I’ve never liked the story of Cinderella. Actually, although I like fantasy, I’m not big on traditional fairy tales in general. But Cinderella has long been one of my least favorites.
I’m sure some know-it-all is going to comment that I have too much time on my hands if I spend my time critiquing a classic children’s story. (And chances are, it will be a man.) Fine. Here’s your warning: I’m going to bash Cindy and her perfect, tiny feet. Go read something else if you don’t like it.
Like my post from yesterday about faulty messages in children’s books, I think there’s a lot to dislike about Cinderella. On the surface, it seems like a pretty good story. The moral message even seems decent, that being kind and generous is better than being rude and mean. That’s certainly a lesson I’d like my kids to absorb. Unfortunately, there are a lot of other underlying problems. The one I want to address specifically is the problem of the stepmother.
When the story starts, poor Cinderella is under the thumb of her wicked stepmother. Without even getting into the fact that there are plenty of kind, loving, and generous stepmothers (although that’s true too), I think there’s an anti-feminist undertone to the whole thing. Rather than being sweet and demure, Mrs. Stepmom is nasty from day one. She marries Cinderella’s father because he’s got money, then makes it clear that she doesn’t want anything to do with her stepdaughter. Depending on which version you read, either she waits for Cindy’s dad to die so she can make up for lost time beating her, or she does it right under her husband’s nose—and he just stands by.
I am in no way defending child abuse. But I think that the tales in which Cinderella’s father doesn’t stop the abuse are far worse than the ones where he dies. The subtle message is that the stepmother is “ruling the home,” and that her weak, ineffective husband should have been more of a man and defended his daughter. That, or he obviously should have picked a proper woman to marry. In some versions, Mrs. Stepmother does start out seeming to be the picture of a gracious wife. Later, we find out it’s only an act and she’s really a cruel tyrant. Again, the message is that there is a socially acceptable way to be a woman, and she isn’t it.
In fact, this is the message of many fairy tales, not just Cinderella. Strong women are being abusive tyrants, while passive women are sweet and gentle. Strong women get what’s coming to them, passive women are rewarded by marrying the handsome prince. Strong women are always jealous of the beauty and grace of passive women. Strong women are nearly always taught some lesson in the end, which usually involves learning that they should have been more humble. Passive women learn that if they are good enough, they will be rescued from all their problems.
We still find this in our modern world. Oh, I don’t just mean in our stories, although there’s still quite a lot of Stepmother/Cinderella in women’s literature. I mean in the real world. We’re still taught that being to strong or independent means men won’t like us. We’re informed that if we are too “overbearing” (and our husbands don’t cure us of it) we will turn our sons into effeminate gays. We’re asked if we’re “mom enough” and then told that when we make confident choices, we will be questioned at every turn. We’re promised happy homes, well-behaved children, and satisfied husbands if only we will demonstrate “proper” submission (even though no one seems to be able to define that). We’re told that if we covet positions of leadership, it’s because we want to be men.
None of it is true.
Lots of strong, independent women are married. Lots of men like that kind of woman—one who can take care of herself and isn’t a pushover. There are plenty of gay people from homes with quiet, gentle mothers and strong, manly fathers; there are plenty of straight people from homes with parents who are the opposite. We are all “mom enough” regardless of parenting style. Children are happy in happy homes, not homes with parents who fit certain male/female roles. Women in leadership are there because they’re capable, not for any other reason.
My daughter will not be six forever. One day, she will be an adult woman. I hope that she learns to seek out the kind of woman she wants to emulate. She should never feel that there is a “right” way to be a woman in order to reap some reward. I especially want her to know that being strong and independent isn’t the opposite of being kind, generous, and loving.
It’s time to stop looking to fairy tales for feminine role models.