Sunday, September 23, 2012

Cinderella Ate My Daughter

Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, by Peggy Orenstein

“Why be a role model when you can be simply a model?" One icon begets another, more veneer, more commercialized, crasser.

The seeds of this book were laid in 2006, when the author wrote an article called "'What's Wrong with Cinderella?' which ran on Christmas Eve in The New York Times Magazine." The article itself was a response to the "Princess" obsession everyone seemed to be afflicted with. "I fretted over what playing Little Mermaid, a character who actually gives up her voice to get a man, was teaching her." "Her" as in Daisy, the author's daughter. The article attracted a ton of attention, and morphed into this book. We are taken to toy shops, those cheap Made-in-China Barbie dolls as well as those selling dolls that cost several times more, to kids' pageants, to the world of fairy tales, and what the originals say and what the ersatz Disney monstrosities have twisted them into, teenage pop singing sensations that cannot wait to grow up even as they pretend they aren't, and yes - the world of teenage sexed-up role models in TV serials like Hannah Montana and the like.
There is much to like and recommend in this book. However, there is some fluff and filler too, that seems to serve little purpose other than to puff up the book to a more acceptable 200 pages. Separately, there are more than fifty pages of notes, acknowledgments, bibliography, and index.
"What was the first thing that culture told her about being a girl? Not that she was competent, strong, creative, or smart but that every little girl wants - or should want - to be the Fairest of Them All." 
Look around in India, and advertisers are hand-in-glove with companies to push that message out as aggressively as they can, to children as well as adults. Literally. Fairness creams would have us believe that beauty is only skin deep, and what is skin deep is what matters. You have no self-confidence unless and until you conform to an artificially contrived standard of beauty. To be different from the crowd, you have to become one of the crowd.
"According to the American Psychological Association, the girlie-girl culture's emphasis on beauty and play-sexiness can increase girls' vulnerability to the pitfalls that most concern parents: depression, eating disorders, distorted body image, risky sexual behavior."

"In one study of eighth-grade girls, for instance, self-objectification - judging your body by how you think it looks to others - accounted for half the differential in girls' reports of depression and more than two-thirds of the variance in their self-esteem."
The author tells that the "first Princess items, released with no marketing plan, no focus groups, no advertising, sold as if blessed by a fairy godmother. Within a year, sales had soared to $300 million. By 2009, they were at $4 billion." Success begets success. "There are more than twenty-six thousand Disney Princess items on the market."

But where is the proof? Eh? That this princess madness "specifically damages girls' self-esteem or dampens other aspirations"?
"There is, however, ample evidence that the more mainstream media girls consume, the more importance they place on being pretty and sexy. And a ream of studies shows that teenage girls and college students who hold conventional beliefs about femininity - especially those that emphasize beauty and pleasing behavior - are less ambitious and more likely to be depressed than their peers." 
Yes. Contrary to what marketers and advertisers would have you believe, you are actually worse off when you fall for that bullshit that marketers shove down our throats.

We as parents are probably aware of the dangers that such toys and products pose to a child's emotional and psychological development. At least, some are. What about the others? Why do we hanker after these toys for our children? Because a child's "wide-eyed excitement over the products we buy them pierces through our own boredom as consumers and as adults, reconnecting us to our childhoods: it makes us feel again." Such "aliveness" is however like a drug. You require every higher doses to get the same kick. The invidiousness of these products is such that they seek to intermediate themselves between the parent and the child. The child gets validation of a parent's love only when it is expressed through the act of purchasing a branded toy, a toy that seeks to provide confirmation of a child's sense of advertising-created identity, while advertising its purchase as an act of independence. "Both Princess and American Girl promote shopping as the path to intimacy between mothers and daughters; as an expression, even for five-year-olds, of female identity."
"Children weren't color-coded at all until the early twentieth century: in the era before Maytag, all babies wore white as a practical matter, since the only way of getting clothes clean was to boil them. What's more, both boys and girls wore what were thought of as gender-neutral dresses. When nursery colors were introduced, pink was actually considered the more masculine hue, a pastel version of red, which was associated with strength. … It was not until the mid-1980s, when amplifying age and sex differences became a dominant children's marketing strategy, that pink fully came into its own"
Even the image of a girl as having a doll as their favorite toy is relatively new. "less than 25 percent in an 1898 survey cited them as their favorite toy." "Baby dolls were seen as a way to revive the flagging maternal instinct of white girls, to remind them of their patriotic duty to conceive" Why, you may ask? "President Theodore Roosevelt, who was obsessed with the waning birth rates among white Anglo-Saxon women, began waging a campaign against "race suicide.""

Every icon, starting with Barbie, has started out as a rebel. However, rebels need to rebel, ever more, to keep up with the generations. What parents considered rebellious would be considered sacrilegiously conformist by children. Furthermore, what's hip for a teen is aspirational for the pre-teen. What is cool with the pre-teen is anathema to the teen. And what a lovely circle, or is it a spiral, we end up weaving. Or should we call this the slippery slope of "coolness"?

So, let's take a look at Barbie.
"It's hard to imagine now, but when she was introduced in 1959, the bombshell with the high-heeled feet was considered a rebel: single and childless, she lived a glamorous life replete with boyfriends (hinting at the possibility of recreational sex). … She was a feminist icon! The hitch, of course, was that her liberation was predicated on near-constant attention to her appearance. "
Parents couldn't wait to share Barbie with their daughters - "they didn't wait until the girls were eight to twelve (Barbie's original demographic); they presented her to their three-year-olds. That instantaneously made her anathema to her intended market."

So you had to have Bratz for Barbie's original demographic. "Bratz brilliantly distilled Barbie's acquisitiveness while casting off the rest: why be a role model when you can be simply a model? Bratz, in short, were cool."

A question that does beg to be asked is, when do gender differences start to manifest between boys and girls, and secondly, why do girls, for instance, gravitate towards toys like dolls? Ignore, for a moment, Roosevelt's asinine reasons. Let's actually see what experts have to say on the field. Like Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist, who says that "For the most part, however, at least in the beginning, the behavior and interests of the two sexes are nearly indistinguishable. Both go gaga over the same toys: until they're about a year old, they are equally attracted to dolls; and until they're around three, they show the same interest in actual babies. In other words, regardless of how we dress them or decorate their rooms, when they are tiny, children do not know from pink and blue."

Which brings us back to the author's insight that Disney Princesses are a stroke of pure "genius". They appear and appeal to girls at "the precise moment that girls need to prove they are girls" and so they "latch onto the most exaggerated images their culture offers in order to stridently shore up their femininity."

This also means that girls then tend to play with girls, and boys with boys. This also both limits their actual brain development, but also affects, and possibly limits, how they think about the opposite sex, as well as "potentially defining both their abilities and possibilities."

If girls play with toys that serve to reinforce stereotypical myths of beauty, then what's the next logical step down this ladder? Or should I say 'slope'? Well, you can look at teen TV shows. Or you can look at baby beauty pageants. In the US, at least, there have been a host of shows that have lamented the "parade of preschoolers tricked out like Las Vegas showgirls", Which is "followed by commentary from psychologists who (with good reason) link self-objectification and sexualization to the host of ills previously mentioned - eating disorders, depression, low self-esteem, impaired academic performance", followed by mothers who "defend their actions", and so on. What the viewer often misses, but still lingers to watch, is the opportunity, "under the pretext of disapproval, to be titillated by the spectacle, to indulge in guilty-pleasure voyeurism." Ouch!

This can be acutely damaging to children. In the words of "Stephen Hinshaw, the chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley" and author of the "thoughtful book" "The Triple Bind", "imposing any developmental task on children before they are ready can cause irreparable, long-term harm." Beauty pageants have to be the worst offenders. So how do "pageant moms rationalize their behavior"?
"Two strategies particularly caught my eye. The first was "denial of injury" - the idea that the children are not harmed by the experience and may actually benefit. The second was "denial of responsibility": they may personally disapprove of pageants, but their four-year-olds so wanted to compete that they had no choice but to comply. Rejigger that wording a bit, substitute "Disney Princess 21-piece play makeup set" or "mani-pedi birthday party" or "Rock & Republic Jeans," and it sounds like a conversation you would hear on any suburban playground." 
Ouch that a second time.

Toys? Check.
Pageants? Check.
Fairy tales? Let's take a look at them. The Grimm Brothers' fairy tales are very, very different from the processed offal dished out by Disney and the like. "Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim" has warned that "we avoid the Grimms' grimness at our peril." He has argued in his "classic book The Uses of Enchantment" (Kindle e-book)  that "the brothers' gore is not only central to the tales' appeal, it's crucial to kids' emotional development." Remember Cinderella? Her stepsisters? And the magic slipper? How does the original tale unfold?
"As usual, the stepsisters try on the tiny golden slipper before Cinderella does; in order to jam their big fat clodhoppers into it, one slices off her heel and the other her toe. Some fancy academic might see that as a metaphor, a warning to girls against contorting themselves to fit unattainable standards of beauty, but, truly, it is just gross. And the Grimms seem to relish it, describing how the sisters grit their teeth, how the blood "spurts" from the shoe, staining their white stockings."
I don't think that would qualify as wholesome children's fare. Therefore it was sanitized, and lobotomized, by Disney for consumption by children.

TV pop stars? Check that too.
After the toddler fascination with Disney, the girls are primed for more salacious stuff.
"By the time girls are five, after all, the human Disney Princess du jour is meant to supplant the animated ones in their hearts. Miley. Lindsay. Hilary. Even, once upon a time, Britney (who launched her career in 1993 as a Mouseketeer on The All-New Mickey Mouse Club). All were products of the Disney machine. Each girl's rise became fodder for another media fairy tale, another magical rags-to-riches transformation to which ordinary girls could aspire."
Take Britney Spears for instance. Unlike Madonna, who was the "Material Girl", "Britney, on the other hand, publicly insisted on her chastity (at least for a while). She was not only a loud-and-proud virgin, urging other girls to follow her example, but acted willfully clueless about the disconnect between her words and deeds."
"It was her stubborn disingenuousness - her winking detachment from her actions and impact - that eroticized Britney's (not so) innocence and, unintentionally or not, that of the millions of elementary school-aged girls who slavishly followed her."
Even "Hannah is by no means perfect: the show filters its sunny lessons (usually some version of "be yourself") through the lens of celebrity, subtly suggesting that famousness itself is the greatest possible achievement - even as it denies that is the case."

The challenge arises, for parents and children alike, because to be different means to conform to the current norms of sexualized behavior. To truly assert individuality is a short, fast, and one-way ticket to social ostracism.
"A century ago, female self-improvement did not presume a stint under the scalpel, hours at the gym, or even a trip to the cosmetics counter. In her indispensable book The Body Project (Kindle e-book), the historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg wrote that for girls growing up before World War I, becoming a better person meant being less self-involved: helping others, focusing on schoolwork, becoming better read, cultivating empathy." 
Imagine if this were to be the avowed goals of a teenage girl today. You cannot begin to imagine the blunt barbs she would be subject to. "No one wants her child to be the sacrificial lamb to a cause. No one wants her daughter to feel excluded by her peers, to be ostracized for having the wrong clothes, hair, or pop preferences. No one wants her daughter to be caricatured on a bumper sticker."
Choices for girls have been reduced to either being ""for the boys" - dress for them, perform sexually for them, play the supportive friend or girlfriend", or ""one of the boys," an outspoken, feisty girl who hangs with the guys and doesn't take shit." Some choice, huh?
"The trouble is, Brown and Lamb say, being "one of the boys" is as restrictive as the other option"

Social media is doing its bit to worsen the situation. According to "Adriana Manago, a researcher at the Children's Digital Media Center in Los Angeles who studies college students' behavior on MySpace and Facebook, young people's real-life identities are becoming ever more externally driven, sculpted in response to feedback from network "friends."" ... "The impact, back in the offline world, appears to be an uptick in narcissistic tendencies among young adults."

What is the solution? Not very clear. The book does not seek to provide solutions, it does do a good job of making us aware to the lay of the land, so to say. It is perhaps unreasonable, unfair, and overly ambitious to expect one book to provide not only all the questions, but also the answers. In summary, a good eye-opener of a book, but needs to be supplemented by more reading. The bibliography at the end should provide a useful starting point.

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© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.