Raising Feminists – The Fairy Tale Edition
This weekend my husband and I went to the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco’s Presidio. We’d been meaning to for a while, and though we missed the exhibit of Walt’s massive train set (my husband has a 7-year-old boy’s love for trains) the rest of the museum was pretty cool. Lots of tech stuff, lots of original art, lots of “making of” information and displays. Because my husband is a recording guy, he ate it up with a spoon. And because I’m a story guy, if you will, I ate it up with a spoon too.
And it reminded me of raising the kids. We have two daughters. And I told them approximately 2,763,421 bedtime stories (some nights I had to tell more than one), many of them based on fairy tales.
We had a lot of books of fairy tales–my extremely foxed, beat up copies of Andrew Lang’s Red, Blue, Yellow, and… Olive? Fairy Books; Hans Christian Andersen’s stories; individual picture books of Cinderella and Rapunzel, and the Twelve Dancing Princesses, and Rumplestiltskin, and… let my husband read No Fighting, No Biting for the 1476th time. I was the go-to parent for fairy tales. And we inherited from my sister-in-law a bunch of the books made from Disney fairy tale movies: Cinderella and Pinocchioand Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.
The thing is, in reading Lang, or the Disney versions, I noticed each time that they are sometimes a little, um, regressive. What’s a mother to do?
I made a policy for myself, fairly early on, that if I was reading Cinderella I would not sugar-coat. I read the version where the sisters cut off body parts. Why? Because frequently this would lead to discussions about what body parts one might be willing to cut off in order to marry a prince. I suggested I might be willing to cut off my nose, but my older daughter nixed that. “What will hold your glasses up? And besides,” sternly: “You can’t marry a prince. You’re married to Daddy.” And my daughter announced that she was not going to cut off any body parts at all, thank you very much, prince or no prince. That’s the spirit, kid.
And we got into conversations about why the sisters were so desperate to marry the prince, and whether Cinderella was equally desperate–there’s almost nowhere you can’t go, discussion-wise, with a smart five-year-old girl who is trying to put off lights-out. This led to discussions about what Rumplestiltskin was planning to do with the baby he was taking in trade for all that gold he spun, and why the witch in Rapunzel wanted the baby rather than, say, a suitcase full of gold.* When we read The Twelve Dancing Princesses we noticed that in one version the hero takes the youngest princess to wife as his reward (while the illustrations in our edition made it clear the eldest was expecting to be the prize). “Of course,” my daughter noted. “The youngest one is the nice one. The older ones were mean.” Even in princesses, manners count.
With my younger daughter, many of the same questions arose. But because she is a very different person from her big sister, she was always most interested in whoever in the story had the hero role. She did not, she assured me, want to be a boy. She just wanted to be the boss of the adventure. So we read Mulan and Aladdin and The Lion King, and she would tell me what she would have done if she were there–depending on her mood, she would either enact bloody vengeance or explain things to the bad guys until they surrendered in self-defense. Younger girl was more interested in being part of the action than in being a princess.
And of course they watched all the movies. But because there’s a five year gap between the two girls, they didn’t necessarily watch them at the same time. When older girl was about eleven, she wandered through the living room where her sister was watching Cinderella. “This is kinda a stupid story,” she announced to no one in particular. “He wants to marry her because she’s beautiful, and she wants to marry him because he’s a prince. What are they gonna talk about?”
And I, listening in from the kitchen, raised my hands to the heavens in a gesture of YES!
* These discussions led to my writing Sold for Endless Rue, an historical novel mapped on the Rapunzel tale, because I really did wonder why the witch wanted the baby.