Feed on

I grew up watching Disney films, from Cinderella to Snow White to Fantasia to Mary Poppins. I loved all of them, dressed as a princess or ballerina on many a Halloween and … well, I think it stops there.

As a young girl, I never thought — or expected — a handsome prince would rescue me, and I didn’t feel that way in my 20s, either. I went to college to study ecology — I had dreams of saving the world — but then dropped out and left it all behind to follow my boyfriend to Colorado, where he was attending college. Well, were he was taking PE classes; he had no idea what he wanted to do. I supported us by working crap minimum-wage jobs and relying on food stamps to make ends meet. Nevertheless, I married him a few months before my 21st birthday because I was in love. Clearly, I was not looking for a Prince Charming to rescue me!

But was I somehow influenced by the Cinderella story nonetheless? Did I expect it but settled?

That was one of the topics discussed at a workshop in Vancouver, B.C., on love put on by Carrie Jenkins, a philosophy professor at the University of British Columbia, that featured many wonderful speakers besides Jenkins, whose thought-provoking book, What Love Is And What It Could Be, comes out in a few weeks, including Marina Adshade, UBC professor of economics, author of of Dollars and Sex: How Economics Influences Sex and entertaining TEDx speaker; and Mandy Len Catron, who teaches writing at UBC and whose Modern Love essay on how to make anyone fall in love with you was one of the most-read Modern Loves, and that lead her to write a book on love essays that comes out in 2017.

Catron discussed how the Cinderella tale influenced her as a young girl. It’s ubiquitous in our society — there are 345 versions of Cinderella across the globe — from fueling some of our most-beloved rom-coms (Pretty Woman, anyone?) to infiltrating sports, or what ESPN calls “the ultimate underdog for whom we wish a fairy-tale ending.” We’re suckers for the Cinderella story because it’s about good things happening to good people.

Who doesn’t want to be seen as a good person? Who doesn’t like a fairy-tale ending? Don’t we all want to live happily ever after?

I certainly do. But is that somehow skewing our view of romance? Do women today really believe that, despite cheerfully withstanding unbelievable abuse and cruelty (usually from our own family, mostly other women), our beauty and goodness alone will lead a handsome and typically successful prince to notice us, and once he does, we’ll go off with him (despite barely knowing him) because he has power, status and money and thus will provide for us? Isn’t Cinderella just a story, one of many love stories we tell, and one that’s no longer relevant in today’s empowered you-go-girl reality?

The dangers of Cinderella

There have been many articles and books written about the danger of the Cinderella story. Men, especially in the MGTOW (men going their own way) movement, love to blast women for believing — they’d say demanding — a fairy-tale romance, forgetting that those fairy tales were written by men, turned into movies by men (hello, Walt Disney) and are stories that model what a patriarchal society expects from women — to be “good girls,” people-pleasers and dependent on men. That’s how women can be controlled (which is why the assault on women’s rights that is sure to happen under President-elect Donald Trump is very real and something to be vigilant about).

So in the 1970s, feminists started rewriting fairy tales to create stronger female roles for their daughters to read. That sounds great but just switching genders — say, making a princess rescue a prince — doesn’t change the narrative much; someone is still a victim who needs rescuing and someone’s a hero who has to do that. It’s still sexist, and it still makes romance and a happily-ever-after heterosexual life of two beautiful people together the outcome.

Clearly, most women nowadays are more interested in having rich, full lives of our own. If Cinderella and other fairy tales are as damaging to girls as some say, why do we continue to read those stories to our children, especially our daughters, and take them to see Disney movies?

As parents, this is something we should be paying attention to. The stories we tell, especially if they have romantic love endings, help shape our idea and expectations of love. As one scholar notes:
There are myriad other traditional fairy tales where women and girls take it upon themselves — often at great personal risk — to become the heroines of their stories. The real question is not ‘why don’t fairy tales reflect strong and powerful women?’ but rather why don’t we read those fairy tales that do? Or a better question still, why do we insist on selectively reading only those fairy tales that tend to reflect passive female characters?”
Good questions! Because we have a choice. There are many fairy tales that have nothing to do with romantic endings (or whose original tellings, such as “The Little Mermaid,” have much different endings.) There’s even a West African version of Cinderella, Chinye, in which the smart and resourceful heroine discovers a treasure and uses it to help the women in her village live a prosperous life. No prince needed. How’s that for a great girl-power story? Why didn’t Disney decide to make a movie about Chinye? Probably because we can’t resist a good love story — all of us want love, and many of us want a partner and perhaps marriage. That’s the romantic script we unconsciously follow.

A different Cinderella

Still, is it wrong to want someone to rescue us? Interestingly, not all women feel the same way about Cinderella. “For white women the Cinderella myth is about passivity, but for black women it’s about actively seeking a partner who’s their equal,” according to Newsweek.

Historically, the struggle for racial equality left little room for black women to indulge in Cinderella fantasies. From Reconstruction through Jim Crow and through the civil-rights movement, black women devoted their energies to these struggles while secretly hoping that one day their prince would indeed come. Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Alvin Poussaint remembers that during the 1960s, ‘many of the black women in the movement used to joke — but it was partly serious — that part of why they were fighting was so black men would be able to get good jobs and they would be able to stay at home like white women and have their men take care of them.’ Furthermore, in the 1970s, many black women were reluctant to embrace feminism because it seemed that just when it was about to be their turn to be Cinderella, white women were telling them that the fantasy was all wrong.” tweet

If women of color would happily desire to be chosen and cared for, what about other women for whom handsome princes aren’t readily available? As professor Sami Schalk explores in her paper “Happily Ever After for Whom?: Blackness and Disability in Romance Narratives:”

The structures of the romance genre — which rely upon white, middle-class, able-bodied, and heterosexual norms of social mobility and citizenship through the marriage union — make a nonstereotypical and nondiscriminatory inclusion of black and disabled people quite difficult, since social mobility, rights of citizenship, and marriage are still actively denied to black and disabled people.”

wrote a provocative essay in the New York Times about how even having a strange man on the street check her out would be welcome:

I also do understand what it feels like to get attention from the wrong man. It’s gross. It’s uncomfortable. It’s scary and tedious. And in certain cases, traumatic. But I still would much rather have a man make an inappropriate sexual comment than be referred to in the third person or have someone express surprise over the fact that I have a career. The former, unfortunately, feels ‘normal.’ The latter makes me feel invisible and is meant for that purpose. I like it when men look at me. It feels empowering. Frankly, it makes me feel like I’m not being excluded. tweet

I imagine she wouldn’t be too upset if a prince wanted to give her a happily-ever-after future, either.

All of which means we don’t have to stick to fairy tales that have a happily-ever-after romantic ending. It just fuels matrimania — the obsession society has with being a couple and marriage as the be-all and end-all. As parents, we might want to pay attention to that. Let’s tell our children other stories, too. On the other hand, if having a happily-ever-after fairy-tale romantic ending isn’t all that available to us in our daily life, is it wrong to actually want it?

Interested in creating a happily-ever-after marriage based on your needs and goals? Learn how in The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook.

2 Responses to “Cinderella and the promise of happily ever after”

  1. Remember Pippi Longstocking? She was my hero but I don’t remember if there were subliminal messages in her story.

  2. Jono says:

    Being a Prince Charming puts a lot of pressure on a man to be a hero, good provider, protector, and always happy and loving. It doesn’t give us much chance to be imperfect, but hey, it’s her fantasy. Would a woman put out the effort to rescue a man from whatever evil has him in its clutches? I can only hope.

Leave a Reply