Selling Cinderella to our daughters

I have an adorable little 5-year old in my life who has spent Fridays with me since she was a newborn. She calls me Baba, Ukrainian for grandmother. Her real grandmother is my friend, Gail, who has graciously let me share her granddaughter (and her 3-year old grandson!) And because my grown kidlets are slow in producing grandchildren for me, these two are ideal targets of my grandmotherly love.

Lately, my 5-year old has developed a compelling interest in what I call ‘princess stuff’. Other than some Disney storybooks, her daily exposure to princess marketing is restricted; her family home has no television. Yet my admittedly limited observations of her and her little friends tell me that she’s not alone; most very small girls are ga-ga-girly over All Things Princess.

Enter Peggy Orenstein‘s new book called Cinderella Ate My Daughter.

Orenstein, a New York Times writer, documents her struggle as a parent: how to raise a daughter who is happy and self-confident amid a world that encourages little girls to engulf their rooms in pink chiffon and rhinestone tiaras. She’s talking about The Princess Complex – the little-girl love affair that starts with Cinderella and ends with sheets and toothbrushes and cups and tiaras and home décor and pint-size wedding gowns and myriad other products.

And the ultra-feminine messages that come along with The Princess Complex, notably:

“Some day my prince will come!”

Just think about the fairy tales themselves, as listed in the Newsweek piece called Disney Princesses and The Battle For Your Daughter’s Soul recently:

“Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White – all pitted against evil, ugly old women (read: age = awfulness), waiting for the prince they’ve never met to fall for their beauty (not smarts) and rescue them from misery.

“In The Little Mermaid, Ariel literally trades in her voice for the chance a man she’s never met will love her in return.”

According to Orenstein, the Disney Princess products did not even exist before 1999. But with the following 10 years, sales of Princess items in North America surpassed $4 billion“the largest franchise on the planet for girls ages two to six.” Disney alone has 26,000 Disney princess items on the market today.

Orenstein interviews a Disney exec who suggests that Disney princess props “allow girls to expand their imaginations.” But instead, Orenstein finds that during a drawing exercise at her own daughter’s preschool, boys imagined themselves as everything from animals to insects, snack foods to superheroes, while girls were uniformly princesses, fairies, butterflies, or ballerinas.

As author Barbara Ehrenreich observes in the Huffington Post:

“Disney likes to think of the Princesses as role models, but what a sorry bunch of wusses they are.

“Typically, they spend much of their time in captivity or a coma, waking up only when a Prince comes along and kisses them. The most striking exception is Mulan, who dresses as a boy to fight in the army, but — like the other Princess of color, Pocahontas – she lacks full Princess status and does not warrant a line of tiaras and gowns. Otherwise the Princesses have no ambitions and no marketable skills, although both Snow White and Cinderella are good at housecleaning.

“And what could they aspire to, beyond landing a Prince? In Princessland, the only career ladder leads from baby-faced adolescence to a position as an evil enchantress, stepmother or witch.

“Snow White’s wicked stepmother is consumed with envy for her stepdaughter’s beauty; the sea witch, Ursula, covets Ariel’s lovely voice; Cinderella’s stepmother exploits the girl’s cheap, uncomplaining labor.”

Orenstein’s book deconstructs how marketing precedes and shapes adult beliefs about our children.

“For instance, the association of the colour pink with girlish innocence is relatively recent; when nursery colours were introduced about a century ago, pink was actually the more masculine hue.”

One of the easiest ways to pump up merchandise sales, she explains, is “to magnify gender differences — or invent them” – so parents now have to buy a pink cup for Emma, a blue one for Max.

One of Cinderella‘s many compelling observations is that the childhood phases we now take for granted – toddler, tween – were established by marketers, and NOT by doctors or child specialists.

Consider that demographic term “tween” (girls between middle childhood and adolescence, usually 8-12 years of age). It only came to be understood as a distinct psychological and physical phase of development after being invented in the mid-’80s by marketers seeking to boost consumption. Orenstein’s book reveals how well it works:  tween girls now spend more than $40 million every single month on beauty products.

The problem, she writes, is that, increasingly, a girl’s sense of being a girl is defined by possessions, not character, so “narcissism and materialism” may become inextricably connected to her sense of feminine identity. Or, to put it another way, she adds:

“Rather than raising a generation of Cinderellas, we may actually be cultivating a legion of stepsisters.”

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8 thoughts on “Selling Cinderella to our daughters

  1. I did not think I was going to enjoy reading this piece, but I was converted while reading; specially the last paragraph.

    The point that our society puts too much emphasis on possessions, not just for girls, should be a concern to all of us. I am a staunch believer of free-markets but the marketing that inevitably accompanies such economic practice often erodes traditional values important to me. As Orenstein writes, we may end up with a legion of stepsisters; in my opinion, an outcome that will debase much of the family values: a true calamity.

    • I agree – and it starts so early in life as our children are bombarded with marketing messages! “I want, I want, I want…” becomes the mantra of the tiniest child. And industry is specifically targeting this demographic – even through seemingly innocent fairytale characters!

  2. This is not a new thing, tho the serious marketing is…

    I’m 65, and loved all things princessy when I was little, & always drew princesses (they have lovely dresses). When I was in my 20s there was a book out called something like “The Cinderella Syndrome” which talked about girls waiting around for Prince Charming… I grew up to be a feminist, and one of the first females working in my field, so princess-love is not necessarily permanent.

    • Good point, Ellen. Princess-love is just one of many societal influences on little girls. And consider the 1980 anti-princess children’s book The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch – in which Princess Elizabeth realizes that she is better off without the ungrateful Prince Ronald and sets off into the sunset to live her own happy ending!

  3. But The Paper Bag Princess doesn’t stop the inculcation of young by means of the unbelievable quantity of appealing toys that are directly related to the hero or heroine of the latest movie production.

    I babysit and these characters are everywhere! Maybe they aren’t a bad thing – I grew up coloring Betty Grable and Clark Gable wedding pictures and I seem to be psychologically healthy, at least according to me. In fact, I was a 9 year old women’s libber!

    Still, it really bothers me when I can’t find a coloring book or children’s placemat that doesn’t feature Spider Man, Tinker Bell or the like. Hey! Maybe I could convince those hero hawkers that I’m helping advertise their products and deserve a cut of the profits! Whadya think?

    • I know what you mean, Bev! I tried explaining to my favourite 5-year old (the one featured in this post) about a Yale study showing that toddlers are more likely to choose ANY food that comes in a Dora The Explorer package – even if it’s exactly the same but more expensive than the non-branded food right next to it. Her response was a flat: “Duh… it’s because we LIKE Dora….!”

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