An Essay By, Donna M. Monnig
We’ve all heard the story of Cinderella, daughter of a well-respected man, forced into servitude after his death by her evil stepmother and wicked stepsisters, rescued by a dashing prince to live happily ever after as a princess in a palace. What little girl hasn’t seen Disney’s Cinderella and been enchanted by the magical story of the servant girl who becomes a princess? What child hasn’t been captivated by her charm?
Some people today, especially staunch feminists, say that Cinderella represents the oppression of women and is a negative influence on young girls, that Cinderella never did anything worthwhile and that the story teaches our daughters to be dependent on men. That is one way to look at it; however, there is always more than one way to look at things. Another way to look at Cinderella is that she was a courageous woman who faced insurmountable hardships with kindness and compassion. That is the purpose of this essay, to examine the mistaken belief that Cinderella did nothing in her life and simply waited for her prince to rescue her, and to show that Cinderella’s courage is a value to be admired, by both women and men, that we should try to instill in all our children.
The first question to be asked is: what’s wrong with wanting to be a princess? Well-known writer, Peggy Orenstein, believes that playing “princess” could have a negative impact on young girls. In her article, “What’s Wrong with Cinderella?” she begins her tale by telling how she lost her cool at the dentist’s office when the nurse asked her daughter if she’d like to sit in the special princess throne [dentist chair] to get her teeth cleaned:
‘Oh, for God’s sake,’ I snapped. ‘Do you have a princess drill, too?’
She stared at me as if I were an evil stepmother.
‘Come on!’ I continued, my voice rising. ‘It’s 2006, not 1950. This isBerkley,Calif.Does every little girl have to be a princess?’ (64)
Listening to Orenstein one would think that princesses were the bane of existence; she further states, “I watch my fellow mothers, women who once swore they’d never be dependent on a man, smile indulgently at daughters who warble ‘So This Is Love’ or insist on being called Snow White” (65). These passages could easily lead one to believe that Orenstein believes that to be a princess is to be dependent on a man. A brief look at history and a few real-life princesses could at least partially dispel this notion.
First of all, to be a real princess, often times, can lead to one day being the leader and ruler of a nation, or married to the man who is. To potentially be responsible for a nation is no frivolous matter to be taken lightly. Not to mention that throughout history a woman ruler had to work twice as hard and take twice as much criticism as their male counterparts. Being a princess was no picnic, at least not for most.
Let’s look at a few real-life, powerful princesses:
Queen Isabella of Spain, a woman who was largely responsible for ending eight centuries of warfare and domination by the Moores, known to ride right along with her soldiers at times; she was also the person who took the risk no one else was willing to take and financed the voyage of Christopher Columbus. We all know how that turned out.
Queen Boudicca of Britain, after the death of her husband, she led her people in a bid for freedom causing a major uprising against overwhelming Roman legions.
Maeve of Connacht, a most famous warrior queen of Ireland, said to have been as beautiful as she was bloodthirsty. Though whether she was indeed real or simply a figure of myth is unknown.
While legendary woman champion Vebjorg was just that, a legend, it doesn’t change the fact that Norse shield maidens did exist and fight alongside men on the field of battle. It is said that some shield maidens were the daughters of kings, and that’s not including Eowyn in J.R.R. Tolkien’s, Lord of the Rings.
The above list could easily go on, but it should be sufficient to raise questionable doubt as to the claims that princesses were weak or dependent on men. Orenstein also stated, “As a feminist mother – not to mention a nostalgic product of the Grranimals era – I have been taken by surprise by the princess craze and the girlie-girl culture that has risen around it” (65). While the Disney princesses that Orenstein primarily refers to do certainly wear a lot of pastel colors and fluffy dresses, the previously mentioned real-life princesses should show that being a princess is not synonymous with being a girlie-girl. Here again, one could ask the question of what’s wrong with a little girl wanting to play dress up and have tea parties? Tea parties are not exclusively a female pastime. Tea time has been a British tradition since the 1700’s, and though started by a Duchess [Anna Maria of Bedford], the tradition was practiced equally by men and women.
Children have to enter into the real-world all too soon the way it is, why not let them use their youthful creativity to live out whatever childhood fantasy they want without telling them their childhood heroes are worthless women who never did anything worthwhile? Orenstein admits in her article that she told her young daughter just that. When her daughter asked her why she didn’t like Cinderella, Orenstein responded, “It’s just, honey, Cinderella doesn’t really do anything” (68). She had a point; at first glance most would think that Cinderella didn’t do much compared to real princesses as well as the other Disney princesses.
According to the Disney stories, Belle tried to save her father and ended up taming a beast and breaking a curse; Pocahontas saved John Smith’s life and helped prevent a war; Arial was brave enough to leave the only world she had ever known to follow her heart’s desire and in the process changed the prejudicial beliefs that mermaids harbored against man, and Mulan pretended to be a man to save her father’s life and ended up leading an army to victory and saving the Emperor’s life. Even the princesses according to Disney don’t exactly seem like slackers, let alone bad influences who should be abhorred by mothers and daughters everywhere.
Yet, Orenstein said, in reference to her three year old daughter, “I worry what playing Little Mermaid is teaching her” (65). Arial alone embodied a sense of determination, an unwillingness to let anything stand in the way of what she believed and wanted. Arial also refused to believe that an entire race of people were bad just because her people didn’t understand them; she didn’t allow fear to color her view of the world. Does this really sound like a bad role modal?
However, we were talking about Cinderella. So, compared to every other princess previously mentioned, and according to Orenstein, Cinderella didn’t do anything worthwhile. But what if all this time Cinderella has been severely underestimated and was actually the bravest of them all? Orenstein said, “Cinderella is a symbol of the patriarchal oppression of all women, another example of corporate mind control and power-to-the-people!” (68). Is Cinderella really a symbol to be loathed or is she the fairy tale equivalent of Gandhi?
The classic story of Cinderella is that her wealthy, widowed father married a wicked woman, then died, leaving Cinderella in the care of her evil stepmother. Cinderella was forced from the life of privilege she had known and made to be a servant in her own house; relegated to a tiny attic room, forced to wear rags and wait on her snobbish stepsisters hand and foot, as they, along with her stepmother, lived off the wealth and estate that rightfully should have been hers. Such difficult circumstances would embitter most people, turn them resentful, hateful, and mean; some people might even turn to desperate measures. Yet, Cinderella responded to such cruel unfairness with kindness, compassion, and love, always maintaining a cheerful disposition despite the hardships fate had seen fit to bestow upon her.
One could say that Cinderella was a champion of nonviolence similar to Mohandas Gandhi, who said, “Wherever there are jars, wherever you are confronted with an opponent, conquer him with love” (203). Which is exactly what Cinderella did; for every harsh treatment she received from her step-family, she responded with kindness and love. Gandhi also wrote, “It takes a fairly strenuous course of training to attain to a mental state of nonviolence” (203). One can only imagine how many times Cinderella had to have bitten her tongue to keep from uttering angry retorts, or the stamina it must have taken to resist seeking revenge.
Cinderella reacted to her trials and tribulations with patience and nonviolence. To reach and maintain a state of nonviolence is no easy task, Gandhi wrote:
The perfect state is reached only when mind and body and speech are in proper coordination. But it is always a case of intense mental struggle. It is not that I am incapable of anger, for instance, but I succeed on almost all occasions to keep my feelings under control. Whatever may be the result, there is always in me a conscious struggle for following the law of nonviolence deliberately and ceaselessly. Such a struggle leaves one stronger for it. Nonviolence is a weapon of the strong. (203)
How can a fairy tale character that displays the strength to maintain a state of nonviolence so similar to that of Mohandas Gandhi possibly be a bad influence? Cinderella could’ve acted out in so many ways, she could’ve even taken a page out of the wicked queen’s book in Snow White and poisoned her step-mother’s food, but Cinderella chose not to. She chose the law of love over the law of destruction. Some part of her must have realized the same truth that Gandhi did when he stated, “I have found, however, that this law of love has answered as the law of destruction has never done” (203).
Another positive thing that Cinderella did was take action, nonviolent action. She didn’t allow the oppressive nature of her step-family to deprive her of her dreams. When the chance came to go to that ball she took it and let nothing stand in her way. She didn’t wait for a prince to come save her, Cinderella saved herself, she went out and found him and he fell in love with the compassionate, courageous woman that she was.
One could argue that Disney’s Cinderella had a fairy godmother who saved her, but Cinderella went above and beyond her limitations long before Bibbity-Bobbity-Boo showed up. Even so, is not the fairy godmother portrayed as a wise, caring old woman who is also a positive influence for little girls everywhere?
Orenstein expressed concern over the idea that admiring Cinderella and other princesses put too much emphasis on girls having to be beautiful, “Maybe Princess is the first salvo in what will become a lifelong struggle over her body image, a Hundred Years’ War of dieting, plucking, painting, and perpetual dissatisfaction with the results” (73). Yet, in the end of the story, the prince chooses Cinderella out of all the other girls in the kingdom, while she’s dressed in rags and most likely covered in dirt. Doesn’t that send the message that it doesn’t matter what you look like or what your station in life is, that what matters most is your character?
Orenstein makes some good points in her argument. Princesses, like anything else, if it becomes an obsession can be taken too far. However, isn’t not wanting your three year old daughter to like Cinderella and the Little Mermaid for fear it’s teaching her to be a girlie-girl and dependent on men also a bit excessive? Cinderella and other fairy tale princess stories are often full of good moral values and show strength of character that children, especially little girls, can relate to and learn from. Cinderella shows us that true courage is born when one reacts to hardship and hate with love and compassion. Maybe fairy tales aren’t about the happily-ever-after, maybe they’re about the strength and fortitude that it takes to get there.
What do you think? Is Cinderella a good or bad role modal? Do you think kids shouldn’t watch fairy tales? Feel free to share your thoughts!
Citations from: The Conscious Reader By, Caroline Shrodes, Michael Shugrue, Marc DiPaolo, and Christian J. Matuschek.