It's funny how much we forget. When I wrote the post about Pocahontas last month, I had completely forgotten that I had analyzed another princess fairy tale a couple years before. I wrote about Cinderella in one of my many journals. And apparently I was more open-minded then! Anyway, Sage wasn't much interested in the movie, so no wonder I forgot about it.
But now that I've found it, I think it might be a nice lead-in to something else I've been thinking about lately: Dreams. As in wishes and aspirations. So, here goes...
AUGUST 18, 2007
I watched Cinderella, the Disney movie, with Sage yesterday. I hadn’t seen it in years, hardly even remembered the very beginning, and it was strange to view it with my adult eyes. I mean, this is the definitive fairy tale, for me. Cinderella, the definitive fairy tale princess. I think Sleeping Beauty is my favorite of the Disney princess movies—the character, the story, the imagery and music. And Snow White is classic, of course. But Cinderella is somehow, perhaps, the most influential.
Watching it again, I still find it enchanting. The golden-haired, angel-voiced Cinderella is a dreamy vision in herself. She’s so gentle with her cute little animal friends, so optimistic with her big-eyed innocence. And those graceful movements are mesmerizing, when she gets up in the morning and goes about her chores--the animation reminded me of underwater slow-motion, or ballet. It’s easy to fall under her spell. And it’s inevitable to find yourself singing along to the lovely theme: “A dream is a wish your heart makes when you’re fast asleep….”
I can’t help enjoying the story, and I was looking forward to sharing it with my daughter. And yet, watching it now, I have to seriously question the messages here. I know there have been countless feminist studies of fairy tales and their underlying messages and symbolism. But I need to analyze this for myself.
Okay, so we have the beautiful young maiden, orphaned, imprisoned and enslaved. But she remains good hearted and hopeful, as she cheerfully performs her housework. Underlying message: Menial tasks aren’t so bad—especially if you sing with the birds as you do them. (Too bad in the real world we can’t have adorable, and clothed, mice and birds to lay out our clothes and make our bed.)
In contrast, selfish and lazy is definitely unattractive. The ugly (and untalented) stepsisters aptly portray what NOT to be.
Then, we have a ball that Cinderella would like to attend. She has no thoughts of escape at this point. She just wants to have a nice time, just one night out. When her attempt to make a dress (again with the help of her clever animal friends) is ruined by the meanies, Cinderella sobs in despair. Suddenly, poof, out of nowhere appears a fairy godmother. There’s no explanation of who this creature is, where she came from, or why. She just magically materializes, presumably in response to Cinderella’s ardent wishes. Message: If you want something really, really badly, then someone else with magical powers may come along to grant your wish. You don’t have to do anything other than dream. In fact, your own efforts are fruitless. More on this—and the long hours of daydreaming it spawned—later.
So, the ball itself, the dance with the prince, the clock striking midnight—these are all great fun, full of romance and mystery and suspense. But the next lesson comes when Cinderella finds out that the handsome gentleman she danced with was actually the prince and that he plans to marry the maiden whose foot will fit the glass slipper. This moment of realization puts her into a lovestruck trance, but it also marks her chance for freedom. For, by marrying the prince she will become a princess—and will be freed from the bonds of her evil stepmother. Message: Prince charming is a savior. He has no name in this story. He’s simply a handsome, elegant romantic who, by virtue of his title, has every eligible maiden vying to be his bride. Obviously, the feminist analysis here is that little girls are taught that they need a man to save them, to complete their lives. The ultimate goal is to get married, there is no other option, and this is the only thing that will make you happy, yadda, yadda, yadda.
Well, if we’re just looking at this story, which apparently takes place in medieval times, that message is ostensibly true. Getting married would have been Cinderella’s only decent chance at having a life away from her step-family. So, she was actually quite savvy to recognize this opportunity and jump at it.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t translate well to the modern world. I can only try to convey to my daughter an alternate reading on this aspect of the story—that love itself is the ultimate goal. Love is worth fighting for, love conquers all. Et cetera. Nevermind that Cinderella didn’t know this guy AT ALL.
However, the message that disturbs me even more than the “catch the prince” story, is the one about dreaming for your wishes. And dreaming, and dreaming some more. Like I said, it’s a beautiful hypnotic song. But there is a danger in buying into this idea. I mean, I am totally all for dreaming and wishing, and setting goals to achieve your heart’s desires and making plans for a better life. I love the idea of dreams. Dorothy dreamed of going over the rainbow; Sleeping Beauty dreamed of meeting her true love… and I am constantly dreaming of the circumstances I’d like to have in my life—the perfect house, and job, and body etc.
The problem comes when Cinderella says to dream it, but not to speak it. This echoes the superstition that if you speak your wish aloud, it won’t come true. But this is completely the opposite of what you have to do to achieve your dreams. You HAVE to speak it. You have to write it down, articulate it, tell people about it, and MAKE IT HAPPEN. Creative visualization is one thing. First you imagine it, then it can become a reality. But there are some steps between the dream and the manifestation. Unfortunately, those steps are not normally in the person of a kindly, plump little fairy godmother.
I’m sure all kids who have seen Cinderella have probably imagined what they would do if their own fairy godmother appeared—or a genie with three wishes to grant, or a leprechaun, or a wizard with a magic wand. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. But it has taken me a lot of years to realize that I myself have the tools and the power to “magically” create the life I want-- with some ardent wishing AND with some pragmatic steps.
I used to think, as a kid, that if I daydreamed a particular scenario, then I was guaranteeing that it would not happen. Because it was entirely implausible that something imagined could actually happen. This was the stuff of fairy tales. ESP was just in fiction books. So, my daydreams were idle rather than constructive. If only I had viewed them differently. If only I had known that dreaming—while it won’t produce a fairy godmother—can actually direct energy towards making things happen.
I guess it’s too bad that Cinderella wasn’t a little more proactive. But it’s still a lovely story. As long as I balance it with some stronger role models, I think the story can still be a nice part of childhood.
That was then. Nowadays I find myself dreaming most often about more sleep and more time! Well, that and a few other things.
More on dreams next time....