Someday My (Housework-Helping, Democratically-Elected) Prince Will Come

March 7, 2008 at 2:32 pm (Uncategorized)

“At the touch of Love’s First Kiss, Snow White awoke,” I read to my son Andrew, who was nestled next to me in bed. “There, bending over her, was the Prince of her dreams….” My voice trailed off. We had already covered Snow White’s mother dying, and the huntsman hacking out a deer’s heart instead of Snow White’s. I had reassured Andrew that “everything will be OK” as he whimpered next to me when Snow White crumpled, barely breathing, to the floor of the Seven Dwarves’ cottage. I would not be stopped, here, on the very last page, by a bit of anti-feminism.

So I performed a minor modification to the end of the story. The original text proclaimed, “Snow White knew that she loved him, too.” But to my son, I read, “Snow White knew that she would grow to love him, too…” I fumbled a bit, and then added, “because he was a kind man…and a good leader…and a fair ruler…and they would share their lives together.” My husband Jay, who was reading a magazine in bed next to us, began to make aggressive throat clearing sounds in an effort not to laugh. I did stick to the tried-and-true final, formulaic sentence: “She said good-bye to the seven dwarves and, mounted on a white charger behind her Prince, rode off to his Castle of Dreams Come True.” I refrained from expounding that his Castle was only his temporary abode — one of the perks, like the White House for our President, that came with being a democratically-elected leader. And then I closed the book.

I can already hear a great harrumphing barreling down my high-speed cables. “It’s just a story,” the harrumphers say. “What’s wrong with love at first sight? Why must you politically correct people take the fun out of everything?” I must admit there is a piece of me that agrees with the grousing of those readers to the right of me. I felt slightly ridiculous — almost prudishly Victorian — in my tentative reworking of a story I had cherished as a child. And nevertheless, I had done so. Why?

Snow White is indeed “just” a story. But stories aren’t mere words on a page, especially ones like fairy tales that we’ve been telling and retelling ourselves since feudal times. Snow White and the rest of the Brothers’ Grimm fare carry along hundreds of years of cultural connotations in their wake. They help shape how we think of ourselves and our place in the world. They teach us — about good and evil, about the powerful and the powerless, and about the perils that threaten those who are good and powerless.

If you think I’m way over-reading things, well, at the very least I’m not alone. For painfully academic lit-crit, it’s hard to top the heavy-handed psychoanalytic interpretations of Bruno Bettelheim. Try this one: When Snow White’s mother pricks her finger sewing and wishes for a daughter “with lips as red as blood, skin as white as snow, and hair as black as ebony,” Bettelheim interprets: “…the significance of menstrual blood [is] symbolic here of the birth of Snow White and, later, of Snow White’s own sexual and social maturation involving a threefold unification of the white, black, and red parts of nature.” Yikes.

I’m much more partial to “Peasants Tell Tales: The Meaning of Mother Goose,” a chapter in Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre, a masterful – and very funny – book about pre-modern Europe. Darton believes that folk or fairy tales — like all stories — provide the reader or listener insight into the social construction of their reality. The message delivered by the story isn’t that Snow White wants to roll in the hay with her daddy (as Bettelheim would have it), but that life is very fragile and that one’s fate, even if you are a princess, is determined by seemingly random and capricious events. Snow White survives because of the kindness of strangers, who are weird outcasts themselves.

Of course, none of this was on my mind when I opened a tattered book from my own childhood to read to Andrew. I just needed something new to read. Now that he’s four, we’ve finally been able to progress to longer and more interesting stories. As much as I love my kid, there’s only so many times I can plow through the Berenstain Bears dealing with their god-awful gimmies or visiting the dentist without wanting to rip out my hair — or at least the pages of some of Andrew’s books. I was sorely ready for something with a real plot.

Jay got the jump on me in the realm of reading longer books, however, by starting Andrew on Jay’s childhood copy of The Hobbit. Even though I’m more than ready to leave behind the smug, moral order of the nine thousand Thomas the Tank Engine books we’ve consumed, I still thought my husband was overreaching a bit. Andrew is intelligent and all, but The Hobbit’s pages number in the hundreds and our edition has nary a picture to distract a preschooler. Honestly, though, my resistance was more primal. I’m not quite ready to launch my little fledgling out of the tidy nest where Thomas, James, and the other engines reside — a lovely island where, in the end, the truth always gets told, punishments are fair, nothing ever turns out too badly, and there’s always a cup of tea to be had — into the shadowy underworld of Tolkien. He’ll learn soon enough that “ignorant armies clash by night,” to quote Matthew Arnold. “He’s either not going to understand a bit of that, or you’re going to traumatize him,” I warned Jay.

I was wrong. Andrew can’t wait for their nightly forays into the adventures of Bilbo Baggins. From time to time, Andrew will reproduce some plot detail for me. “The sunlight turned all the trolls into stone!” he told me the other evening in a happy voice. “And Bilbo got their treasure.” There’ve been no night terrors, no lingering worries that he’ll be stuffed into a sack while someone contemplates roasting or boiling him.

I wasn’t expecting how much the story would bother me, though, with its largely amoral and English-ly sardonic world-view. (There is much longing for tea, at least.) Maybe that’s because my cherished childhood book was a Walt Disney compilation of various folk tales, replete with peril but ending neatly and happily. Which is not to say I’m a huge Disney aficionado as an adult. I know some folks adore all things Disney (taking it to extremes, I’ve heard of Mickey Mouse-themed weddings, where they bride wore mouse ears, and of people moving to a planned Disney community in the Florida swamps). But I’ve long been put off by some of the messages the company delivers right along with its “wholesome stories.” There’s a slickness to everything they produce — a blurring of the line between innocent childhood play and flint-eyed marketing. It’s as if there’s a conveyor belt delivering kids straight from the movie theater to the store to purchase the latest big-breasted “Disney princess” and then to MacDonald’s (or Burger King, or whoever else stumped up the millions in licensing fees) to obtain the plastic, movie-themed trinket to accompany your deep-fried lunch. It feels very far from Darnton’s notion that these stories are teaching us about our place in a fragile world. Or maybe it’s not that far. The Disney re-tellings are teaching us, all right – to buy, buy, buy. Oh, and also that someday your prince will come.

Perhaps I shouldn’t worry too much about this last one. I’m lucky to have a boy, so I can (hopefully) set aside my feminist worries about my child chirping away like a cricket that some handsome dude will rescue him from all the injustice and intolerance of the world. But then, I also don’t want my son to view damsels in distress as the norm. Even though I’ve had to rely physically, financially and emotionally on my own version of Prince Charming (Jay) since my sarcoidosis diagnosis, I want Andrew to find his equal in the world — a woman who tackles her own problems, has her own passions, but who can help take care of him. In other words, I want him to marry pre-sarcoidosis me. (I don’t want to contemplate what Bettelheim would make of that bit of information.)

I also think I was also brought up a little short when I re-discovered that Snow White follows what seems like a patented Disney formula: kill the mother — without a backward glance and before you’ve hit page two. Now, I know that Disney — and the folk tales from which it’s constructed many a hit movie — aren’t plotting the demise of all mothers. They are simply moving the plot along with a tried-and-true strategy. How can a young man or woman (or fawn or fox for that matter) undertake the journey necessary to become a hero or heroine (or simply have an adventure) if Mommy is always there, calling you home for dinner, pre-screening your suitors, and declaring glass footwear both unsafe and thoroughly ridiculous. “You’re going out? In those shoes? I don’t think so, Missy.” (I’m surprised that once Disney acquired the rights to Winnie the Pooh it didn’t immediately off Kanga, the kind and doting mother of Roo, who gets her scampish kid out of many a scrape, and replace her with an evil step-Heffalump or something.)

I know I’m being oversensitive. And I know I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth. If the original folk tales are about conveying the painful yet magical, reality of our world, then I should applaud Disney for letting the mothers die. Mothers die all the time, and back when Snow White was an oral folk tale, they died in droves, not least from childbirth. Here’s the catch, though: I’m acutely worried about becoming a dead mother and I have enough reality on this topic. Just a few hours ago, I had chest pains and heart palpitations that nearly sent me to the emergency room. Ergo, I don’t like reading about dead mothers. And I don’t want Andrew worried about me becoming a dead mother. As it is, he makes a habit of asking quite solicitously after my blood sugar. He also claims he’s going to “bash” the sarcoidosis right out of me. I like the spunk in that approach, and dread the day he asks the inevitable question: “Mommy, are you going to die?”

As I read the story to him, though, I didn’t revise the portions of dealing with the dead mother, or with the helpless princess awaiting rescue. It was only when I got to the end and Snow White instantly fell in love with the Prince that I started spinning a secondary tale — the one that amused the hell out of my husband. It was a small statement on my part against many things that prickled at me. And perhaps I am being a femi-Nazi, or a zealous politically correcto. Maybe I’m ruining a good story by making it more than a story. But if Disney can rewrite history of Pocahontas and John Smith as cavalierly as it did (and then produce a Pocahontas “Disney princess” for sale at Wal-Mart to boot — one that conveniently omits her small pox scars, I presume), why can’t I encourage my son to believe true love involves more than a magic kiss? Why shouldn’t this not-dead mother try to conjure up a new kind of Prince for our new world?

As I pondered further my hesitations with both telling the story and taking liberties with it, it occurred to me that my queasiness about revisionism transcends gender roles and corporate rewrites. Living with a chronic disease — one that has taken from me the image of myself I want to pass along to my son — requires constant rewriting and revising to maintain my sanity and my dignity. For instance, I catch myself apologizing to Andrew and Jay for not being able to go ice skating or downhill skiing with them. “That’s OK, Mommy,” Andrew will say. “You needed rest.” And he’s correct; I did need the rest. But his is not the original version of the story I wrote for myself as a mother. Yet just as surely as Snow White deserves a prince who helps clean the toilets (and, hey – me, too, come to think of it), Andrew, Jay, and I needed to revise the wonderful fairy tale we had spun for ourselves about the three of us kayaking amid Pacific islands and backpacking the Rocky Mountains for weeks on end. Instead, our kid knows a lot about medicine and can do a credible job of starting an IV line on one of his stuffed animals. He doesn’t know the woman I was before sarcoidosis. This used to bother me intensely, but now I wonder if we aren’t telling (and re-working) a more nuanced vision of life for him. Parents get sick; sometimes they run out of energy and patience. This is real; this is reality. We make it up — and then try to fix it — as we go along.

1 Comment

  1. Paul said,

    Hi rebecca

    This post is excellent and deserves a reply however,
    I’m not quite sure what to say.

    Maybe a few things like . . . .when Andrew gets to 12 you’ll actually miss Thomas. . . . Don’t sweat Snow White – what you and Jay show him a relationship is like is a THOUSAND times more important. . .. . Hobbitses eat too much . . . Hobbitses are less scarey than the oringinals (pre Disneyfied) of the fairy tales.

    (Thomas speaking parent since 1990)

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