Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, By Amy Chua, Penguin Press, 235 pages, $25.95
Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, By Peggy Orenstein, Harper, 244 pages, $25.99
It's hard to read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua's memoir of her descent into sadistically disciplined parenting, as anything other than a fabulously successful publishing hoax. In case you missed the hoopla, this story of harsh, ambitious, and unrelenting parenting has turned Chua, a Yale Law professor, into the woman everyone either loves to hate or wants to emulate. With smug confidence, she relates how she set out to make sure that her two girls, Sophia and Lulu, would be straight-A students and never engage in any activity in which they might not win a (gold) medal. A-minuses led to massive drilling at home, and even poorly executed birthday cards the girls made were thrown back in their faces. "I don't want this," she told Lulu, age 4, about the card the girl made for her mother. "I want a better one -- one that you've put some thought and effort into."
And then there's the music: At age 5, Sophia, the elder, was made to practice an hour and a half every day, and as the girls grew, Chua demanded that they spend three, four, five, even six hours a day on their instruments, following intricately written out instructions from their mother (several of which Chua reproduces in the book). There were no play dates -- in fact, no evidence of playtime at all. Chua shouts, she threatens, she insults and demeans. She and her husband find teeth marks -- young Sophia's -- on the piano keys. Even Chua's own mother, who employed similar tactics on Chua, tells her to back off. And we bridle at Chua all the more because she says every achievement of her daughters' is the happiest day of her own life; the Herculean effort she counts not as her daughters' but as her own.
Oh, what hand-wringing ensued after this book's publication! Was American parenting too lax? Was "Chinese" parenting too strict? Was Chua admirable, abusive, or maybe just a bitch?
But really, can anyone take Chua's arrogance seriously? The book is pure self-parody, the nuances of an intelligent family stripped away, the moral of each story so obviously laid out even a small child could understand it. In an early chapter, for example, Chua introduces Lulu, age 3, to the piano and asks her to play a single note steadily three times. Lulu bangs on the keys: "When I asked her to stop, she smashed harder and faster. When I tried to pull her away from the piano, she began yelling, crying, and kicking furiously." So Chua takes the girl and throws her out into the frigid winter air, telling her, "You can't stay in the house if you don't listen to Mommy." I read this chapter to my 7-year-old son, who wisely suggested Chua "wasn't making good choices."
Even Chua admitted to The New York Times that she "meant to be ironic and self-mocking." Yet there was her audience gone wild, anger mixed in various proportions with envy, while Chua marched to the bank with her book advance, reported as $800,000.
From a pure entertainment point of view, Chua's book gets high marks. The author sets herself up to be knocked down: It's easy to speed through her simple prose waiting for her comeuppance, which arrives in spectacular form. Still, both as a parent and as a feminist, I have to admit Chua's book stayed with me longer than I expected. Countless woman-hours have been devoted to the question of how to raise confident and competent girls in this media-saturated world: Does watching Disney princess narratives or playing with Barbie in early childhood lead to excessive femininity, inhibit girls' leadership, and possibly engender more serious problems like eating disorders? Does the social networking of girls and the now ubiquitous Web-based presence of sex lead them in dangerous directions? While millions of mothers wonder what message to send and what media to restrict, Chua's narrative offers an alternative: Just say no.
There's little in the life Chua created for her family that most of us would wish to emulate. But I do give a nod to her notion that many contemporary parents may be too lax in communicating their values to their children. Contemporary American child-raising philosophy elevates self-determination, encouraging children to follow their own interests and find their own paths. But with the flashy and persistent appeal of Justin Bieber or Hannah Montana, is it possible to expect kids to resist? Chua says she banned TV, computer games, play dates, and sleepovers. This may be extreme, but I have to agree with her that our kids, and our girls in particular, might do better with a little less self-determination and a little more explicit and sometimes strongly worded guidance. If we can peel away the layers of Chua's parody, she has a small bit of wisdom to offer.
The value of some toned-down version of Chua's crazy discipline comes more clearly into relief when you look at the cultural context explored in Peggy Orenstein's Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Orenstein's book is a worrywart's guide, a 10-chapter tour of the dangers our little princesses face as they walk through the modern forest of hypersexualization and media saturation. It is, I think, also a failed effort to stake out feminist territory against that culture. Walking on the yellow brick road of parenting, Chua may have lacked a heart, but Orenstein -- seemingly overwhelmed by the culture she is reporting on -- lacks nerve.
It is, of course, not hard to be overwhelmed. When Orenstein first published "What's Wrong with Cinderella?" in The New York Times Magazine on Christmas Eve 2006, the author had a bit of a shopping-day scoop. While millions of Americans did their last-minute race through the aisles strewn with princess dolls, princess dresses, princess handbags, and whatever else was being pitched for little girls that year, Orenstein had done a little digging and discovered that this was a craze that had originated only six years before, when Disney Consumer Products created the "Princess" line of products. Sales of those products quickly rose to $3 billion globally by 2006, Orenstein reported, from $300 million in 2001 (and that's not even counting the copycat options from other companies). "Princess," she found, was "not only the fastest-growing brand the company has ever created; they say it is on its way to becoming the largest girls' franchise on the planet."
At almost 5,000 words, the article offered a perfect bit of insight into the marketing genius that was driving little girls dizzy with desire. She even found the Disney executive, Andy Mooney, and described his aha! moment at his first Disney on Ice show. "Standing in line in the arena, I was surrounded by little girls dressed head to toe as princesses," he told Orenstein. But -- shocking -- "they weren't even Disney products. They were generic princess products they'd appended to a Halloween costume. ... So the next morning I said to my team, 'O.K., let's establish standards and a color palette and talk to licensees and get as much product out there as we possibly can that allows these girls to do what they're doing anyway.'" It was news to me, mother of a pre-princess-aged girl. I thought maybe Disney princess had always been there, waiting for me and my daughter to come along.
That article appears, in various places, throughout Orenstein's spin-off book. Unfortunately, like many spin-offs, sequels, and other marketing ploys, the original is the only decent product. Problem No. 1 is that the girlie-girl culture isn't so new anymore. Padded out with half-baked analyses of tired subjects -- child beauty pageants (Chapter title: "Sparkle, Sweetie"), Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears ("Wholesome to Whoresome"), the mixed legacy of Barbie and American Girl dolls, and the proliferation of pink -- the book adds very little to the original (admittedly somewhat slim) insight that girls may be falling, unnaturally, for a massive form of aspirational marketing. Essentially, in order to get to the belly of the beast, Orenstein grabbed her daughter Daisy's hand and went shopping.
What a tremendous opportunity missed. For anyone who needs to come in contact with girlie-girl culture, there are many questions worth asking. And Orenstein does ask them. "Did playing Cinderella shield [girls] from early sexualization or prime them for it? Was walking around town dressed as Jasmine harmless fun, or did it instill an unhealthy fixation on appearance?" The problem is that Orenstein's book is so filled with cutesy musings, personal anecdotes, and sloppy speculation that it's hard to find answers to take seriously.
If you concentrate hard, you can find a few bits of data in Orenstein's Cinderella story that are useful. While playing princess hasn't been shown to damage self-esteem or aspirations, Orenstein finds "ample evidence" that the more mainstream media girls consume, the more importance those girls place on being pretty and sexy, and that the girls who focus more on being pretty and sexy "are less ambitious and more likely to be depressed than their peers." In a study of college women, those who watched TV ads showing cliched images of women demonstrated an immediate, measurable reduction in interest in math- and science-related careers when compared with peers who were shown neutral ads.
What's really a shame in this book is that, even in the face of such evidence, Orenstein, the loudly self-proclaimed feminist, seems unwilling to make any feminist argument about the need to protect girls from the hyper-gendered, media-saturated, consumer-culture-focused world. If commercialized childhood drives Orenstein mad, why doesn't she resist more strongly both as a writer and as a parent? In one scene, we find her in a toy store with her 5-year-old daughter, trying to choose a birthday gift for a friend's "princess loving" daughter. The girl's mother, "and all of the other moms who would be at the party," Orenstein writes, "would be watching, skeptical and bemused, to see if I could come up with a viable alternative." One has to wonder, wouldn't a bookstore have done the trick?
By her own admission, it is parents who buy, and buy into, the princess culture to begin with, and it is here that Orenstein shows her hand: She is everywoman, wringing her hands over the girlie-girl culture yet somehow taken in by it as well: "Don't we all feel our girls are extraordinary, unique, and beautiful? Don't we want them to share that belief for as long as possible, to think that -- just by their existence, by birthright -- they are the chosen ones? Wouldn't we like their lives to be forever charmed, infused with magic and sparkle?"
Well, no. Raising a daughter as a feminist means rejecting exactly those sparkly ambitions in exchange for better ones. Orenstein simply protests too much. In the one useful chapter of her book, on social networking and girlie culture, Orenstein finds a fascinating researcher who studies the effect of social media on identity, on what it means when girls' "thoughts, photos, tastes, and activities are laid out for immediate approval or rejection by hundreds of people, many of whom are relative strangers." Certainly the distorting effect of the mirror on the esteem and accomplishments of girls is well known, yet Orenstein won't begin to argue against widespread and nonstop participation in the new social media. "I would like to ignore the online world of kids," she writes. "I would rather Daisy spend her time honing her identity on an offline playground than an online one." But, but, but. With Orenstein there is always a "but." Orenstein will not put her foot down on behalf of Daisy, nor will she take the logical step for the sake of her argument.
It's a lesson the decidedly conventional Orenstein might take from the decidedly off-the-wall Chua. Would it be wrong for us feminist mothers to be as clear as Chua in what we expect from our girls? Wouldn't it be possible to steer them away from Disney princesses and social networking simply by being firm?
Orenstein does advise us that sometimes you just have to say no, but by the end of the book, she confesses: "I wish I could tell you that I had reached my own goals: getting my daughter outside more, taking walks in the woods together, playing sports, making art. Occasionally I have -- and I advocate all of that -- but mostly, I have just gotten a lot more canny about how we participate in the consumer culture." Here's an offer, Peggy: Grab your paintbrushes -- we'll meet you in the woods.