When it comes to raising girls, today’s moms have plenty to worry about: self-image, depression, eating disorders, and, of course, a culture that teaches women that their worth is as much about their beauty as it is about their smarts. Peggy Orenstein knows this all too well: she’s written about girls for years as a critic for The New York Times, and her 1994 book Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self Esteem, and the Confidence Gap was a bestseller (as was her 2007 one). All of which is why, when Orenstein got pregnant, she kept to herself a dirty secret. “I was terrified at the thought of having a daughter,” she writes. “I was supposed to be an expert on girls’ behavior. What if, after all that, I wasn’t up to the challenge myself? What if I couldn’t raise the ideal daughter?”
In her new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Orenstein documents her struggle to do just that: 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. Yes, 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 ultrafeminine messages that come along with it.
This princess mania, many argue, leaves girls all mixed up: while they excel in school and outpace their male peers in science and math, they also obsess about Prince Charming and who has the prettiest dress, learning—from a mix of mass marketing and media—not that girls are strong, smart, or creative, but that each is a little princess of her own, judged by the beauty of her face (and gown). Just think about the fairy tales themselves: 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.
Orenstein’s own daughter didn’t start out princess-obsessed. Daisy marched into her first day of preschool in Berkeley, Calif., in her favorite pinstriped overalls and carrying a Thomas the Tank Engine lunchbox. (Gender-neutrality success!) But it would be less than a month before the now-7-year-old would scream as her mother tried to wrestle her into pants, begging for a “real princess dress” with matching plastic high heels. Suddenly, as if on princess steroids, Orenstein began noticing princess mania at every turn: Daisy’s classmates—even one with two mothers—showed up to school in princess outfits. The supermarket checkout woman addressed her daughter with “Hi, Princess.” She found her daughter lying on the floor at a bat mitzvah, surrounded by a group of boys, waiting for her “prince” to come and wake her.
Orenstein knew there was something about this she didn’t like. Frilly dresses? Waiting for Prince Charming? Isn’t that a retrograde role model? One would think—but as it turns out, it’s harder than it sounds to find the science to back up that notion. So instead, Orenstein decided to head to the front lines of this girl culture herself—observing the world of gyrating pretweens at a Miley Cyrus concert, the powdered pop tarts of the child-pageant circuit, an American Girl store, a toy fair, and, last, Disney, whose princess line of merchandise has become the largest franchise on the planet for girls ages 2 to 6. What she learned? “It’s not that princesses can’t expand girls’ imaginations,” Orenstein explains. “But in today’s culture, princess starts to turn into something else. It’s not just being the fairest of them all, it’s being the hottest of them all, the most Paris Hilton of them all, the most Kim Kardashian of them all.” Translation: shallow, narcissistic, slutty.
Much of Orenstein’s territory is well trod (there are only so many times you can hear about toddlers and beauty pageants, or the outrage over sexy Bratz dolls). But the way she sees it, there is one very big thing that separates Daisy’s generation from those who came before her—and it’s called mass marketing. Disney alone has 26,000 Disney princess items on the market today, part of a $4 billion-a-year franchise that is the fastest-growing brand the company has ever created. “What these companies will tell you is that girls want this, so they give it to them,” says Orenstein. But for girls who don’t want to play with pink princess toys, there’s virtually no other option.
And when princesses grow up? Let’s just say that Miley Cyrus isn’t exactly the best role model. There may not be research that looks at the detriments of princess culture specifically, but there is certainly evidence to show that girls are struggling. Studies show young girls today face more pressure than ever to be “perfect” (like a princess?)—not only to get straight A’s and excel academically, but to be beautiful, fashionable, and kind. And the more mainstream media girls consume, the more they worry about being pretty and sexy. One study, from the University of Minnesota, found that just seeing advertisements from one to three minutes can have a negative impact on girls’ self-esteem.
Orenstein is the first to admit she’s not a perfect parent. But her advice to others is to pride yourself on saying no. “People have said to me, ‘Don’t you feel like you’re brainwashing your daughter because you’re not giving her the choice of what she consumes?’ ” Orenstein says. “But there’s not really a choice. Disney isn’t giving you a choice.” Being a princess may seem simple. But raising one takes a whole lot of brains.
Bennett is a NEWSWEEK senior writer covering society, youth culture, and gender. Follow her on Twitter.