Saturday, February 5, 2011

book review: Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein

Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl CultureThe backstory: I've enjoyed Peggy Orenstein's features in The New York Times Magazine for years and loved her memoir about infertility and adoption, Waiting for Daisy: A Tale of Two Continents, Three Religions, Five Infertility Doctors, an Oscar, a Romantic Night, and One Woman's Quest to Become a Mother.

The basics: Peggy Orenstein's subtitles really serve as their own descriptions: Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture.

My thoughts: I've long been fascinated (and concerned) with what I perceive as a reversion to gender normative expectations and stereotypes. I fear the U.S. is regressing, and it's a trend I'm troubled by. Although I'm not a mother, I'm intrigued by the gender roles young children find themselves in, and this book included tales that frightened me:
"They respond to questions about how their bodies feel--questions about sexuality or arousal--by describing how they think they look. I have to remind them that looking good is not a feeling." --Deborah Tolman on her studies of teenage girls' desire
Terrifying. With looks trumping feelings in teenage girls, Peggy Orenstein tries to understand how these teenagers get to that point (and how to prevent her own daughter from succumbing to the same pressures.) Orenstein picks up this theme later too: "they learn how to act desirable but not how to desire." I give Orenstein immense credit for frequently mentioning how much she wants her daughter to have a gratifying sex life when she's older. Orenstein understands her daughter is young only for awhile and wants to positively equip her with tools for her young adulthood and adulthood.

Although the focus on this book is on female children, and to a lesser extent Orenstein's personal experiences with her daughter Daisy, one cannot talk about the state of girlhood in the U.S. without also discussing boyhood. With the increasingly gendered nature of toys (i.e. everything marketed to girls is pink), how can boys and girls share toys? How can they learn to play together? Boys are taught to steer clear of pink objects, even the traditionally masculine toy tools. The long-term effects could be dreadful:
"Eliminating divorce or domestic violence may be a lofty mandate for a preschool curriculum, but it's not without basis: young children who have friends of the other sex have a more positive transition into dating as teenagers and sustain their romantic relationships better."
 This book is not all doom and gloom, and I appreciate Orenstein's ability to look at herself carefully and make me laugh:
I took to the streets in San Francisco during the first invasion of Iraq (at the time of the second, Daisy's nap time conflicted with the protests. Priorities changed...
Several times she mentioned encountering gendered behavior she would expect elsewhere, but not in Berkeley, where she lives.

What was most interesting to me was Orenstein's emphasis of the importance of fantasy in children's play:
Little girls may have more real-life role models than they used to, more examples of how to be in the world, but they have precious few larger-than-life heroes, especially in the all-important realm of fantasy, where they spend so much of their free time.
It was most poignant for me to think of childhood as a time of wonder, delight and fantasy. It is perhaps the most important time in life for children not to be bombarded with gender stereotypes and prescribed roles. I want the all-powerful imagination of childhood to run free rather than be encumbered by notions of girls can't or boys can't.

Favorite passage: "It would be disingenuous to claim that Disney princesses or Ty Girlz or Hannah Montana or Twilight or the latest Shakira video or a Facebook account are inherently harmful. Each is, however, a cog in the 24/7, all-pervasive media machine aimed at our daughters--and at us--from womb to tomb; one that, again and again, presents femininity as performance, sexuality as performance, identity as performance, and each of those traits as available for a price. It tells girls that how you look is more important than how you feel. More than that, it tells them that how you look is how you feel, as well as who you are."

The verdict: Cinderella Ate My Daughter is both micro and macro; it's a smart, funny and earnest look at girlhood and young womanhood. At times, it's terrifying, but ultimately I found it both helpful and hopeful. Whether you have children or not, it's a worthy read about the state of gender in our society.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Length: 256 pages
Publication date: January 25, 2011
Source: e-galley from the publisher via NetGalley

Treat yourself! Buy Cinderella Ate My Daughter from Amazon (Kindle version) or an independent bookstore.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!


  1. Thank you so much for posting this review! I've been looking for a good readable book on these subjects for awhile now, and this looks like the perfect match. I'm definitely adding it to my To-Read list right away. Thanks.

    -Emily @ Reading While Female

  2. I just finished reading this a couple of days ago and agree with you completely - it's totally a great looking at females in society and whether you have children or not, we should read it!

  3. I REALLY want to read this one. Great review!

  4. Having a daughter, these issues really intrigue me, and I found the quotes you peppered throughout your review very impressive. I'd like to read this book and see what I make of it. I definitely agree that changes need to be made.

  5. Great review! I really liked the book as well, many of the same things as you actually!

  6. I have a teenage son but have observed this whole phenomenon in some of my friends' children. I'd definitely find this one interesting.

  7. Thanks for the review & thanks for introducing me to your blog! =)


Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!