When I was a teenager, I found an old Christmas letter in which my mom described her surprise that, at six years old, I wasn’t turning out to be a tomboy—as she had fantasized—and instead becoming a girlie-girl, craving Barbies, princess dresses, and Cabbage Patch Dolls. I remember a wave of shame that passed through me as I read those words? Had I gotten it all wrong? Had I disappointed my mom?
I thought about this moment while reading Peggy Orenstein’s new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture. Orenstein, like my very own mom, has never been in the business of vilifying femininity, just committed to interrogating the media and consumer messages that might be infiltrating young brains, pushing a seemingly antiquated version of what fun and female looks like. In this new book, Orenstein visits the American Girl megastore, child development labs, little girls’ bedrooms, and child pageants to try to understand—from both a journalistic and maternal perspective—what the hell contemporary girls are being fed about femaleness.
As always, Orenstein is hypnotically engaging. I feel like she could write about the history of the paperclip and I would be riveted. She’s funny, witty, and investigates the nuances of an issue rather than going for the easy target or take-away. I especially liked the way she summarized the problematic scenario facing girls (and those that love them): “femininity as performance, sexuality as performance, identity as performance, and each of those traits as available for a price.”
Much of the ground Orenstein covers is well-trodden by bloggers and short-form journalists. Orenstein does it consistently better, by virtue of being such a talented writer, but she doesn’t necessarily offer up anything revelatory to the reader who has been following this conversation in the public sphere for awhile. Other reviewers have noted the ways in which Orenstein asks more questions than she answers, sort of leaving the reader wondering how to proceed. I agree, although I did like her final summation a lot: “…there is power—magic—in awareness. If we start with that, with wanting girls to see themselves from the inside our rather than outside in, we will go a long way toward helping them find their true happiy-ever-afters.”
Indeed. I understand now that my mom fantastized about me being a tomboy, not so I could conform to what she’d wanted to be as a girl, but because it was shorthand for what she understood to be authenticity and empowerment. Today, we’re aching towards a more nuanced version of what it looks like for a girl to be truly in her power—it might just be a girl in a princess dress hunting for bad guys in the woods, a playful hybrid of femininity and masculinity. On second thought, that’s not just what girls are aching towards, but what we’re all fighting for.