for vocation – life as a maid or life on a pedestal.  And they are condemned to an eternity of wearing a dress in which you cannot reasonably sit down.

On its surface Princess may seem like the innocent, utopian vision of what we want for our girls.  But when you look under all the tulle you see that it’s probably the last kind of life you’d want for your daughter.

Orenstein casts a bright light on something that has become so commonplace most of us didn’t realize it was worth discussing.  I’m glad she called us out on our oblivion.

*Disclosure – complimentary copy provided by publisher Harper Collins.

16 Responses to “Cinderella Ate My Daughter (and she’s coming for yours…)”

  1. Gale Says:

    I thought I would offer a quick follow-up to this post. Orenstein’s book was so rich with information and insight that I struggled to streamline my review. Other topics raised in the book that fascinated me included: how television and video games (princess-based or otherwise) prompt children into scripting their play into parroting back what they’ve already seen, rather than imagining anything new; how the Princess culture teaches young girls to make displays of themselves early on, which can ultimately (at much older ages, of course) feel divorced from their own sexuality; and how violent play can help teach children about restraint of their impulses. It was all fascinating and I’m still digesting it.

  2. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    Sounds like a fascinating read!

    We tried to fight the Disney machine for as long as possible, but of course, at some point, in creeps in.

    Luckily, my girls are tomboys and have no time for girly pursuits. They’d rather wrestle in the yard.

    But it still bothers me, this whole Princess thing.

  3. Gale Says:

    Kitch – It’s a quick easy read, and really interesting. What was most amazing to me was how it seems so innocent on the surface (annoying, maybe, but innocent), but when you look at the whole picture you see how it can really get into young girls’ heads.

  4. Lindsey Says:

    Love this thoughtful review, Gale. As you know I was also very moved (and scared) by Peggy’s book. Your review is compelling and I completely agree this is an issue for us all regardless of the gender of our children.

  5. Ana Says:

    I’ve read several reviews on this book, and you touched on new angles that actually make me want to read it. Like you, I have a little boy, but do plan on having more children. But it seems that the concepts are important even if I end up having a brood of boys. The idea of trying to teach my son(s) about girls/women is overwhelming right now [the bit about the 14 year old being sent topless pictures made me shudder and want to freeze time] & understanding something about the pressures of the new generation of females may be helpful.

    You mention anyone under 25…wow! This has been going on for a while. I’m about 10 years out from that demographic and I certainly do not remember this type of emphasis on “girliness” during my childhood. My formative years were somewhat after the Sleeping Beauty/Cinderella movies and well before the newer Disney princesses entered the scene. I was not by any means a tomboy, but I never owned a tiara/tutu/gown & neither did any of my friends. Maybe there was a nice window for developing a realistic and balanced female identity or maybe I am misremembering?

  6. Cathy Says:

    I literally said “wow” when I was done with your review. Wow because there is so much here and so much I could add. I feel like I could write a novel in response but I’ll try to abbreviate as much as possible.

    I have three boys and no girls, but I see this princess culture as nothing new. How about all those “sweet sixteen” coming-out parties of days long passed? And these princesses have been around a very, very long time. I read Snow White when I was a child (and I’m old!)

    I have a teenage boy. His girl friends don’t wear pink and aren’t waiting for someone to come rescue them. They are studying hard to get into a good college, but admit that they are a bit more promiscuous than the boys their age. And none of them wear any pink.

    And what about boy culture. Star Wars swallowed my three boys – all three of them. Think about the ideas we put into their heads with having to be the school sports star (hello trophy syndrome), the hero, the manly man. Nothing new. And before that it was GI Joe, or Elvis, or Jimmy Dean.

    I think we are just more aware – there is more communication in the world. There are more blogs, more educated women questioning and it spreads. It just doesn’t seem that “new” to me, maybe newly discussed in such a publicly available forum.

    Sorry – I realize I am often the protagonist in these discussions!

  7. BigLittleWolf Says:

    As Ana says, this has indeed been going on for awhile. And the whole Princess thing is alive and well and disturbingly unhelpful in real-world relationships. It has tributaries into numerous areas (media and consequently, our behavior and attitudes).

    I just may pick up the book…

    Great post!

  8. Laura H. Says:

    I have a 6 year old who loved the princesses but she’s outgrowing it. We didn’t push it but we didn’t disallow it either. We even did the Bippiddi Boppiddi Boutique when we visited Disney World when she was 3. But the last 2 Disney trips she preferred spending her time on the rides and didn’t have much interest in the boutique. While moderation seems like the answer for me, maybe this book would change my mind on that. What is the books take on the last two Disney princess movies which have princesses who work hard to succeed and who save themselves (all the while still getting the guy in the end)? I know I appreciate this new kind of princess! And when my 6 year old starts talking about marriage I quickly reply, “not until after grad school.”

  9. Gale Says:

    Such wonderful responses today! (I love having such smart, curious, and opinionated readers!)

    Ana – As for the 25 thing… My sister and I have talked about this. I am 33 and she is 31. The Little Mermaid came out when I was in sixth grade and she was in fourth. I remember its release because she loved it. I wasn’t all that interested, though. So I figure (very scientifically…:) ) that today’s 25-year-olds were three when Ariel made her debut on land, and by the time they were nine all but Mulan and last year’s Tiana had arrived. Granted the big “Princess” bonanza around which much of this book centers didn’t really kick off until roughly 2000 (Britney Spears broke out in the late ’90s and Hannah Montana didn’t premiere until 2006 – to give you a sense of other chronological markers) so it’s probably girls in their mid-teens today who really came of age in the thick of this.

    Cathy – You know I’m always happy to hear an opposing view, and I’m glad you’ve offered yours. More than anything your comment makes me think “Hooray!!” I’m really glad to hear that your son’s female peers are focused on their educations and futures. One of the things that Orenstein points out is that while young girls all eventually outgrow any Princess obsession they may have, the Princess phenomenon paves the way for other concerns. It lays the groundwork for girls to objectify themselves, and that objectification can lead to very little self-worth and – when paired with online social networking – the proclivity to see their lives as a performance art for someone else, rather than something the live for themselves. You are right that this isn’t the pink bubonic plague from which no girl has a chance to escape. Nevertheless, I think awareness of some of this risk factors is an important step in preventing the snowball chain of events that can lead to a worst-case scenario.

    Laura H – Orenstein does address the later Disney movies. She gives props to The Princess and the Frog for bucking some of the traditional trappings of princess-hood. However, she notes that it was confusing to her daughter who took the character of Lotte (the sidekick) to be the princess, rather than the main character, Tiana. While they worked hard to create a protagonist who had some spunk (or so I understand; I haven’t seen it), twenty years’ worth of another kind of heroine had left a lasting impression.

  10. Kara Says:

    A mutual friend of ours sent me the link to this post because I wrote about this very subject this week. Your review is much more detailed and I will have to check out the book. I’m glad she sent your blog along to me.

  11. Laura Says:

    Okay, so I admit that I was a little surprised to see that you read this book, Gale – not in a bad way, just in a “huh” kind of way…..

    I am a woman, and I have a young daughter who is not yet two years old (and one on the way), so I have not really entered the “princess phase” yet, but I can see it in the distance. I admit that I haven’t read this book, but it strikes me as somewhat alarmist…..I’m not sure I see how simply being a “girlie-girl” translates into girls objectifying themselves. Sure, some girls might make the leap without mothers and fathers instilling value in their girls, but it seems like the red flags raised by the author are not exactly things I would worry about (and I realize that Gale mentions more than once that it is not simply one thing that causes it, but I would argue that even many of these things together do not).

    Is it fair to blame pink and fairly tales for young girls “sexting” and other behaviors? Doesn’t the online world/media/entertainment industry share the blame for this? Perhaps the author does point out other factors more heavily, and I would find this out if I read the book, but I don’t plan to. I did read an excerpt of the book when it first came out, and from what I read it seemed like the author (who sounds fairly liberal) was anti-princess when it came to her daughter because SHE herself didn’t like what it stood for – that women are helpless and need to be rescued. Could it be possible that we are projecting this view on our girls and that most (or at least not all) girls don’t see it as a message that they have to be helpless and beautiful? Could it be that grown women and men are making this a bigger deal than it is?

    Perhaps they grow out of the princess phase, and without parental interference/guidance, some girls could retain the message that appearance, perfection, etc. are what matter. But if that is the case, then it seems like it would have been a better idea to write a book about how parents can raise confident girls despite all of this, vs create some sort of paranoia that you are bad parent if your daughter wears pink everyday. I just don’t buy it. Period. Perhaps this is my viewpoint of choice because raising children is scary enough these days, and if I believe that something as innocent as Disney movies/shows could influence my daughters to think of themselves as nothing but objects, then raising girls would seem like an impossible task. Perhaps I am just in denial, but I still don’t buy it.

  12. Gale Says:

    Laura – I think your comment here probably represents the reaction a lot of mothers have had to this book, and I appreciate you representing that perspective. I suspect that most young girls will grow up having been a princess for Halloween a couple of time, having had a princess-themed birthday or two, all without any lasting damage. To that end, your assertion that this book is a bit on the alarmist side is not altogether off-base. The author quite plainly describes herself as liberal and cops to her own bias against all things Princess going in. (In the interest of full disclosure, I too had some anti-princess biases going in.) However, I still believe she makes some good points. Unfortunately the aspects of the book that I found most interesting (not all of which could be squeezed into my post without making it a tangent fest) were not necessarily central to the larger premise of the book (pink+princess=bad) which has been most heavily touted in the media.

    Her analysis of children’s play was fascinating. Apparently plot-based play (of any kind) where children play with characters they’ve seen in movies and TV shows is incredibly stunting to their creativity because all they do is re-enact scenes they already know, rather than making up anything new. She also delves deep into the online world (which is incredibly scary as a parent) and analyzes how sites like Facebook (for heavy users, which lots of teens are) causes young girls to live their lives in such a way as to prepare it for presentation to all of their online “friends.” This causes them to constantly look at themselves as items for consumption by others, valuing their perceived nature over their actual nature. This is certainly not a direct result of any Disney movie, but when you look at the message laid forth in many Princess movies (“look beautiful for your prince”) you can see where the seed that is planted in a 5-year-old blooms into something not-so-pretty in a 15 year old.

    All that said, I know full well that lots of people will disagree with this book and with my endorsement of it. And that’s totally fine. If I have a daughter who gets invited to a Princess party, we will be there with bells on. If I have a daughter and she receives nothing but pink gifts for the first 10 years of her life we will be appreciative and say thank you. Another part of raising good kids (and being a good parent) is having good manners. And if I have a certain bias against Princess overload in my own house, I absolutely will never assert that bias over any of my or my kids’ friends.

    Lastly, I may end up eating my words. I may have a daughter who wants nothing more than to eat, sleep, and breathe Princess. (And wouldn’t that be a hoot for everyone who read this post!) If I do, I suspect that I will try to remind her that there’s life outside of Princess, but I could very well end up just having to ride the wave until she outgrows it. It’s when the girls get older that the repercussions seem more sinister. And it’s really my fear of that realm that has me feeling vigilant about the early years.

  13. Alan E Says:

    Hi Gale,
    One of my favorite TED topics is from Brene Brown on Vulnerability: (
    Specific to your topic here, begin at 17:35 in her talk about avoiding vulnerability by trying to perfect our lives, and particularly the lives of our children, (i.e. princesses). Brown says the children “are hardwired for struggle when they get here.” “…Our job is not to say ‘Look at her; she’s perfect.” Rather, we should tell them that they are wired for struggle, ‘but are worthy of love and belonging.’”
    Give a listen, and see what you think.

  14. Gale Says:

    Alan – Thanks for this recommendation. I love the series of TED talks and haven’t seen this one. I will be sure to check it out.

  15. Anne Says:

    Well, I’m late on the comments here, but I’m fascinated by this topic. I’ve read the book as well, and a couple thoughts spring to mind in reading folks’ comments.

    1) Orenstein is fundamentally a journalist, not a psychologist, so her books by nature are more exploratory and provide commentary on a national issue, rather than advice-giving. She doesn’t purport to offer child development guidance–she’s more investigating a phenemenon that does, in my view, deserve some attention.

    2) What I really liked about this book is that she’s speaking as someone who’s raising a daughter herself. If she were speaking as someone who’s never listened to a girl play make-believe or nag for a princess costume, I would judge her comments differently, but she HAS been there, and did not, from what I can tell from the book, take a militant stance at all. She was far more flexible than I actually expected her to be.

    3) What she alludes to in the final chapter is, to me, the most importance piece. Which is–exactly as Laura says–it’s not like young girls are helpless against the cumulative effect of princesses, facebook, Bratz dolls, and bullying. That is IF their parents simply talk to them about it and set reasonable boundaries. She specifically states that taking TOO drastic and reactionary a stance will do nothing but prevent a girl from understanding. She simply wants parents to talk to their kids, so the kids can eventually become more savvy about how the world is marketing directly to them. She uses a lovely metaphor from the Rapunzel story at the end of the book.

    So, obviously, I liked it. I’ll be having my first child–a daughter–in just a couple months, and I’ll be shocked if at some point she isn’t gaga over Ariel or Cinderella or whatever, and I won’t panic that she’s becoming the next Lindsey Lohan. I loved (and still do love) Disney movies. But I do think exposing her to additional stories and encouraging her to use her imagination in other ways is important too.

  16. Anne Says:

    Oh…also…Orenstein has another book that I haven’t read but own…called “schoolgirls” about self esteem, confidence, etc in young women. She wrote it before she had her own daughter, so I imagine it’s different. And she admits to that as well.