I know I should be more savvy when it comes to Cinderella. At uni, we learned all about the way that fairytales help perpetuate certain cultural myths, that women, for instance, need only be remarkable at housekeeping and ballroom dancing in order to snag a prince and thus live happily ever after. I even deliberately set out, in What is Left Over, After, to write a strong female character who could in no way be considered a victim because I was aware of how many woman-as-victim stories already exist and I had no interest in contributing another. So why then do I have such a soft spot when it comes to Cinderella?
I am asking myself these questions because I have just finished reading a review of the spectacularly titled Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein. Now I haven’t read the book yet, but do intend to, so perhaps I will recant everything that I have said here when I finish it. But I do wonder if Cinderella gets blamed for more than is really her fault.
I am very concerned about the messages I expose my children to. Maggie Hamilton’s book, What’s Happening to Our Girls, an account of the kinds of pressures placed on girls in the new world of sexting, Facebook and gross consumerism, horrified me because it showed me just how image conscious girls as young as five can be. But, as her book pointed out, much of that is to do with the way in which so many lives are now structured around the idea of the shopping centre as an appropriate venue for a weekend outing with the children. And that shopping centres are there for people to buy anything they want, whenever they want. That as parents, we need to resist being too proud of throwing out our barely 12 month old mobile and replacing it with a brand new iphone because it can send the wrong message to our kids.
That kind of stuff is, to me, more insidious than Cinderella will ever be. I regularly hear four year olds talking about their mum’s iphone and I wonder how the kids know so precisely what their mum’s phone is called. And Hamilton makes the point that creating brand consciousness in children of that age is probably not the ideal thing to do. That they should really be focusing more on stimulating imaginations than increasing brand vocabularies.
I also wonder if Barbie gets a rough time. Yes, she’s probably too thin and her boobs are too big. But she is a wonderful toy for promoting imaginative play. My girls use their Barbies (yes, there’s another brand name) to act out all kinds of scenarios. Barbie is regularly a doctor attending to the broken legs of her fellow plastic friends, sometimes she’s busy locking Ken in the dungeon when he’s naughty and at other times she’s busy driving to Sydney for a Writers Festival. And yes, occasionally she’s dressed up ready to go to the ball and dance with the prince (but only if he’s been let out of the dungeon for long enough).
I suppose my point is that it’s easy to blame Cinderella or Barbie or any toy who can’t talk back. But I think it’s more about how we teach our children to play with these toys and use their imaginations to go beyond the boundaries of the traditional fairytale than it is about the toys themselves. And, we do have a fair amount of Cinderella stuff in our house so maybe I’m just trying to mount a case so I feel better about being sucked into Disney’s vortex. But Cinderella was the first Disney movie I ever saw. I was captivated. Because it was just a little bit magical. A little bit special. And it was so nice to dream, every now and then, about what it might be like to be a princess, knowing of course that I would never be but loving the fact that I could imagine what it might be like. So that’s why I want to keep Cinderella around. But ask me again in a few weeks – maybe by then I’ll agree with Orenstein that Cinderella really is a shameless cannibal intent on devouring my children!