I just finished the audio book of Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, by Peggy Orenstein. Confession: I have also read this book twice, and it’s sitting on a bookshelf in my sister’s room. So in short, I find it fascinating.
Amazon’s description of it reads (in part):
“Pink and pretty or predatory and hardened, sexualized girlhood influences our daughters from infancy onward, telling them that how a girl looks matters more than who she is. Somewhere between the exhilarating rise of Girl Power in the 1990s and today, the pursuit of physical perfection has been recast as a source—the source—of female empowerment. And commercialization has spread the message faster and farther, reaching girls at ever-younger ages.
… From premature sexualization to the risk of depression to rising rates of narcissism, the potential negative impact of this new girlie-girl culture is undeniable—yet armed with awareness and recognition, parents can effectively counterbalance its influence in their daughters’ lives.
Cinderella Ate My Daughter is a must-read for anyone who cares about girls, and for parents helping their daughters navigate the rocky road to adulthood.”
Orenstein herself is a mother of a young girl. She talks about her own personal battles with these issues, but also offers solutions to combat this girlie-girl culture.
One thing she doesn’t explicitly mention is how great, and probably even necessary, this book is for educators. It’s useful for anyone who is a role model for children, but is written mainly for parents or family members. Educators, too, play a formative role in a child’s life, and as a future teacher, I see her ideas from that point of view. As I listened, I made all kinds of connections to education, so I’d like to share a few with you.
First, why is this book important for educators? For one, it introduces them to this “girlie-girl” culture that pervades America. Teachers must understand the culture in which girls are growing up and participating (not all, but many), for teaching cannot and does not take place in a vacuum. The more a teacher understands about our culture, the more likely is it that she will be able to engage with her students. And two, it offers solutions to the problems this culture creates, which teachers can actually use in the classroom.
Problem #1: Girls are taught that their value as a person is linked almost exclusively to their appearance. It’s not enough for teachers to ask girls to put make-up away or stop taking selfies during class. The point isn’t to stop the action in the moment, it’s to adjust girls’ attitudes about themselves and their education for the long-term. Solution: Teachers can make a conscious effort to compliment a girl on things besides her appearance. It’s hard! Complimenting hair or clothes is a natural way for females to “grease the wheels of conversation.” But teachers should try. Compliment their good ideas, their skill, or their kindness. Make conversation about their latest read, or how band rehearsal went, or how the soccer game turned out. Focus on their abilities and inner qualities, for these are the most valuable. Teachers of younger children can set up compliment baskets for students to leave messages for their classmates. Make sure they understand that they should try to talk about more than just possessions or outward appearances.
Problem #2: Girls are earning the majority of degrees in this country, yet the numbers of females in STEM fields are declining. STEM teachers should aim to give leadership opportunities to all students, to let girls chime in during class discussions (Sheryl Sandberg says that girls are more likely to be scolded for interrupting with raising their hand than boys are), and to praise girls’ achievements to her classmates. We expect boys to do well in these fields because of cultural stereotypes. Therefore, teachers must make an effort to show no bias towards them while still including them equally. Again, this is difficult. If there are more boys in an engineering class, then of course more boys will be called on than girls. Teachers, be creative! Do a female STEM pioneer of the month corner. Get a female computer scientist to come talk to the class. Girls need to feel valued and competent in these fields from their first encounters with them, or they run the risk of dropping out.
Problem #3: Girls and boys know that pink is a girl color. This one’s more for the preschool and elementary teachers. Adults know this statement about pink isn’t true, but kids don’t. Because this is what they see wherever they go.
Boys consistently get more variety in color and type of plaything. Action figures and building sets in blue, brown, red, green, and orange! Girls are often limited to pinks, purples, and yellows, as well as playthings that don’t do much of anything. Princess dolls with brushes, lipstick, and a purse! There’s something inherently secondary about girls’ toys, or so marketers would have us believe with signs like this.
Teachers should be sure to encourage everyone to play with all the different types of toys and playthings present in the classroom. Cross-sex play should be praised to the class (“Look how nicely Susan and Eric are playing together!”). Teachers can verbally encourage girls to use different colors in their artwork. And any boy who wishes to play with a doll or a kitchen set should, of course, be allowed to, but also praised. This is also a great conversation starter (“Do you have a family member who takes care of your baby brother or cooks dinner at home?”). Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with pink. But it’s important for girls to know that it’s not their only option.
Problem #4: Boys and girls are not taught enough about internet etiquette and privacy. We can’t make privacy laws at a rate that keeps how with how fast technology changes (well, maybe Massachusetts can). Older adults are often befuddled by technology and aren’t in a place to teach about safe limits. And parents are not always in the know about what their children do online or on their devices. Middle school and high school teachers should raise the idea of internet etiquette, safety, and privacy to their administrators. Schools can hold in-school seminars, discuss these issues during school pride sessions, or run half-semester or half-year classes. Technology teachers can turn this into a research project. Guidance counselors can communicate their willingness to work through privacy or cyber-bullying with students and their families. Administrators can enact cyber-bullying policies.
The main thing is that these solutions need to be part of a team effort. If only a few teachers are on board with these ideas, their effect will likely not be far-reaching. In daily interactions with colleagues, teachers should bring up some of these issues. Use Peggy Orenstein as a conversation starter!
I finished this audio book in about a week, mainly listening to it on my morning or evening walks using OverDrive. It’s loaded with statistics, anecdotes, research, and a fair amount of comical writing.
Orenstein’s website is also a great place to keep up with her research and this “girlie-girl culture.”