We've all heard this stuff. For me, it was just one of hundreds of experiences I've had reading or listening to the exact same criticism.
The criticism hits me with an extra pang of sorrow because I can see a lot of myself in it. There was a time in my life that I felt the need to stick my nose up at stories and books that other people enjoyed. There was such a satisfying feeling of intellectual superiority that came from this mindset. By proudly proclaiming that I would never read and enjoy such drivel, I was able to step on a metaphysical pedestal and look down on all the sheep surrounding me.
Ugh. Even now -- many years later, and long after turning away from this attitude -- even today I feel nauseated thinking about how I openly embraced such a miserable, condescending way of thinking.
Intellecutal superiority? What an empty, meaningless goal. It took time, but I have been able to realize that moral decency, moral goodness, and moral courage trump intellectual superiority every time. I don't care how smart my children are. I want them to seek their potential, but beyond that it doesn't matter. But I care deeply about how decent they are, as well as how courageously they stand for what is right -- even if it means standing alone.
But back to the Disney movies. And specifically, the one that I see cited most often as the poster-child of everything wrong with the Princess movies: Cinderella.
The criticisms tends to follow thus: Cinderella is passive and helpless. She is totally dependent on, first, the Fairy Godmother and later the Prince. Her only achievement is looking pretty enough that the prince marries her. It presents strong women as evil (the stepmother) and submissive, dominated women as good. Wear pretty clothes, go to the party, and make the superficial man fall in love with you. These are the lessons of Cinderella.
How strange that such a thematically bankrupt Fairy Tale is so popular.
Let's be honest, it's Cinderella who is the Disney Princess prototype -- even though she was not the first to be featured in a movie. But neither Aurora nor Snow White capture the idea of what it means to be a Princess like Cinderella. It's her magical dress, her magical night dancing at the ball, her final invite to the Prince's carriage -- these are what have captured girls' imaginations for decades.
But even outside of Disney, it's Cinderella that is told over and over. It's Cinderella that is featured in multiple Broadway musicals. It's Cinderella who finds herself a main protagonist in Into the Woods. It's Cinderella that finds her story re-told again and again. Even in my 5th grade reading textbook, in the Fairy Tale unit, it's the story of Cinderella that finds its way into the pages -- a modern, hip, feminist take, of course.
How tragic that the worst of the Princess stereotypes is the one told so often.
Except, maybe Cinderella's story isn't so terrible.
You see, the criticisms of Cinderella are nothing more than an interpretation. An interpretation based on intellectual superiority and twisting everything into the worst possible light. An interpretation determined to despise a story that is obviously well-loved, determined to find misery where so many others find joy.
But thankfully that's not the only way to see the story. You see, how you choose to interpret the story is up to you. As I teach my 5th graders, when you interpret a story, when you decide what it means and what themes it presents, the first requirement is that the interpretation has to fit the details of the story. But beyond that -- find an interpretation that is most meaningful to you.
So here's a different take on Cinderella.
It's the story of a woman who is stuck in a rotten situation through no fault of her own. But instead of wallowing in self-pity, instead of shriveling her soul in spite, envy, and anger -- she instead spends her time trying to help and care for those with even less power than her. She allows herself to dream of something better even when she has to do the most menial of tasks. She even practices a bit of Christ's "turn the other cheek" invitation as she deals with those who treat her heartlessly.
But then, even amid the despair, even amid all the long hours of hard work she must do, even amid the injustice of it all -- she still works to make her life better. Never forget that before the Fairy Godmother comes, it's the mice who made the dress -- a gift from those who Cinderella befriended and valued. Really, in this interpretation, the clothes are crucial to the story -- but not in a superficial way. Cinderella clothes the mice. The mice transform her mother's dress into something to match how they value Cinderella (and how she values them). The Fairy Godmother dresses Cinderella in a way that matches her -- matches her eyes while being simple, but daring -- Cinderella's best traits.
Cinderella's beauty at the ball -- the thing that attracts the Prince -- is a metaphor for the kind of person she is. Remember, a Fairy Tale isn't meant to be a realistic story. It's a shorthand, a simplified tale to get the message across. Even though Disney fleshes Cinderella's backstory out to give her character some realism, the tale itself is still a shorthand. When the Prince sees Cinderella, when he is dazzled at her beauty, he is being dazzled by her goodness. Because the Fairy Godmother dressed her in a way that represents who she is.
So when the Prince doesn't recognize her after the ball, the cynic points out that he's just a superficial male, looking at beauty and nothing else. Or we can think of it this way: the Prince can't find her because the inner goodness can't be seen. Because that's what the dress is -- an outer reflection of Cinderella's inner goodness. When that is hidden, symbolically shown by both the dress's disappearance and the way Cinderella is shut away in the back of the home -- the Prince can't find her. And he refuses to accept a substitute.
Seen in this way, Cinderella is a beautiful story. It is exactly the kind of story I want children to latch on to, with exactly the kind of themes I want them to believe in.
But wait, there's more! (channeling my inner TV infomercial here).
There are other ways to interpret the story. How about this one: a story of value.
Cinderella is initially stuck with her stepmother, who either cannot or refuses to see Cinderella's true value. It's a situation we will all find ourselves in, in some way or another -- dealing with a person or people who refuse to see us for who we are. So what does Cinderella do? She finds those who can see her value. And she does this, not by being angry or competitive or flexing girl-power -- no, she does this by finding those in need and treating them with greater value than they see in themselves.
What a beautiful idea -- that at the same time Cinderella is being put down by those who should see her as an equal, she elevates those who see themselves as lesser. And because she does this, she is able to find those who can see her true value. They see her as a Princess long before she actually becomes one.
And then, when those who refuse to see her value demean her again, Cinderella is able to find those who value her -- the Fairy Godmother, the Prince. She is, basically, able to find those who will treat her like a Princess. And make no doubt, the movie makes clear that she deserves to be treated that way.
And so in the end, Cinderella latches on to those who treat her in a way that matches her value -- those who treat her like a Princess. She goes off to marry the Prince, bringing the mice with her. Again, she elevates those who are not her equals. And where is the stepmother in all this? Where are the stepsisters? Nowhere to be seen.
Another lesson I want my daughter -- and all girls to learn. Seek those who see your true value. Seek those who will treat you like a Princess, and do not bother with those who don't.
I could go on, of course. It's a story about hope. It's a story that believes in dreaming of something better. It's a story that believes you will find help if you do what you can to help yourself. It's a story that believes that love is the greatest of happy endings.
And that's the point. There are many ways to interpret a story. And there's no reason to latch onto the one way that is most cynical, hopeless, and negative. Instead, let beautiful stories be beautiful. When little girls want to be like Cinderella, let's help them see how positive and wonderful that desire can is.