What If Cinderella Spent Her Life Overworked After One Glorious Night?

I’m still here, still me, still Aunty Feminist, except instead of taking a question from you this time, I’m just going to tell you a tale. I call this a Bedtime Story For Feminist Boys and Girls, and if you like it, I’ll tell you more, but I’m going to begin by going back to real bedtime stories, which I’m sure you’ve all heard.

Once upon a time, there was a princess, and then something dreadful happened to her. She was locked in a tower, or given a poisoned apple or forced to live with a beast or pricked her finger on a spindle which put her to sleep for many years. And in all these stories, her salvation is the prince, the prince who chases after the mystery lady, looking for the foot that fits the shoe. Or the prince who kisses the sleeping beauty so that her spell is broken and she wakes up.

But what if there was no prince? What if Rapunzel grew out her hair, and then dangled it out of the window waiting for someone who never came? What if Cinderella had that one glorious night at the ball and spent the rest of her life dreaming about it, growing sad and old with overwork? What if Snow White died of starvation, a wedge of poisoned apple lodged in her throat?

These are the first stories we’re told, Disney celebrates them—most recently, the lovely young bookish woman who dreams of travel and a better life realises that her true adventure lies not two miles away from her village where she lives with a handsome Beast-turned-man. Belle’s role is to educate, when Emma Watson (who played Belle in the live-action movie) was asked in an interview what she thought would happen next, she said she thought Belle would open the library to everyone in the village and perhaps open a little school. There’s nothing wrong with being an educator, but all too often, it is the role that our princesses get.

Either that or they’re perfect trophy wives for their princes. After a life of yearning and waiting, can you imagine Sleeping Beauty awake and on the throne? Perhaps she’s drumming her fingers on the armrest wondering, “So what happens next?” Nothing. Nothing happens next in a happy ending, according to the fairy tales, it ends with “so they lived happily ever after.” Your adventures are over, you hang up your dancing shoes, you say goodbye to whimsy. Do you think Snow White’s dwarves moved in with her? Do you think Ariel ever missed being as free as the sea, going where the waves took her?

Why are our first stories, our most important stories all about marriage and waiting and happy endings? At one level, I can understand: happy endings give you hope, but on another, I would like for children to hear, “When Rapunzel realised no one was coming to rescue her, she used her hair as a weapon, overpowered the witch and escaped from the castle.”

Romantic movies pander to this myth as well—no matter how well it’s established that the couple is not right for each other, all it takes is one impassioned through-the-airport dash, one speech, or in the case of Bollywood, one song, and the heroine melts along with all their problems. In Bollywood, the hero is the one who gets to be interesting, the heroine exists as a foil for him, and in many ways is offered up as salvation. He’s a good enough man in the end to get the girl, we’re told, and so his arc is complete.

Ladies and gentlemen, I propose we tell stories differently. We can still begin with once upon a time, but let’s change that damsel in distress to someone who doesn’t need saving. Let’s stop putting all the burden for change on the prince. Let’s tell—and live—stories where our heroes coexist, each of them with flaws, and both of them get to have adventures.

That’s what I call a happy ever after.

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