Cinderella stories set students up for a fall

16th May 2014 at 01:00
Fairy tales encourage damaging social and gender expectations - we need to teach young people to create their own happily ever after

One of my students once told me with worrying conviction that their life dream was to own a jacuzzi. It is rare to find such certainty and attainability of ambition. Most students aim only for what they believe they are meant to be aiming for, and so inadvertently chase a conditioned and pointless "happily ever after" as senselessly as if they were playing a game of pin the tail on the social stereotype.

In 1981, journalist Collette Dowling wrote The Cinderella Complex about women's fear of independence and reliance on external forces. Dowling was investigating gender at a time when women were still expected, subconsciously at the very least, to be limpets on the sides of men. But women's economic emancipation was undergoing a revolution. Garbed in skirt suits with shoulder pads big enough to land helicopters on, they were becoming powerful in their own right. Nevertheless, many displayed debilitating anxiety at their own independence.

Women's place in society has advanced a long way since then, but when it comes to the stories that are used as a backdrop for children's development, progress is glacial.

Not a day goes by without Disney films being criticised for their portrayal of women so this is nothing new, but that does not mean we should stop questioning and analysing these stories - and particularly their endings. "Happily ever after" brings the curtain down on a play when there is still one act left. It offers no consequences and directly imitates, or mandates, children's thinking. They believe in the magic moment - which for most girls, sadly, means the prince; the perfect man.

Grown-up culture continues to trumpet the value of the happily ever after. Because for most people it is impossible to achieve, we fetishise those who appear to have done so. From Grace Kelly and Katherine Middleton to Diana Spencer, we obsess over stories of the girl who really did bag her prince. We wrap their lives and fairy-tale weddings around ourselves as if their dresses were our own. Even the phrase "fairy-tale wedding" hints that we don't quite believe it. It is a construction as flimsy as a glass slipper. By virtue of it being a fairy tale it must, inherently, be imaginary, and yet we can't help ourselves. We live in a society that is fixated on the happy ending.

For all our grand pretences of female equality and emancipation, we are as inconsistent on the subject as a God-fearing atheist. We advocate liberal feminism at the same time as jamming Cinderella and her ilk down our students' throats.

Even updated and progressive children's novels cannot remain consistent - at the end of the Harry Potter series, for example, happiness for Harry, Ginny, Ron and Hermione lies in coupledom. Where is Hermione as minister for magic? Where is the excitement of Ginny winning the Quidditch Cup? In fan fiction, that's where.

For boys, the storylines are as confusing as those for girls. The proactive redrawing of gender norms is profoundly female-centric. In fairy tales, men have two roles: emotionless prince or hero. Boys know that they cannot ever achieve the perfection that girls are conditioned to expect of them. And alongside this, being a traditional man is increasingly becoming demonised. I believe that many of our male students feel guilty simply because of their sex.

Wishful thinking

It is too easy for us to ignore the further ramifications of fairy tales because they are ubiquitous. But take a moment to consider the other moralistic lessons that are forced in children's faces. Our students learn that ugly people are evil because of the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella, Scar in The Lion King or Ursula in The Little Mermaid. They learn that a perfect man like Prince Charming is the answer to all their problems and that lying about who you are - like Aladdin or Cinders - is a realistic way of achieving your dreams.

Cinderella complex can be translated into children's belief that at some point in their future everything will be fine because someone or something will change their lives for them. Students focus merely on achieving the kind of happily ever after mandated by their peers or elders or in stories. They cruise along in the passenger seat of a car when they don't know who is driving.

I have a lot more respect for students who tell me that they want to go to university "to have a good time" than for those who say they are going because they should. This is Cinderella thinking. It is the idea that continuing thoughtlessly along a predetermined path is fine because something, such as the Lottery, a Premiership football team or a beautiful and rich life partner, will come along and save them. To quote Cinderella - who has so much to answer for - "No matter how your heart is grieving, if you keep believing, the dream that you wish will come true."

It is within our power to help students break this cycle. Children look to us as though we were their fairy godmothers. But it is vital that we convince them to take apart their expectations and really look at why they have them. We should encourage them to be self-aware and self-critical. I spent last term's lessons with my favourite class holding fairy tales to account for their gender expectations. Dowling's perception of events may be a little archaic now but my students were still shocked when they began to look at the ideas that fairy tales engender - in them and, perhaps more importantly, in their teachers.

Look at everything we do as educators: we hype and celebrate singular moments and refuse to acknowledge what happens beyond the happily ever after. "Get great GCSEs," we shout. "Go to university," we advise. "Find a husband," we show them by example. And so they buy into it, believe it and pursue it. Because that is what they think we, as representatives of society, want and expect.

Calum Mittie is a pseudonym. He blogs at

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