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When I was a kid, I had to participate in a fancy dress competition. Like my other girlfriends, I too wanted a fairytale princess attire for myself. But, as luck would have it, by the time we reached the shop, all the costumes were sold out. The shop owner held a mucky wig in his hand, saying that that was what was left. And my father, who is never one to call it quits, took it, and I participated in the event as a sweeper!
I hated all princesses from that day on, and all the protagonists of the many fairytales that I have read in my childhood.
One thing which strikingly is common, and comes right at your face when you read them, is the beauty. All these ladies are beautiful to their bones. The story keeps accentuating that fact around every corner. Not a speck of ugliness has ever touched them. And there, the first seed of inferiority is sown.
Looks. Somewhere, the small brain of a child, who reads the story, interprets that external beauty is immensely important. If I am not beautiful, I am not good enough. I am something less.
This beauty does not stop at the epidermal level. No, sir. It goes much deeper. The lady also has a very kind soul; so kind and pure, even the birds and animals around can sense that and help her in her chores! Not an iota of anything bad has brushed past her. Not the slightest shade of grey.
That is what it is meant to convey—the picture of a perfect lady. Love and kindness, almost dripping out of her.
Cinderella could never have even dreamt of disobeying her stepmother. A naughty blotch of stain on her mother’s dress, or a deliberate speck of leftover food on the dishes. An innocent cut in the sisters’ dress while sewing, nor a simple feigning of sickness.
Something. Anything. Never, not once, is there a citation of her saying NO. That I will not do this. The message? Never stand up for yourself.
She had to be so perfect, so obliging and so dutiful. And there lies the ulterior motive. Raise ‘good’ girls.
Why were these stories told? When a little girl hears this story, she relates to Cinderella, and hates the stepmother and stepsisters. Mentally, she has made a table of Dos and Don’ts. The actions of Cinderella check the Dos side, and the cruel actions are featured on the other.
Next time she does something, she relates to whether it is like Cinderella or like the sisters, and she has a moral compass ready to guide her to make the ‘right’ decisions, leaving her without any inkling of grey areas. Mission accomplished.
Moving ahead in the story, there is always a stepmother/stepsister/witch (again, a female character!) so cruel to our Lady that it brings you to the brink of killing her yourself. And since we are on the topic, just posing a passing thought – why is the bridge always falling, kids tumbling down the hills & breaking their heads, and eggs falling from walls in our rhymes? But, we will talk about this some other day!
Coming back to our Lady. She always needs some rescuing from that evilness, and is always so helpless, and in need of support. Typical damsel in distress. And, rubbing salt to the injury, cometh the charming Prince! It could never be a woodcutter, or a farmer, or even a rich boy. It always had to be a Prince.
Cinderella couldn’t possibly just dance to her heart’s content that night and let the prince see her in her real form. Maybe the prince still would have married her, if she would have! Rapunzel never tried once to get out herself, such as chopping off her hair and using it as a rope to escape. No, not happening. It has to be the Prince that saves her. What about teaching our children to try for themselves?
And, all the stories end in marriage. Happily ever after. It leaves you with the impression that marrying is the ultimate aim. And marrying a prince — my my, nothing like it. No one wants to know the other side of the story.
Stories are a wonderful medium to teach our children the things we want them to think about and eventually practice. The onus of teaching them to tell good from bad lies on us. Keeping this in mind, we have to choose our stories with care. Children need to learn that there will be bad days, and the best person to rely on is yourself. Yes, you can take help. The help can be a girl or a boy (or an animal) and, most importantly, you don’t necessarily need to marry the help!
I am grateful for newer versions of stories, like Brave, Maleficent, Moana, and Frozen. Girls have better role models to look up to. They are characters who are not picture-perfect beautiful, have freckles and untamable hair, and yet are beautiful in their own way. When thrown a challenge, they don’t wait for a charming Prince, but instead they pick up their skirts and fight. They fall and scrape their knees, but they keep fighting.
That is what I want my daughter to read and learn. So, I never told her those ancient fairytale stories, and I was happy when one day she came up to me and asked – “Mama, why did Cinderella not say anything to her stepmother?” I knew I had chosen the right stories for her.
And FYI – I won the fancy dress competition that day!
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