Cinderella Ate My Daughter is a nonfiction book by a journalist, Peggy Orenstein, who set out to explore and understand the way gender stereotypes are marketed to young girls. This book asks questions about the way that portrayals of gender in culture, marketing, and media influence female children and adolescents. Orenstein concludes that our culture’s aggressive gender stereotyping of female children and adolescents can have long-term negative effects on women. The conclusions she draws in Cinderella Ate My Daughter are supported by theories of developmental psychology.
In Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Orenstein explores cultural gender stereotyping in spaces typically occupied by girls and young women, though the lens of her own experiences as a mother. She confronts ideas like why the color pink has become such a powerful marketing tool to attract girls and women. She looks at the culture of marketing fictional princesses to girls, such as Disney princesses. She explores current trends of performative femininity in adolescents, like sexual behavior of pop stars, and young girls’ sexting and sexual behavior on social media (Orenstein, 2012). And, in the midst of all of her studies of marketing, business, and gender, she weaves in insights about developmental psychology.
Orenstein uses developmental psychology to explain the powerful effect of gender-based marketing on young girls. She points out that, until children reach the age of about seven years old, they believe that external signs and symbols have the power to determine their gender. For example, young girls may believe that their choice of toys, clothing, or even their favorite movie may dictate what gender they are. Therefore, it is unsurprising that gender-based marketing, like the heavy use of pink for toys marketed to girls, is so attractive to these children (Orenstein, 2012). "That’s why 4-year-olds, who are in what is called ‘the inflexible stage,’ become the self-appointed chiefs of the gender police," Orenstein notes. It is “the precise moment that girls need to prove they are girls, when they will latch onto the most exaggerated images their culture offers in order to stridently shore up their femininity” (Orenstein, 2012, p. 61).
A Topical Approach to Life-Span Development supports this conclusion. When children are at the age to first enter school, they will tailor their behaviors to imitate the gender roles in their culture. This is known as gender-typing, a behavior pattern where the child adopts a traditional gender role (Santroc, 2014).
In Cinderella Ate My Daughter, when Orenstein finally understands the psychological basis for her daughter’s gender stereotyping behavior, she expresses concern over whether she should minimize her daughter’s consumption of hyperfeminine culture. To answer this question, Orenstein explores the way that these childhood behaviors can impact one’s decisions later in life, as a teenager or an adult. In her research, she speaks to a psychologist who explains that there is a correlation between young children who have friendships with the opposite sex, and healthy romantic relationships later on, in adolescence. Orenstein also speaks with Carol Martin and Richard Fabes, professors of child development. They express concern about the long-term effects of young girls and boys playing separately. Fabes notes, “This is a public health issue. That divergence of behavior and communication skills in childhood becomes….part of the reason we have the divorce rates we do, domestic violence, dating violence, stalking behaviors” (Orenstein, 2012, p. 69).
Orenstein also learned about research studies that suggested that gender stereotyping in childhood can impact a child’s interest in future careers. This is a dangerous idea when their brains are in a period of high neuroplasticity. In one study, when young girls watched two brief gender stereotyped advertisements and then answered questions about their potential career choices, the girls expressed reduced interest in STEM careers compared to the control group (Orenstein, 2012). This led Orenstein to conclude that the aggressive gender stereotyping in marketing had far more harmful and long-term effects than a childhood where a girl asks for too many pink toys.
The long-term effects of a childhood full of aggressive gender stereotyping can be explained by the gender schema theory. The gender schema theory is a cognitive theory which posits that children gradually assimilate information about gender roles in their culture and they slowly form a gender schema based on this information. Children want to match their behavior to gender schemas. This can have a broad impact on a child’s life beyond their choices of toys, clothing, or other superficial outward signs of gender. Gender schemas can influence a young child’s interest in, or rejection of, an academic subject or future career (Santroc, 2014). For example, a young girl might reject her interest in a STEM subject if she perceives it as gender-inappropriate based on her gender schema for her culture.
Research has supported these concerning conclusions about gender schemas and careers. In 2000, researchers asked questions of children, ages 3-7, to determine their interest in careers that were considered traditionally feminine or masculine. The children believed that women were better at stereotypically feminine jobs, and men were better at stereotypically masculine jobs. The researchers also found an even more worrisome trend: they found that girls would be pleased to grow up and work in a stereotypically feminine job, but they would be upset if they grew up to work in a stereotypically masculine job. The boys had the reverse reaction, also following gender schemas (Santroc, 2014).
Orenstein also discusses developmental stages after childhood. She explores the way that gender roles in our culture can affect mental health in adolescent girls. Orenstein observes that as girls moved into adolescence, the performative femininity of young girls, which is full of innocent icons like princesses, becomes more overtly sexual. As a result, sexuality for adolescent girls can “become a performance, something to ‘do’ rather than to ‘experience’” (Orenstein, 2012, p. 171). Female adolescent behaviors like sexting and normalization of sexual harassment at school are a form of performative femininity and detachment from their own sexual development. Since early sexualization can have a harmful effect on the mental health of adolescents, this is concerning (Orenstein, 2012).
A Topical to Life-Span Development confirms this. People are influenced by sexual scripts in their culture. Examples of sexual scripts are a romantic sexual script where people develop romantic feelings for each other and have sex to express it, or a religious script where people have sex after marriage in order to get the woman pregnant. However, if the sexual scripts in an adolescent’s culture are based on gender stereotypes or double standards for gender, then young women will likely follow those scripts (Santroc, 2014). Orenstein observes that sexual scripts in our culture can have a harmful effect on adolescent females. For example, calling an adolescent female a slut if she has sex, when an adolescent male is not subject to the same ridicule, can have a harmful effect on adolescent female mental health (Orenstein, 2012).
Adolescence is a period of growth where young people explore their new interest in sexuality. And yet, adolescent sexual behaviors are heavily influenced by media, as media can influence sexual scripts in any culture. In 2010, the American Academy of Pediatrics explained that all forms of media are becoming more sexually explicit – an important observation, because sex-centric media influences adolescent behavior. A research study from around the same time indicated that adolescents who visited websites with sexually explicit content had more sexual partners compared to a control group (Santroc, 2014).
Orenstein’s book is a powerful exploration of the way that aggressive gender stereotyping in our culture can affect child gender schemas and performative femininity, and how these behaviors can lead to mental health issues, dysfunctional relationships, and self-limiting career and academic decisions as children grow older. Cinderella Ate My Daughter explains the developmental psychology theories behind gender-based marketing and cultural gender stereotyping, and the importance of understanding this psychology and its long-term effects on developing girls.
Orenstein, P. (2012). Cinderella ate my daughter: Dispatches from the front lines of the new girlie-girl culture. Pymble, Australia: HarperCollins.
Santroc, J. (2014). A topical to life-span development (7th ed.). Dallas TX: McGraw-Hill.