Not In Distress And Not A Princess: Why Young Girls Need Better Bedtime Stories

A video called “If Cinderella Were a Guy” went viral recently. The three-minute video shows the guy Cinderella or ‘Cindefella’ sweeping the floor, being tortured by his stepbrothers and stepfather, a fairy godfather giving him a new suit and glass loafers. Cinderfella dancing with the princess at the ball whom he marries, eventually.

The video seems outrageous for many reasons. First, how can a man do menial jobs like sweeping the floor? Second, how can he be so weak to let his stepbrothers and stepfather torture him? Why can’t he fight against such atrocities? Third, how can he weep? Fourth, why does he have a midnight curfew? Men don’t have curfews! Finally, glass loafers? Only women are required to bear the pain of looking beautiful. So clearly, glass heels or slippers are meant for women, not men!

The creators of this video who are also authors of the book, “Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls”, Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo, assert that mostly all bedtime stories, kids’ movies and fairytales show a meek girl who awaits the arrival of a prince, hunter or even mouse to help her reach destiny. She is never shown taking matters into her own hands.

This is true. Whether it is Snow White, Rapunzel, Cinderella or  Sleeping Beauty, the woman waits for her prince charming to break a spell cast on her or save the ‘damsel in distress.  It may be argued that times have changed, and all these stories have been retold with women having agency. But you don’t need to look too deep to see that they quintessentially resonate the same theme. Today, Disney is making movies with females who are sassier and stronger. Surprisingly, however, these characters are often given fewer dialogues and lesser screen time compared to the male characters. So, the focus is still on the male protagonists.

Bedtime stories always show women as princesses with no career prospects. They are shown to be leading terrible lives before they are rescued by a man. This makes young girls believe that they are inferior to and less capable than boys. My mother once told me that she wanted to learn music when she was young. But my grandmother did not allow her and asked her to get permission from her husband when she marries. This still holds true but with slight variations. These days, parents allow their daughters to pursue their interests. But once she attains ‘the marriageable age’, the time for pursuing her passion ends. And it all goes back to – “Ask your husband!” Basically reiterating that they have to wait for their prince. It is imperative that girls know about the different fields and career choices. This can only be done by introducing our girls to women who have excelled in areas supposed to be dominated by men. Also making them understand that they too, like these women can succeed in any field they decide to be in.

The book, “Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls” is about 100 such powerful women who broke the glass ceiling and challenged the notion of gender stereotypes. The efforts are applaud-worthy. But the question that needs to be asked is this: is it enough to empower just our girls? Shouldn’t we also make our boys responsible and instil a spirit of sportsmanship in them?

In the 1973 Hrishikesh Mukherjee film “Abhimaan”, the male character Subeer, a budding pop singer marries Uma, the daughter of a classical singer. He persuades her to take up music professionally and supports her initially.  However, her popularity soon overshadows his. Her rising stardom is a blow to his ego and he becomes exceedingly jealous of her. Uma, returns to her father’s home but goes into depression due to this mental agony.

Now as this a ‘70s movie, and movies then always ended with ‘and they lived happily ever after’. Subeer’s friend and relatives intervene and he realises his mistake. They reunite. THE END.

But no one knows what happens to Uma’s music career. In reality, if this would have happened there would have been two equally plausible scenarios. First would be Uma quitting her career to come back to her husband or take up very few offers. Second would be them parting ways.

Hence, it is not just important for kids to read about empowered women and their struggle. The support and encouragement of the males in their lives must also be highlighted.

For example, PV Sindhu, the silver medalist at the Rio Olympics was nurtured by P. Gopichand, who himself is former an All England champion. Mahavir Singh Phogat, the father of wrestlers Gita and Babita Phogat, was not only instrumental in their training them but also fought with the orthodox society to make them wrestlers. Dipa Karmakar, the first Indian gymnast to qualify for the Olympics is coached by Bishweshwar Nandi. Karmakar is one of the five people in the world to successfully perform the Produnova Vault or the ‘vault of death’!

Hence, it is imperative for boys and men to learn to accept a woman’s success. It cannot be isolated.  A woman’s growth, desire and ambition are not like the mercury thread in a thermometer that as soon as it is higher than a certain temperature (say 98.4oC), it causes fever or havoc in a man’s life!