Mark Zuckerberg, my close friend and ally, posted one of those “You Have Memories” nostalgia triggers on my Facebook page a couple of weeks ago that made me both laugh out loud and eat my words (awkward, since we all know it’s rude to laugh with your mouth full of words). Here is the post that popped up from my past and shamed me heartily.
"if and when livy is interested in princess shit, i'll let her have it and break a sweat every day trying to teach her to be a savvy and critical consumer of this rosy media. until then, whatever is introduced into our home goes straight to goodwill."
This post in and of itself is not that embarrassing. There's nothing inherently regrettable about this post, but the contrast between this post's defiant earnestness and the clear subjugation to the Disney machine that I now find myself in that's painful. I was so young as a mother of one child, so innocent! I had such bold ideas! And now, 6 years in and with a whole other daughter to raise, I find myself playing The Daughters their beloved Disney princess flicks not to actively challenge the tired paradigms reproduced within, but rather to catch a break and do something really radical like fold laundry, prepare a meal, or move my bowels in solitude. I mean, I'm breaking a sweat keeping up with the basics of making sure they're clean, fed, and moderately well-behaved. The instruction in feminist cultural criticism, when it happens, isn't nearly as militant or zealous as I once imagined it would be.
But, friends, but that doesn't mean it's not happening. We stumbled across this book at our local library the other day, and it's a gem worth owning.
In Interstellar Cinderella our heroine still lives with a wicked stepmother and stepsisters, but instead of in a palace in long ago France they all live together in a futuristic spacescape, and instead of her being an exploited and supplanted former member of the gentry, she is now an eager and talented mechanic. Yes, there’s a ball, and yes, she is assisted in attending by a fairy godrobot. But once there the prince takes notice of her when she fixes his broken spaceship, not because she looks pretty. Impressed with her talents, he takes the socket wrench she left behind and travels the galaxy with it and a broken spaceship trying to find the girl who can repair the damaged craft. When the prince eventually finds Cinderella, she repairs the ship, and he proposes marriage. After thinking about it, she decides that she’s too young for marriage and asks to be his chief mechanic instead. And they all, as fairytales demand, live happily ever after.
What I love about this retelling of the story that the original lacks is that Interstellar Cinderella, as opposed to mere terrestrial Cinderella, has some verbs attached to her character. Do you remember that old ad campaign to encourage physical fitness from the early 2000’s to “find your verb?” The phrase may not have stuck with the general populace or inspired much in the way of exercise, but I think of it whenever I encounter a traditional Disney or Disney-type princess character. They might be beautiful, but traditionally they rarely DO much. And if they do have verbs attached to their characters, they are singular and all-defining. Belle reads. Ariel sings (until she volunteers to stop in order to get the prince). Snow White mothers some tiny strangers. Sleeping Beauty naps. The princesses who are active in their own storylines and have some agency, such as Mulan, Pocahontas, Tiana, and Merida, tend not be included in the pantheon of Disney Princesses or, if they are, are clearly the outlier B-listers in the group.* The Disney Princess Varsity Team is, by and large, populated by characters with little to no action associated with them. And of the Disney Princesses, none is more iconic than Cinderella.
In the case of Cinderella, what distinguishes her from other women at the ball and in the story aren’t her verbs, which identify her more as a charwoman than a princess, but rather her appearance and her “queenly grace.” It’s not because of what she does, but rather it’s because of her beauty and “grace” that she is the chosen one. Disney’s Cinderella, regardless of how much she is forced to clean and polish and shine and suffer, has no inherent verbs of her own. Interstellar Cinderella, however, has lots of active and exciting verbs that define her. She fixes! She repairs! She thinks! She strategizes! She solves problems and advocates for herself! She even finds herself a satisfying and prestigious career! Verbs, people! She has found hers, and that’s what makes her such a radical departure from her ill-defined source material and namesake.
In order to understand the feminist subversion in Interstellar Cinderella and in her active direction of her own trajectory and narrative, you first have to be familiar with the original. You have to see what the revision is riffing off of and correcting in order to understand the full scope of its theme. Because it’s not only about a savvy and talented young woman scrappily making a better life for herself through hard work and good career planning, but it’s also a rejection of the passive, submissive heroine whose fate is only altered through the interference of magic and a royal’s appreciation of her beauty. If one were to read Interstellar Cinderella, one would certainly comprehend what the book is saying yes to: the dynamic and driven pursuit of one’s interests and dreams. But without first having experienced the iconic Disney Cinderella or her fairytale ancestors, one would not understand what the retelling is saying no to: patient suffering without any attempt at self-advocacy or resistance being rewarded with a deus ex machina and gendered rescue.
And it’s this logic that I cling desperately to when Olivia wants to watch her DVD of Disney’s Cinderella. I tried, people, I tried hard to keep the princesses at bay, but then it was all cracked open by a little independent movie you probably haven’t heard of by the name of Frozen. Having heard it was about sisters rather than romance, and as an excuse to entice Olivia into seeing her first movie in a theater with me, I let her see it. Once that floodgate was open, there was no closing it, and a casual acquaintanceship with Disney princesses blossomed into an ardent lust with the catalyst of Anna and Elsa. Those sisters became the gateway princesses, and their whole glittering sorority have followed them into my home and into Olivia’s heart. And so it was the summer before last, when Olivia found a DVD of Cinderella at a yard sale that she could afford with her own money (Remember when I said that your child’s financial self-determination at age 5 could really bite you in the ass sometimes?), that my already-weakened final resistance to our Disnification crumbled at my feet.
Yes, we own and watch Cinderella, and also yes, we are still able to question it and talk about its flaws. We aren’t examining it as thoroughly or critically as my younger, more idealistic, more resistant self assumed we would. I’m certainly not breaking any sweats delivering feminist screeds, to the relief of every member of this family, I’m sure. But by reading books like Interstellar Cinderella and talking about how good, complex characters DO things (Strategize! Repair! Engage!) and don’t just BE things (Pretty! Nice! Graceful!) with the background understanding of what a traditional princess archetype is, we are still questioning gendered notions of character and narrative. It’s not the stridently feminist vision I had in mind when I posted so earnestly on Facebook years ago, but then, what fairy tale ever does come completely true?
*I still don’t know what to do with Anna and Elsa. Elsa isn’t a princess, after all, she’s a queen, and Anna’s position as a princess is secondary to her position as a sister and a heroine. I think that Disney may have broken their own mold here. More thinking and, possibly, more writing to come.