My sister and I used to love to dress up in my mother’s old prom dress, which we found deep in a closet in the attic. It was a pale pink, with lots of fluffy petticoats. The flouncy skirt thrilled me. It rose up and whirled with me as I spun around and around.
This is not the sort of play that Peggy Orenstein is concerned about. She is not against sparkles and pink and ruffles and dress-up. In her new book, “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,” she doesn’t expose the dangerous world of imaginary play or throw cold water on girls’ choices about what they like.
Quite the contrary. This book is about how the marketing of the Disney Princesses hijacks girls’ imaginations and how the marketing of hyper-feminine, pink toys actually imposes limits and restrictions on girls, and primes them for early sexualization. We pretended we were many things, my sister and I, as we dragged the hem of that dress through the dirt in the back yard. But we never pretended to be Cinderella, or any other specific character. We could be anything and go anywhere our imaginations took us.
In “Cinderella,” Ms. Orenstein writes about all the many ways marketing pressures have infiltrated childhood. You knew “tweens” was a marketing concept that has since become seen as a true developmental stage. Did you know the concept of “toddler” was also first conceived as a way to sell more clothing to parents? Splitting people into ever-tinier categories has proved to be an effective way to boost profits, she says. In just the same way, the color pink, also, was discovered by marketers as a way to sell more stuff to girls and their parents.
In the book we read about this encounter with today’s girl culture:
I recalled taking Daisy to the park one day with a friend who had a pink Hello Kitty scooter and matching helmet. Daisy’s scooter was silver; her helmet sported a green fire-breathing dragon.“How come your helmet’s not pink?” her friend asked. “It’s not a girls’ one.”
So in other words, girls are getting the message that pink is for them, and if it’s not pink, then it’s not for them. How does that message translate to a girl at the toy shop, where among all the many Lego construction kits, there is just one that is pink?
Another thing I used and abused in the back yard was my big yellow Tonka dump truck. I can see it now in my minds’ eye, sitting rustily atop a heap of dirt among the trees and shrubs. I guess Tonka wouldn’t approve, today. Ms. Orenstein recently went to a toy convention at which the Tonka slogan was “Boys: They’re just built different.”
How have we managed to come so far, and yet go so far backwards? Why the hard line between boy toys and girl toys, today more than ever? One simple answer: profit.
When Peggy Orenstein first wrote on this topic for the New York Times Magazine, she said, the piece got a ton of attention, and the responses ran about 50 percent positive: “Thank god someone finally said this.” And 50 percent negative: “You are a bad mother and I feel sorry for your daughter.”
How quickly attitudes can change. Her mail in response to the book, she said, has been running 97 percent positive.
I would recommend this book to any parent of girls. But more than that, I recommend to it everyone. Because this is not a parenting issue. This is a social justice issue. The limitations pushed onto girls for the sake of profit effects our whole society and culture. It’s not hard to see the connection between limiting girls today, and limiting women tomorrow. It’s an easy, quick read. But it’s a truth that’s hard to read.