Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Beautiful Cinderella

Cinderella has been taking orders from her stepmother for a long time.  Turns out, little girls have heard the tale for centuries. In the book,
Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal, author Paul Fleishman says the story  may have originated in ninth century China, but versions are found  around the world.  Cinderella lives with a cruel stepmother who forces her to work day and night. Animals help Cinderella. I recall kind mice, but other girls would hear of a helpful snake (India) or sparrow (Germany).  Cinderella wears a lovely gown to the ball. Of course, in Japan she dons a red kimono.  And then there are the glass slippers. Except in Iraq, gold sandals adorn  her feet.

The story is popular because of its universal theme of wrongs made right. What's not to like?

Only this. Cinderella is good and beautiful, and her step family is cruel and . . . less than beautiful.  Every illustration I've ever seen shows the stepmother and sisters in an unattractive light. If I use the standards of my time and place, a beautiful woman has large eyes, a dainty nose, high cheek bones, and rather full lips. There's nothing wrong with being physically beautiful, and we admire Cinderella as much for her character as we do for her lovely face. But why must women who do not meet this standard be the villains?  Cinderella's stepmother is a conniving slave-driver -- and she's not beautiful. The stepsisters are selfish and lazy -- and not beautiful. Do I want to read my daughter a story that associates beautiful people with virtue and less-than-beautiful people with vice? She gets that message enough already -- that a woman's goodness and value are closely associated with physical beauty.

What if we tweaked the story -- remove all references to physical beauty and ugliness and illustrate the story so that all the characters are somewhere in-between -- not ugly but not ravishing beauties either. With the physical element neutralized, the focus would remain on character alone.

Our daughters would hear, "What matters is your character. Do you treat people with respect and kindness or are you cruel and selfish?"

Or am I taking this tale too seriously? "Come on, Wendy. Just enjoy the story and don't analyze everything."

We should enjoy the story and its magic. But I refuse to ignore its hidden messages, especially when they're directed at my daughter. Her value is not wrapped up in high cheekbones and large eyes.

I will keep the magic, of course. Because coaches and horses do turn back into pumpkins and mice at midnight. Hold onto that glass slipper, Cinderella. A happy ending and a shoe that fits: that's the beauty of a good story.

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