posted April 21, 2009

After I posted last night, I realized I’m not done yet with Barbies and princesses, particularly one named Cinderella.

I don’t know how Lila heard about Cinderella. I certainly didn’t tell her that story, although it’s certainly the fairy tale I know best. I remember begging my grandmother (Lila) to tell me the story of Cinderella over and over again. The dear, patient woman did so, changing up the details (like Cinderella’s clothes) with each telling, but not changing the overall structure or plot, or evilness of the step-sisters (whose great crime seemed to be ugliness combined with envy). My mother, as you might have guessed, hated Disney and fairy tales in general and refused to indulge my love for Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and the like. My mother was a tomboy and wanted me to love Willie Mays as much as she did. She didn’t get my fascination with dolls and the color pink.

When I was seventeen or eighteen, my aunt Jenifer, a psychiatrist, gave me Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, and I felt entirely vindicated in my love of fairy tales. I was right and my mother was wrong, I concluded: my usual conclusion about everything at that time in my life. Bettelheim’s thesis was that fairy tales (myths) are necessarily terrifying and disturbing. They provide an essential function for young people to work out their struggles and fears and their understanding of how society works in a symbolic, external way. Since fear is an integral part of life, we must learn to walk through it, not avoid it or be protected from it. I took this to mean that solutions can be found in all sorts of ways, from creating community (“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”) to finding what fits “just right” (“Goldilocks and the Three Bears”).

Bettelheim writes: “Psychoanalysis was created to enable man to accept the problematic nature of life without being defeated by it, or giving in to escapism. Freud’s prescription is that only by struggling courageously against what seems like unwieldy odds can man succeed in wringing meaning out of existence.” (P.8)

Bettelheim goes on to reject the modern equivalents of fairy tales, the Disney-isation (softening aspects) of the stories. I happily championed him for years until I learned that he also subscribed to a horrifying theory of why kids become autistic that had to do with the “frigidity” of the mother.

And, looking at the fairy tales from my current perspective, I do have to say that they did a number on me. The fairy tales are cultural myths–reflections of the social order of our times as well as containing iconic truths––but the ones I loved the most (Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty) reflect a decidedly sexist paradigm. The prince has the power to choose his partner; Cinderella is only able to show up for her opportunities as they appear (the fairy godmother, the ball, the kitchen where she is reunited with her shoe). Life is about paying attention to the opportunities, I deduced, not (as it was for my male counterparts in the Jack and Beanstalks of the world) about walking through fear or using cleverness to overcome brute force. And if you had the curse of being a selfish, vain, envious older sister, you were doomed. (Rats.)

Yet Lila loves princesses, and I loved princesses, and I don’t want to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. How can I as her mother and chief storyteller rework Cinderella? This is my challenge. After all, I wrote a whole album of reworked folk songs (myths). I’ll let you know how it goes.

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  1. I was a crazed, obsessed princess fan as a child. I also had a near-complete allergy to feminist re-working of fairy tales because they set off my BS detector (which is quite honed in children, a fact a lot of adults forget). Like “The Paper Bag Princess” is a delight, but it had me rolling my eyes. My suggestion is to go ahead and tell the princess stories, but also talk about what happens after the Happily Ever After. Princesses become queens and run countries, after all. (the history-related BS detector takes longer to develop.) You could pepper Cinderella with stories of princesses with more agency, even the aforementioned Paper Bag Princess. And it’s a chapter book, so it will have to wait, but I loved The Ordinary Princess by MM Kaye to pieces when I was a little girl. The princess makes her own choices and it has enough fairies and pretty dresses to keep the BS detectors at bay.

  2. Oh, I also loved the Ordinary Princess, so very much. There are also (chapter) books by Patrica C. Wrede about a princess who runs away to live with dragons on purpose, and becomes the chief cook and librarian to the (female) king of the dragons. Those books did not set off my bullshit detector at all. And then there are the Oz books, with Ozma and Dorothy as princesses.

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