PEGGY ORENSTEIN: dispatches from the front lines of the new girIie-girl culture

(Rick Kleffel)

“I didn’t want her to think that there was anything she had to do because she was a girl.”  

Peggy Orenstein

Peggy Orenstein has a strong written voice; conversational and funny. As we sat down to talk at KUSP it was clear that she has mastered the difficult art of letting readers “hear” her speak. She arrived during the first day of Pledge Drive, and the station was in a rather chaotic state. But as both a mother and reporter, she’s used to chaos, and she adapted well as we convened not in the comfy spaces of the conference room, but instead, in a back office. Charles Kruger was there to record the interview on video, which proved to be a bit of a challenge in the confined spaces. But we eventually got set up and situated.

I’m not the prime audience for this book, but I really enjoyed it. I suspect that my take on Orenstein’s study of extreme consumerism was something of a surprise to the writer. I’m guessing that most readers don’t quickly identify the monster in this book. But it is clear that something is stalking American girls, and it is every bit as insidious as anything Wes Craven, or for that matter Stephanie Meyer, could dream up. Of course, it could actually be Stephanie Meyer doing the stalking.

Orenstein is an easygoing and entertaining reporter, who works from what I perceive to be an usual perspective. On one hand, she’s very interested in the academic studies of all stripes, and she finds some very interesting numbers and experiments to talk about. She sends herself out on hazardous assignments to cover the odious little-girl beauty pageants, but takes them and those who participate in them seriously enough to make the story complex and interesting. She’s a thorough and engaging reporter of facts.

But Orenstein also talks with great skill and passion about the influence of this marketing mania in her own life. Her daughter is right in the cross-hairs of the industry. She interviews the mothers of Daisy’s school friends and goes on trips to the American Girl store with friends and their daughters; but she leaves her own daughter behind. You can hear by following this link to the MP3 audio file of our feature-length, in-person conversation.

And here is the video:


Rick Kleffel’s review of Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein


Fear is a funny thing. The fear we feel for ourselves, and our own safety, is surely powerful and visceral. At gunpoint, we become different animals. But the fear we feel for our children is of a completely different order. If you even make us slightly worried about the fates of our children, we will come for your heads and take no prisoners.

The marketing executives at Disney had better step up their security in the wake of Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture. Orenstein was worried about the influence of consumer culture on her daughter, and so sought to understand its origins, its motivations, its goals. What she unearthed is as likely to give readers nightmares as any of the kidnapped-children scenarios that are the staple of television. Our precious little girls are born with a four billion dollar price on their heads. But the point of Orenstein’s book is to entertain and inform, not frighten. Cinderella Ate My Daughter embraces the absurdity of a culture that has sliced and diced our children into targeted profit sectors for longer than most of us could imagine.

Orenstein starts her quest with a gently self-mocking examination of her own fear—she was worried that if her first baby was a girl, she’d not be able to live up to the standards of motherhood so prominently promoted in our child- and youth-obsessed culture. Her child was a girl, and as her child grew, so too, did her curiosity. How did we arrive in this pink-painted world where her expensive pediatric dentist asked her three year-old daughter to, “sit in my special princess throne so I can sparkle your teeth?” Orenstein’s answer is engaging and compelling reading, no matter what your gender. Her book may be about mothers and daughters, but it is written for anyone who wants to wrap their brain around the intricacies of selling childhood to girls and their parents.

Orenstein’s prose is the key that unlocks what you might think will be the Young Ladies’ Room to a general audience. She’s an excellent non-fiction humorist, with an ability to directly address difficult issues with a wry sense of humor that keeps agendas at bay. She’s smart enough to make the reader laugh without undermining her own sharp observations. The book has an easygoing conversational tone that makes it engaging even when she’s imparting some pretty sobering statistics.

A keen sense of organization helps matters as well, because while Orenstein’s subject is sort of diffuse, her focus is not. Each chapter hones in on a different aspect of the commercialization of girls, from Barbies, Bratz and the American Girl dolls to the horrorshow beauty pageants to gender issues and life online. She mixes big-picture facts and studies with observations of her personal life fluidly, so we get the overview as well as the anecdote. She covers a lot of ground in a very compact work.

I’ll be honest and admit that I found the cover of Cinderella Ate My Daughter fairly frightening. It’s certainly an attention-getter, what with the pink sparkles that are likely to make first printings startlingly costly on the collector’s market. But Orenstein is a master at writing precise, lively prose that makes a point and makes you laugh. She’ll take you down a rabbit hole that you may not have known existed, and when you return the world around you will glow with a slightly pinkish absurdity.