In Defense of Cinderella: The Dress











I have a near-three-year-old girl who lives within a mile of both sets of grandparents. This means that some aspect of the Disney princess world will infiltrate our lives (yes, ours, not just hers) with or without my consent.

The first foray involved mysterious new references to “Cinderella”, as in “Mommy, is this Cinderella music?” while listening to Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. I decided a “yes” was in the spirit of the question. This, however, invited a series of follow-on questions during all episodes of music-listening, usually taking the form of “Mama, what’s Cinderella doing NOW?” At this point, Sleeping Beauty was still in my mind and usually Cinderella was skipping through the forest, singing to birds, meeting dryads and water nymphs, hallooing down wells, and sometimes hopping on one foot in the rain, all very pastoral. But sooner or later, all this Cinderella talk was bound to result in some grandparent or other bringing home from Costco “for a great price”…the dress. Now there’s simply no fighting the fact of the dress. It’s there, at Grandma’s, and once there, it of course must be accessorized through several toddler appropriate projects. All very educational, of course. (Thank goodness making heeled glass slippers is outside of a very capable Grandma’s ken, since I draw the line at unwearable, ankle-endangering shoes.) And once the dress is donned, then, in a very real way to my girl, Cinderella is donned too.

So we watched the movie, recently reissued by Disney. I had forgotten how straightforward the princess narrative of Cinderella is. She literally shows up at the ball, and by merely being there and being beautiful, the prince loves her. It’s not clear they actually have much conversation; it is clear that neither knows the other’s name by midnight. Her step-sisters have caricatured features, usually scowling, often yelling. My daughter was shocked by their abuse of each other, and of Cinderella. And it would be easy to see the movie as merely “pretty girl beats ugly girls by being pretty”.

But that’s a mis-read of the movie. And it turns out, there’s a lot in Cinderella that I would love my daughter to be inspired by, and that as we talk about her and about her story, I’m hoping to bring out.

Let’s take the scene that follows the storybook “back story” that relates the love, well-intentioned re-marriage, and sudden death of her noble father that left Cinderella to the care of a jealous and cruel step-family. In the second scene, Cinderella is awakened to a new day of servitude by troupes of birds and mice and sings the Disney classic “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes”. Now, I’m not sure how much I can rescue a song that seems straightforwardly to promise that believing in your wishes makes them come true eventually. A very charitable read might make of it a proclamation of persistent hope for a future good, in spite of daily circumstances. What caught my eye instead was the relationship between Cinderella and the little creatures.

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