My early fascination with fairy tale classic Cinderella cemented my love of stories. The love/hate relationship I have with this fairy tale, though, speaks to the beauty of stories, in general.
My introduction to Cinderella occurred when my mom read it to me at bedtime. I reflect fondly on my mother’s interpretation of Gus, one of the three mice who befriended Cinderella and helped her prepare for the ball, where she would meet her prince. “Cinderelly! Cinderelly!” mom would muse. “Say it like that again, Mommy,” I would plead, laughing; and she would - I’m sure, reluctantly, as I think back on reading bedtime stories with my own children, often through blood-shot tired eyes. Through my preliterate eyes, I marveled not only at mom’s ability to imitate cute, friendly rodents, but also at the at the story of quiet, shy, girl who - with the unlikely help of her mice friends and a fairy godmother - finds her prince with whom she lives happily ever after. For me, reading Cinderella marked a rite of passage; for, although my pre-school brain had not yet comprehended the concept, I was officially introduced to the narrative that compels little girls to spend their lives in search of a Prince Charming to rescue them from their daily woes.
I even remember my Pre-Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Debbie Thomas, reading the story to my class. Although Mrs. Thomas did not do as good a job as mom did imitating Gus, she presented the story in another way I found transformative. As I think back on how my Pre-K classmates and I would sit eagerly as Mrs. Thomas read to us, I remember thinking, “Wow! They – the children in my class – like Cinderella, too?! The boys seemed to like when Cinderella’s fairy godmother turned the pumpkin into a stagecoach, and they laughed at the illustrations of Cinderella’s mean, ugly stepsisters trying to force their grotesquely large feet into the petite glass slipper that Cinderella had left at the palace ball, where she met and danced with the Prince. The girls, like the boys, laughed at the characterizations of Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters.
Moreover, not unlike my initial reaction to the story, the girls in my class appeared enamored with the story of a young girl who meets her Prince Charming and lives happily ever after. Looking back, Cinderella both nurtured and reflected the values of young girls with the promise of a Prince Charming and a life of eternal happiness.
While I recognize the value of fairy tales like Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel to entertain and inspire young readers, somewhere along the way, I have come to question the packaging of the message. As a feminist and a mom, I question the value of a message that a young woman’s happiness depends on a handsome, affluent man to rescue her. “What about the beauty of inner strength?” my now seasoned, scholarly mind wonders. Not to worry. I am not about to launch a campaign against Disney for stripping young girls of their agency. The real beauty of Cinderella, as with any story, lies in its universal appeal to entertain, inspire, and challenge us to think not only about our values but also about our roles in society. Cinderella, as with all stories, speaks to us individually, collectively, and universally. Its appeal may change, but its power to transform our thinking remains.