I was never particularly fond of the story of Cinderella. Not because I had a wicked stepmother (okay, so she could be mean, but some days as a teenager I swore she was downright wicked) and three stepsisters, although I wouldn’t exactly call them ugly. Or mean. No, it was because in the end Cinderella was whisked away by a handsome prince and lived happily ever after.
Some of us saw this real life fairy tale play out when the oh-so-beautiful, young and impressionable Diana married Prince Charles. Talk about a fairy tale wedding – but this tale did not have a happy ending. For those of you too young to remember, this is Prince William and Harry’s mother who died twenty years ago in a terrible car crash after being dumped by her husband for his true love Camilla whom he couldn’t marry because she was already married to someone else.
But when my now adult daughter Shannon was four years old, dear old Grandma bought her a Cinderella book, and she’d obviously already read it to her because Shannon loved the story and asked to have the book read to her over and over and over and over.
So I tried to think of the story in a new light. Cinderella worked hard and put up with the abuse of her family day after day. She had a good heart and was kind. Perhaps the moral of the story was that good people who work hard get what they deserve in the end. Nice story. Nice message.
Except that Cinderella didn’t get her reward for working hard and being a nice person. She got the prince to fall in love with her because her fairy godmother bestowed upon her a beautiful gown and those infamous glass slippers. The prince fell in love with her looks and her appearance – a false one I might add – as she didn’t look like that in her daily life. So her Happy Ending comes about through an illusion of beauty, grace and poise that really wasn’t who she was deep inside.
In fact, most of the older Disney Princess movies don’t portray the importance of intelligence or the ability to think for themselves (and ironically, often lost in the translation from the original story). Recently, we’ve seen some improvements in that area. Merida in the movie Brave rejects her suitors and saves her mother’s life -- and in Frozen, the love that saves Anna is actually the love between the sisters. But they really lost an opportunity when they created the first African-American Princess – one who is depicted as strong and independent – unfortunately, she spends most of the movie as a frog.
Mulan showed promise as the story of an Asian woman who pretends to be a man in order to go to war. She manages to end the war and save her people, but it isn’t until her love interest follows her home and asks her to marry him that she gets her happy ending. Again in all these movies, it’s magic that saves everything in the end – not hard work and perseverance. And the sexism just doesn't end.
Even in Disney's recent Moana, she sails across the ocean to restore the heart of the goddess but she still needs the help of a man -- albeit a demigod with animated tattoos.
Besides, are we really supposed to believe that Cinderella and Snow White and Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) and the others found their happy endings when they married their princes? Maybe those Princes cheated on them. Maybe they were too interested in their Fantasy Football teams to pay much attention to their wives’ dreams and aspirations. Perhaps they left their dirty socks on the bedroom floor which was so irritating they had to call the servants immediately to take care of the Prince’s inability to clean up after himself.
Anyone who has been married – whether for a year or 30 years or more – knows that Happily Ever After doesn’t come with the marriage. That’s just the beginning of the story.
Happily Ever After takes work, perseverance and sometimes the recognition that the prince or princess really is a frog after all. Happily Ever After requires a special kind of magic – the kind that comes from inside of each of us and allows us to use our power to make our lives better. Whatever that means for us.