Recently I took my 10-year-old daughter to the movies to see Cinderella, curious about how they would update this "timeless fairytale." After all, we've been seeing charismatic and outspoken princesses like Anna from Frozen and Rapunzel from Tangled; I figured Cinderella might swap her glass slippers for Converse high-tops, start a wish-making business with her fairy Godmother, possibly mutter funny barbs under her breath to her evil stepmom.
Cinderella (played by the lovely Lily James) remains the same sweet, beautiful, blond young victim of circumstance she always was; the prince is still handsome and exactly like every other cardboard cut-out prince we've all grown up with. Yes, the film encourages the need to be "kind and courageous" -- agreed! -- but I'd hate to think girls confuse kind with swallowing tears and remaining silent while being shoved around by bullies on a daily basis. Anyway...
As we left the theater, I asked my daughter what she thought. "It was okay," she said. "I think some of it was silly," she continued. "What about you?"
What I wanted was to fire off my feminist thoughts about women not counting on rich men to save them, and the importance of young women having aspirations of their own. But what I learned after making my documentary about "happily ever after," is that it is far more effective to ask girls questions that get them thinking about healthy relationships than trying to drill reactions into their heads.
So I told her there were parts I liked (it was, for instance, visually gorgeous) and some I didn't. I asked my girl what she made of the prince. "I guess he was handsome," she said, "but nothing really stands out about him." I agreed, and asked. "What did you make of the fact that they married so quickly?" She yelled, "I know! I mean, they went on like one date together, and they're going to get married?! They don't even know each other!" I bit my tongue from yelling "GOOD GIRL!"
On the car ride home, I asked her about the most important qualities for a romantic relationship. "He has to be cute, I mean, come on," she said, "and guys should be nice and treat girls well... like not lie and be a good friend to them." I tried to coax a little more out of her, but she was done and switched topics to possible play dates that weekend.
It was a start. As Elsa from Frozen advises, I "let it go."
Our kids are taking in so much media, and there are still so many relationship plot-lines in movies and TV shows in which the sole focus for girls is how to land the cute dude. It's distressing. But these shows can also be wonderful conversation starters with our girls -- and boys -- about what kinds of choices they want to make about current and future relationships.
The next time a girl dumbs herself down on the big screen or small screen to get the boy's attention, ask with a neutral tone: "Why do you think she's pretending she's not smart in front of him?" If a girl treats another girl badly to "get the boy," ask, "Wow, what would make a girl treat another girl like that for a boy's attention?"
Let your child answer, and try to wait to respond until she/he asks. When you answer, tread lightly -- you don't have to pack a lifetime of wisdom into this one moment. Make a point or two about what is most important to you, and see if you can keep your child talking. When they're done, remind yourself that you planted a seed you will continue to water over the years.
Let's hope for more children's narratives with strong girls and women who enjoy romance without it being the only driving force in their lives. Maybe sometimes the stories don't have to include romance at all. As Cinderella sings: "If you keep on believing, the dream that you wish will come true." And as I tell the girls in my media program, it wouldn't hurt to learn the technical skills to produce and distribute diverse stories themselves.