I love to read to my kids. Imogen, my eldest daughter, has a particular set of Disney books. They’re uber-condensed versions of Disney’s biggest animated movies—Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast and several others. The set, though, came with a reader. It’s this little push-pad device that lets you choose which of the books you want to read and then there’s this syrupy voice that reads whatever book you chose. You have to push certain buttons on the device to cue the voice that you’re done with one page and that it can start reading the next one. Concurrently, you physically turn the book’s pages. But even though the voice does my job for me, Imogen always wants me to sit with her while it reads to her. Or to us. (That she wants me to sit with her warms the cockles of my father-heart, by the way. This I will cherish when she is sixteen and curses me because I won’t let her date “Octopus the Maladjusted Senior*.”) Because I’m not doing the reading, I find myself paying attention to the books in a way that I don’t when I am reading them.
I’ll be the first to admit that I know jack about feminism. I think men and women should be treated equally, and that’s about all I know. I wish I could give you a smart-sounding dissertation on gender roles. I can’t. But I noticed something in Imogen's books. In some of the books, the female protagonist, the princess, is functionally a mannequin. Like, Cinderella? Nothing that happens in the story is her fault, whether for good or bad. She doesn’t cause anything. She doesn’t choose to go to the ball, for example. The prince invites all the ladies in the kingdom to the ball to, essentially, celebrate him. Cinderella doesn’t choose a fairy godmother. Rather, one just shows up and, without really asking Cinderella’s opinion of any of it, bibbity bobbity boo’s all that glass slipper business right down on top of her. After the clock strikes midnight and Cinderella runs away, the prince finds her; she doesn’t go out looking for him. What I’m saying is that Cinderella is about 98% purely passive.
It’s different in, specifically, Beauty and the Beast. Really, Belle is the hero in that one. There’s Gaston, whose advances she keeps at bay. She’s not falling for his expectorating hunter bullshit. She reads books like a house on fire, so she’s smart and has real opinions on stuff. Then there’s her father, a bumbling old guy who means well, but is…way too bumbling. Belle is the brave one who takes her father’s place as the Beast’s captive, and it’s out of sheer love that she does it. Even the Beast, as big and strong as he is, ends up dead. It's Belle who chooses to love him. Her active choice of love a.) saves him and b.) turns him back into a man. (Which, personally, would have pissed me off. “My horns! My sweet fangs! NOOO!”)
I want my daughters—I have Ingrid as well as Imogen—to be opinionated and active and brave. That doesn’t mean I want them to be manly, whatever that means. (Maybe Gaston is manly, spitting and hunting and all of that.) Above all, I want them to be loving. Loving in the real sense. How could Cinderella, poor girl, be loving? I predict divorce for her and the prince within six months after the prince finds out she doesn’t. Do. Anything. He probably has to feed her. “I’m outta here, Cinderella. I’m tired of shoving figs in your mouth and then working your jaw for you.” Loving as in sacrificial. Loving as in making hard choices. Loving as in putting other people’s well-being ahead of their own. You get what I’m saying. Loving as in Belle-ish-ness.
*Don’t even think about stealing “Octopus the Maladjusted Senior.” I’m going to write a rock opera about him. Don’t touch.