Uncovering Cinderella: An Interview With Peggy Orenstein

by Leviana Coccia

I was born in 1990, a year before my favourite childhood movie exploded into VCRs all over the world. To my childhood self, Beauty and the Beast was a story about a young woman who appreciated books and found love in all the hopeless places – in living in a dungeon, cold and hungry to save her father, in a simple life with no need for muscular, selfish princes and in a hideous beast who didn’t have the most appealing personality or face (until he learned to love himself). This perception is what led to my love of reading and writing and to also loving things that aren’t always beautiful on the surface (for example, when I would buy a pet fish as a kid, I’d pick the one with the weirdest eyes). In my head, I was Belle.

Little did I know that my growing obsession with princess movies would impact my psychological health and how I perceived myself. I didn’t know that watching uber thin cartoon characters with big, seductive eyes, flawless skin and no desire to do anything but find a man to fall fabulously in love with was going to contribute to how I appreciated (didn’t appreciate, rather) my body and my inner person.

I didn’t grow up saying to myself, “I need to be a Disney character,” but I definitely thought pretty girls were the ones in the media I consumed throughout my childhood, preteen and teen years and even now, as an adult. I could never relate to the women and girls in popular culture and that really impacted how I felt when I did simple things like wear shorts in the summer or get a hair cut I thought would make me look like a celebrity featured on the front page of J-14 Magazine.

After a constant struggle with self-appreciation and self-esteem, I decided to focus my undergraduate research paper on what made it hard for me to accept myself. I called it: Disney princesses posing a royal problem.

A huge premise for my paper was a book called Cinderella Ate My Daughter, a New York Times best-seller by award-winning author, journalist and editor, Peggy Orenstein. Beginning with stories about Orenstein’s now 12-year-old daughter, Daisy, who was immersed in princess culture because of both the media available to consume and interactions with others in everyday life (even her dentist), this book added fuel to my fire in learning more about misconceptions of self in young girls.

On the 4th of July, 2015, Orenstein spoke with me about this book, her family, the inspiration her daughter gives her and the reason she absolutely loves writing about girls. I will be forever grateful.

“I wish I could remember where the inspiration for that title came from,” Orenstein said. “It was because it happened,” she added, laughing.

When Daisy was three, Orenstein had not been in the world of children because her daughter is her first and suddenly, she couldn’t believe how much focus there was on princess culture. Understanding that playing prince and princess and king and queen was as old as time, Orenstein became upset at how girls were expected to not only play the princess, but also be dressed in pink, expressing their prettiness at all times.

Living in Berkeley, CA, Orenstein was even more shocked when she and her daughter would just walk around the city, one she calls the most liberal in the United States of America, and be face to face with forced princess-ness. “The guy in the supermarket would say, ‘Hello there princess,’ to my daughter, a lady at the drugstore would offer a balloon and say, ‘I know what colour you want, it’s pink.’

Orenstein bit her tongue when this kind of thing happened to her daughter, but what drove her to initially write an article in the New York Times called “What’s Wrong with Cinderella?” was a situation with her daughter’s dentist. When three-year-old Daisy arrived to get her teeth cleaned for the first time, the dentist said, “Would you like to sit in my special princess throne so I can sparkle your teeth?”

“I just thought, ‘Oh my god,’ Orenstein said. “Do you have like a princess drill? What the heck has happened here?” Orenstein could not remember this obsession with pink, sparkly things from her childhood and said because of her natural instinct, she dug deeper.

After writing the aforementioned piece in The Times, which she wanted on the front page, Orenstein received positive feedback, praising her for acknowledging the problems with princess culture. She also received extremely hurtful comments, calling her a bad mother, telling her to shut up and other feedback that is so bad, she has not even told her husband. Still, that article became one of the most emailed articles of all times. That’s when she realised there was more to be told.

“If this is a topic that gets people this mad, it’s something that needs to be further explored,” she said. Then, she spent a few years creating what would become Cinderella Ate My Daughter – her fourth book, one she said brought feedback that was entirely different. There was more common ground.

“People say this is a book about Disney and a book about princesses, but it’s really so much more than that. That’s only the first part of the book. What I really wanted to look at was the impact of the commercial culture on the sexualisation of girls and how that increases over time and what that does to them as girls and as they become young women. The stuff that happens with little girls seems ‘harmless,’ Orenstein said.

The biggest challenge with writing Cinderella Ate My Daughter was making these connections in a way that was entertaining, satirical and not too angry. “Quite frankly, I was really pissed off about it. What connects with people is a more funny, rye way of talking, which is really how I am in real life,” she said.

A self-defined pop-culture sponge, Orenstein’s first book, Schoolgirls, was about young women, self-esteem and body image. Though nothing in this book was too pop-culture heavy, Orenstein was writing a lot about pop-culture in her journalism career. Cinderella Ate My Daughter presented a challenge in finding common ground between the research, the academia, the pop-culture and the conversation.

“I wanted the book to feel like a journey I was taking, which is true, as a mother as well as a journalist to try and figure out these connections. It was hard because I get mad about how these girls are being brainwashed into being a certain way, focused on beauty and sexiness,” Orenstein said.

Currently writing her fifth book about girls and sex, set to be published in the spring of 2016, Orenstein said she still has to explain why she’s writing so much about girls, and not about boys. Still, Orenstein said she feels the negative stigma about feminists hating on genders that aren’t female is not as bad as it once was.

“We have people like Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer who have changed the climate enough that you can be a feminist and still be seen in a positive light,” Orenstein said. “There was a time when Selena Gomez was criticising Lorde who criticised her for having a music video that was too sexualised, and not feminist. Putting the argument aside, the idea that two of the world’s biggest pop stars are arguing over who is the bigger feminist is making feminism part of being a smart, aware young woman. It’s not a solution, but it’s a start.”

Her new book, primarily about how girls are sexual beings too, is an extension of the impacts of princess culture. Orenstein said she writes about girls because she loves to do it and it’s as simple as that. “It’s what’s inside of me. I just think young women are endlessly interesting and people still don’t listen to them and their experience,” she said. “There is still so much out there pushing them to deny who they are. It’s a confusing and contradictory time to be a young woman.”

Having written about girls and women for forever, Orenstein also said she doesn’t think she would keep writing about these topics if she didn’t have Daisy.

“You think you’ve gone through it all but then you see your pure child and you don’t want her hurt by this culture,” she said. “You have to start all over again because she has to figure out how to live with it and you have to figure out how to guide her. I just want my daughter to be able to be who she is as a female in the world. She’s a very creative girl, child and person,” Orenstein added.

At the end of our interview, Orenstein shared a touching story about Daisy as a baby that brought the entire experience of reading Cinderella Ate My Daughter home for me. I’ll leave you with the transcribed quote, below:

“I remember when she was a baby and she was on the floor in her diaper, rolling around, laughing and sticking her feet in her mouth and I thought – she takes so much joy and pleasure in her body right now. She feels good about it. I felt this sudden stabbing in my heart about what was going to happen with her as she got older. She was going to learn how every single part of that body was not good enough. I had no idea that when I had a child how much of my job was going to be protecting her from a predatory culture that wants to reduce who she is to how she looks. I don’t want that happening to my daughter.”

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