girl culture and the cute and the cool

In Cinderella Ate my Daughter, Peggy Orenstein explores a wide range of questions related to contemporary girlhood, from the marketing of the Disney Princess product line to the how biological differences between male and female brains are used to justify it.   Orenstein has done her homework, but the book is a personal exploration of her motherhood choices rather than a scholarly work.  I don't have a daughter, but the thought-provoking questions that Orenstein raises about the world of gender and the marketing of all things pink to girls are certainly important.  What stays with me most is her analysis of the Disney actress trajectory, from self-declared virgin to marketable sex symbol.  As she writes:  "...self-respect has become a marketing gimmick, a way for female pop stars to bide their time before serving up their sexuality as a product for public consumption." (p. 124)  It may be true that, just like we overestimate young people's technical abilities on a regular basis, we also overestimate their abilities to resist pervasive marketing.

A few choice quotes and moments:

"Toy choice turns out to be one of the largest differences between the sexes over the entire life span, bigger than anything except the preference (among most of us) for the other sex as romantic partners.  [...] That blinds us to the larger truth of how deeply those inborn biases are reinforced by a child's environment." (p. 63-64)

"The changes kids go through are so quick, so intense, and you are so bloody exhausted when they're happening.  It feels as though you'll never forget, but you always do." (p. 95)
(Hence the importance of aunts, uncles, and friends who can help parents remember the stories and experiences.)

Orenstein notes that Daniel Cook established that the word "toddler" is not a psychological phase but instead a marketing term invented in the 1930s. (p. 36)
She also describes the relative lack of female muppets as the "fur ceiling" (p. 40), a phrase that just cracks me up.
She mentions "the inflexible stage" that four-year-olds tend to go through (p. 61).

The Cute and the Cool by Gary Cross is another sweeping childhood studies history of all things child-related, with special focus on products and marketing, but this book is taking a solidly scholarly approach.  He explores the marketing of child images, to adults and children, and explores the ways that what started as "cute" or nostalgia for all child-related things transforms into "cool" in movies like Gremlins.


When the feminist revolution of the 1960s and 1970s removed that burden [of being an image of purity] from women, it was shifted to the child. (p. 6)

While we long to protect the young, sometimes we also fear them when they do not fit our image of innocence. (p. 9)

We see childhood as timeless, yet we shower the young with fads and innovation. (p. 13)

[During the 20th century...]  The child's 'secret garden' of innocence was increasingly filled with the images and values of an emerging consumer culture. (p. 15)

What had been the cute, ultimately controlled by parents, became the cool--the opposite of the cuddly and delightful. (p. 17)  [Cross says this started among boys in the 1930s with "dark science fiction stories"]

Interesting for Sarah Park...  Traditional adoption was of older children, who could work.
"A major change occurred when adoptive parents began to seek newborns.  The demand for infants rose from 19 to 21 percent of adoptions during the 1930s and 48 percent in 1950, 68 percent in 1960, and 98 precent by the end of the 1970s.  Increasingly couples wanted a baby who was 'cute and cuddly,' not an older child who might have been emotionally damaged by an orphanage or foster home." [...]  "This shift reveals the influence of psychological expertise but also the changing purpose of children in adult lives." (p. 30)

Pages 40-42 deal with child care instruction guides for parents, admonishing them not to "cuddle" and "indulge" too much.

"The original meaning of the 'cute' person was interchangeable with 'cunning,' a corruption of 'can,' meaning clever and crafty." (p. 43)

"Wondrous innocence and consumerism shared a common appeal--saying yes to desire. [...]  Is it any surprise that wonder so often prevailed over protection, delight over development?" (p. 81)

"In effect, adults like Disney invented the role of the wondrous child and expected real children to play it in the nostalgic setting of Main Street." (p. 115)

Other things to explore:
Paula Fass, The Damned and the Beautiful; American Youth in the 1920s

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