It's Time For Us To Embrace A New Kind Of Fairy Tale

by Jerry Mahoney
A girl dressed in a golden princess dress with a crown on her head and a sword symbolizing a new kin...
Imgorthand / iStock

If there’s a 12-step program desperately needed by girls in the 3–7 age range, it’s Princesses Anonymous. “Hi, I’m Harper. I’m 5, and I fink Cindawella is pwetty!” “I’m Sophia, and I want the Beast to hold me captive in his castle!” “I’m Olivia, and I hope someday a man will kiss me while I’m sleeping. Then, I’ll marry him.”

I know many parents loathe these glambots whose only goal in life is to wed into royalty, but as a gay dad, I might be even more resistant than most to seeing my daughter fall under their spell. There’s no mom in our house to offset the example Sleeping Beauty and Snow White are setting for my little girl, so every time she plays dress-up or tells me which boys in her class she wants to marry, I fear I might lose her forever to a notion of womanhood that was first written down in the 18th century.

Fellow parents, you know what I’m talking about, the infuriating clichés of these otherwise beloved stories:

Weak Women

Except for standing around pining for men (occasionally while being held captive by them), women in fairy tales don’t really do much. Snow White’s stepmother is on a relentless homicidal rampage against her, and all this squeaky-voiced pixie can think to do is run into the woods and beg seven complete strangers to protect her. Every time I think about it, I keep wishing she’ll go Wonder Woman on the murderous maniac — or at least tell her dad that his wife is homicidal.

Creepy Men

Imagine you were in a bar and some guy came up to you and told you he was a wealthy prince who could make carpets fly. Worst pickup line ever, right? Well, the Sultan’s daughter in Aladdin not only falls for it, but when she finds out the whole story was a crock just to get her attention, she goes ahead and marries him anyway!

There’s no pickup scheme in fairy tales so sleazy that it can’t work. For crying out loud, the Beast holds a sweet, innocent woman prisoner in hopes she’ll break the curse he’s under, and he gets his freedom and the girl!

Looks Mean Everything

Ever read a fairy tale about an “ugly” princess? Me neither. More often than not, a huge deal is made about what a looker she is. Belle’s beauty is not only mentioned in the title of the story, but in case we missed it, it’s her name too. Cinderella is too ashamed of her appearance to go to the Prince’s ball. It’s only after the fairy godmother glams her up that she’s willing to be seen in public. And the Queen in Snow White has a magic mirror that can tell her anything, so what does she ask it? The meaning of life? Tomorrow’s lottery numbers? Nope. The only question she ever poses is, “Is anyone prettier than me?” Eesh.

Weddings = Happily-Ever-Afters

It’s perfectly natural for little girls to dream about someday having a storybook wedding. But too often, that’s the only happy ending available to princesses. The heroine starts off sad and lonely, then she gets married and all is well. The end.

Cinderella, Ariel, Belle, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Jasmine. All their stories end with them getting married to a royal dreamboat. Don’t any of these ladies secretly dream of going to art school or becoming a dragon-keeper at the kingdom’s zoo?

As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t ban these books and movies in my house. Knowing how much my daughter loved them, I would’ve felt like the Wicked Queen keeping them away from her. And besides, there were still a lot of things I liked about them. The theme of good triumphing over evil, the power of love and kindness, the talking animals. So while I wasn’t ready to get rid of fairy tales altogether, I decided to do the next best thing.

To fix them.

Armed with a list of clichés and a head swelling with parental rage, I wrote my own version of Cinderella. I realized I had to acknowledge the story’s flaws so that I could challenge them. So I started with a young girl named Maddie who loves fairy tales, then gave her an obnoxious stepbrother named Holden who loves pointing out the plot holes. Things like, “Wouldn’t the glass slipper fit a lot of women?” And “How did Cinderella get home from the ball with no carriage and only one shoe?” His wisecracks end up breaking the story, and the two kids get sucked into the book, stuck there until they give the tale back its happily-ever-after.

My book became My Rotten Stepbrother Ruined Cinderella. I had a blast writing it, and I ended up with a happy ending of my own — a publisher that loved the book so much they ordered three more of them! I got to do the versions I’ve always wanted to do of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Snow White.

Now, instead of hiding out in the woods, Snow White trains herself in karate and enlists the dwarfs as her backup brigade to take down the Queen.

Belle sets out to find the fairy who cursed the Beast, then comes up with a clever plan to test whether his love is real or if he just fell for her because she’s a hottie. Likewise, Cinderella waits out the clock and lets the prince see her after the fabulous gown and carriage turn back into rags and a pumpkin. That way, she’ll know if his love is more than skin deep.

Snow White actually makes herself look ugly in hopes of tricking her stepmother’s magic mirror. But wouldn’t you know it? She’s so cool and fun that the prince falls for her anyway.

On the other hand, the princess in Aladdin realizes she doesn’t need to get married at all to find happiness, preferring to dedicate herself to helping the less fortunate in her kingdom.

Did I mention Snow White and the dwarfs kick butt?

Best of all, none of my princesses sit around waiting for a prince to save her, or falls in love with a man who’s holding her prisoner, or gets kissed when she’s unconscious. They’re the kind of women I want my daughter to be — strong, self-confident, and independent.

The best part of writing the My Rotten Stepbrother books is that in the end, I get to have it both ways. The original tales (and countless other versions of each) are still out there. They’re still full of magic and romance, along with a few messages that make me squirm. But hopefully, once kids have read the originals, I can show them that times have changed and that the morals and clichés of some of their favorite stories aren’t written in stone.

It’s okay for kids to believe in fairy tales, but at the same time, it’s important to remind them not to believe everything they read.