Peggy Orenstein’s Schoolgirls, when it was released in 1994, like other feminist works of the 1990s, questioned, probed, revealed, and prompted changes and shifts in education, the work place and social interactions. Her book, like Myra and David Sadker’s Failing at Fairness, unearthed the obstacles that were still hindering girls and women in terms of education, participation in academic life, and in careers. Both books relied heavily upon research, but Orenstein’s book went beyond statistics and studies to clearly report upon and identify the sexual harassment that was routine and tacitly accepted that it took legislation, agitation and grassroots organizing to force schools and institutions to own up and take measures to protect the rights of women and girls.
Her book so impressed me that I used it as a cornerstone in my own graduate work in education. It also was so compelling that a number of my then current students, middle schoolers themselves, read it and saw in it the reflection of their own experiences. We started a group that met at lunch, eventually called Towanda, and forced awareness and action by our school. Our group led to the creation of a sexual harassment policy and procedures, awakening on the part of the faculty and parents, and empowerment for the girls. The group became so large that the cafeteria was virtually deserted on Towanda lunch meeting days.
The girls of Towanda even managed to get Peggy Orenstein to come to our school to talk (and of course, promote her book). It was quite a moment of accomplishment for the girls and an opportunity for our school to reflect upon its growth and the challenges ahead.
When Orenstein’s new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girlie Girl Culture, was released, I bought it with high expectations and a hope for something equally as compelling and groundbreaking as Schoolgirls. I have been disappointed, though I have found moments of insight and new knowledge in Orenstein’s latest contribution to feminist studies.
Maybe Schoolgirls wasn’t as groundbreaking as I remember, and perhaps I am unfair in my assessment and my high expectations for Cinderella Ate My Daughter, but I wanted a more thoughtful analysis. Orentstien’s emphasis on allowing girls in general, and her own daughter in particular, to explore their femininity and to express it, is what I took issue with. My own leanings in this direction are to consider “femininity” a constructed notion. Orenstein’s frequent references to the behaviors that make us women seemed to suggest that those characteristics were specifically sexed rather than performances we all reject, embrace, or shift in our own identity-making. Orenstein’s use of the whore/angel dichotomy to suggest that there is something to the bad girl/good girl set of behaviors made me wonder how women fall into the habit of blaming, naming and ostracizing what we perceive to be “otherness.” Her work and research when it comes to the commercialism of girlhood is right on target. She examines American Girl Dolls, the nature of Disney’s marketing of all things princess, and even the alarmingly aggressive marketing world of make up and fashion for girls as young as six.
However, one of the problems with the book is that Orenstein assumes, perhaps correctly, a readership that is upper middle class, affluent, highly educated and urban. The New York Times tripped all over themselves to endorse her book (Orenstin writes columns for the NYT magazine). As I read about the amount of disposable income that is spent on the increasingly commercialized products that are marketed to young children, I wondered if the reality is quite different for families with less disposable income. Do these girls and families suffer from the same mind-numbing lack of imaginative play because of the proliferation of princess idealism? Or does a lack of disposable income inoculate one against the crushing demand of buying a sense of self and identity? There really is no need to wonder since Orenstein helpfully includes the billions of dollars earned each year by Disney, Mattel and others on sales to children. However, what she fails to address is that the people who are supporting these giants of pop culture are by and large the upper middle class. Those people have choices to make when it comes to how they spend their money. However, the compulsion to purchase, when it comes to Disney, Mattel, or American Girl Doll, is the same for adults who purchase whatever is fashionable and heavily marketed. How do these things convince us that we know who we are? Does this accumulation of goods inherently change us?
Orenstein believes that the princess and pink proliferation is, in fact, limiting the scope of possibilities for girls, and to a degree, I concur. The tangling of affluence, technology, the pace of modern life, and the expectations of a stylized American family seem to be part and parcel of the erosion of childhood and its imaginative powers to create selves.
I was talking with a colleague about the “good old days” which were not so good. But as we reminisced about the movie The Color Purple and the ways in which African American women in that film seem to have more options for defining themselves relationally to each other and the culture, we wondered about the toll of a modern life in which the lens of technology captures and mires our every choice, move and experimental self. As Americans have grown in affluence, or at least a portion of the population has grown to expect a certain lifestyle, and as we have also exposed ourselves and our children to the onslaught of a technology that is still in its infancy, have we lost the ability to see, create, feel, imagine a self outside of products that fill our every moment?