Throughout her career, Orenstein has observed at close range how the media and popular culture have colluded to serve up distorted visions of womanhood to girls. So perhaps it’s fitting that Orenstein’s new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, takes on the Disneyfication of American girlhood, and the princess narratives sold hand over fist to girls like her own 7-year-old, Daisy Tomoko. Disney princess narratives have long been a staple of modern girlhood. But Cinderella Ate My Daughter emphasizes that princess culture is a 21st-century phenomenon
-M. M Adjarian, ‘Pink Slip: breaking down the princess castle with Cinderella Ate My Daughter author Peggy Ornstein’, Bitch Magazine.
I’m always pretty fascinated when I read about studies surrounding girlhood. If anything, it’s a selfish opportunity to reflect on my own experiences as I‘m pretty certain I‘ve had a very regular, very stereotypical upbringing of a white, middle class girl and my experiences tend to be largely represented in studies like this. Now I feel doubly drawn to them because I can witness girlhood through the eyes of my niece- my niece who wears the same pink polka dot dress day in and day out. It’s time we put a method to her madness.
Chillin' with the ladies- Orange Blossom, Plum Pudding, Raspberry Torte, Lemon Meringue and the everpopular Strawberry Shortcake...
The 'I just got out of bed but I'll rock the polka dot dress anyway because I have a cardboard guitar' look
Completing the ensemble with a pair of classic pumps (scrappy hair, optional)...
This is not meant to be a secret letter to my sister and brother-in-law about the anxieties of raising a girl since I obviously have no idea what that must be like (and as outlined in my last post, don‘t plan on experiencing this first hand)...Claire is simply the eyes through which I’m attempting to find reason in why little girls do what little girls do.
It seemed like she just woke up one day, knew that girls were supposed to like the colour pink, Barbie and ...well, that was it (thank goodness she likes Strawberry and the Berry Bitty City gang way more!) She doesn’t have a thing for Disney Princesses yet, but that‘s probably because she can‘t sit still for more than 3 minutes (not to mention she's just outside the age bracket Orenstein researched). Regardless, Claire seems to be on a pretty average playing field of what little girls experience, how they are capable of being consumed by images of girlie-girl culture and as a result, how they project those images onto themselves through participating in what Orenstein calls the ‘inflexible stage’ - the stage in which little girls appoint themselves chief of the gender police.
Orenstein writes, ‘for a preschool girl, a Cinderella dress is nothing less than an existential insurance policy’. As if Claire knows anything about existentialism. In plain English? Girls need to prove they are girls (as boys need to prove they are boys) so they effectively grab on to exaggerated ideas of femininity and utilize them to the fullest extent, all the live-long day.
According to Orenstein (and any other research I‘ve read on the topic), external/visual signs and signals are what little boys and little girls use to define themselves. That’s simply how they understand gender and perhaps more importantly, gender difference. Clothes, hair style, colours and toys are all external factors which help determine and convince toddlers that they are either a boy or a girl. So...once a girl understands that she is a girl, she begins to denounce all things visually associated with being a boy. To further ensure she is understood as a girl to anyone paying attention, (and perhaps most importantly, herself) she not only latches on to these external signals but starts mimicking the performances of most girls/women around her (here enters the maintainence of certain views, ie. ones that argue genders' innateness).
But as I'm sure you'll agree, there's nothing innate and natural about this!
Bottom line - little girls start to perform their gender, blurring the lines between what‘s believed to be innate and what‘s constructed through learning, through seeing and through experiencing other people‘s ideas of gender and femininity.
It’s not hard to see that little girls are easily consumed by ideas of femininity, right? Susceptible to most images put in front of their faces, especially because they lack the critical thinking skills to actually question the information and images presented to them. They simply accept it. Now let’s add passive, fragile, dependent Disney princesses into the mix, (characters who are defined by beauty first and the aforementioned negative traits next), and we’ve got a whole new detrimental ball game. Don’t believe me? Fast forward 10 years and we’ve got 16 year-old girls who still understand their femininity through performing it. Performing it in ways that are (negatively) presented to them by their culture. This has all been proven through research.
Anyone who has taken a class on gender and representation (and therefore been subjected to at least one lecture on the horrifying effects of Disney princesses), knows that femininity, aka gender performance has the ability to leave oodles of room for serious and damaging effects. Now I’m not saying burn all your Disney VHS (yes, VHS) or that digesting images of Ariel and Cinderella will inevitably cause serious psychological problems for all girls... just honestly think about what those princesses portray and how they portray it. The evidence is damning.
It's moments like these where I’m thankful Belle was the one I identified with most (the lesser of evils on the princess scale!) It's true!! She wanted more than her small provincial life :)
I want adventure in the great wide somewhere
I want it more than I can tell
And for once it might be grand
To have someone understand
I want so much more than they've got planned
I kid you not, that song resonated with me more than I could have known at that age.
Anyway - gender is learned. We simply cannot escape performativity. No if's, ands or buts. And if we’ve been performing femininity since the ripe age of 2, we’ve obviously come to master it thereby making it appear natural. So while it might look as if we’re just ‘being‘, in actuality, we're ‘doing’. Getting over this fact is fine by me although I encourage more to do it. I fully accept that I’m forever performing my gender- but it's important to determine who we are performing for! And here's where one of its more damaging effects comes in to play.
Take for example what Orenstein says about girls who are sexualized from an early age (and by this I'm making a slight assumption that she means girls who have had experiences of objectification from a pre-pubescent age). She argues that these girls are more likely to see sexuality as a performance, not as something that they feel internally. Ding Ding Ding! While I completely agree with this statement, I think we should extend the definition further to include all girls. I truly believe all girls (each and everyone one of us!) has at some point in time, or currently is, or will in the future, perform female sexuality.
I had to delve pretty deep into my own heterosexuality and sexual experiences during the process of writing my MA dissertation (negotiating male-defined systems of power through acts of heterosexual sex) and in so doing, I discovered (not only for myself) but for those that I interviewed, just how much performing we actually do as women - by and large through our sexuality and in the case of heterosexuality, through our sexual experiences with men.
Now I’m not saying that anyone who is currently raising a girl will have to deal with the horrifying effects of this girlie-girl culture (according to Orenstein the pitfalls include eating disorders, depression, risky sexual behaviour, etc.) I mean, sure, we could relate these pitfalls to a whole slew of other variables, there's no denying that. But there's also no denying the correlation Orenstein draws thereby making this phenomenon something worth acknowledging.
What’s most important to acknowledge? Performing femininity is part of our existence as female social subjects - to me, gender as performance is as obvious as my attraction to James Franco - inevitable, unavoidable, simply an undeniable fact of life. But it’s how we perform, our reasons for doing so, who we are doing it for and perhaps most importantly, coming to a deep awareness of those performances, that for me, make books like Cinderella Ate My Daughter, worth a close look.
Little girls, for the rest of time, are going to do gender, we might as well help steer them in the right direction.
On that note, brilliant words from a brilliant woman -
‘Gender is not a singular act but a repetition and a ritual, which achieves its effects through the naturalization in the context of a body.' -Judith Butler