Monday, April 4, 2011

The Challenges of Raising Cinderella

It wasn't until I read Peggy Orenstein's Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture that I truly became terrified of the idea of someday giving birth to (or adopting) a pair of X chromosomes. The main question Orenstein tries to answer is how do feminist (or at least, non-misogynist) mothers deal with the explosion of gendered children's culture? It turns out that the answer to that question is far from easy.

Orentsein describes her journey through confronting the new girlie-girl culture with her own daughter. Princess culture, it seems is rather new to childhood, and was mostly just dreamed up by a Disney executive who couldn't stand to see little girls twirling about in homemade princess costumes. Now, lots of marketers have caught onto this trend and it's becoming increasingly difficult to find gender-neutral toys. This point seems pretty obvious when you view this breakdown from Sociological Images of a Christmas toy catalog: While you occasionally see marketers place girls with gender-neutral or even "boy" toys, you never see boys playing with "girl" toys. Today Sociological Images ran competing word clouds of marketing language in commercials for boys' and girls' toys. It seems you no longer have children; you have boys and you have girls.

Determined not to have her daughter grow up with the mindset of girlie-girl culture, Orenstein did her best to protect her daughter from the tyranny of the princesses. She failed. As much as she didn't like it, it wasn't long before her daughter was demanding tiaras and tutus.

The problem Orenstein ran into is that rejecting girlie-girl culture sends a message that's almost as bad as embracing it: If things that girls like are bad, that diminishes the value of girls in our culture. Telling little girls that they shouldn't like the tutus and princess wands they might be attracted to through a combination of marketing, peer pressure, and even a bit of "nature" tells them that girlie equals bad and that they only have value if they like "boy" things.

It seems parents who want to raise their girls in a way that doesn't reject girl culture but still pushes girls to explore "boy" interests—anything from toy trucks to light sabers—leaves them in a difficult position. After all, just because a girl wears a tiara in childhood doesn't mean she can't go on to become a Ph.D.'s in astrophysics. But it's also true that increased emphasis on "pretty" girls can have adverse effects on body image, self-esteem, and ambition. The notion of trying to navigate these waters is terrifying.

Though Orentsein's work is fascinating, I'm left wondering how parents can raise their girls in such a culture—and, furthermore, how they can raise their boys. After all, if we suspect girlie-girl culture that there's a risk in girlie-girl culture for girls, imagine what it might do to boys who are taught to resist engaging with it.

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