When I was a girl, the toy I begged for on shopping trips was a princess kit. It had a tiara, a lipstick, high-heeled mules and a tiny scepter not much longer than a pen, all mounted on cardboard and encased in crackly plastic.
The get-up was cheap. You couldn't take more than a step or two before a mule heel broke, and the lipstick never worked. I could usually destroy the entire ensemble (you supplied your own towel/cape) with a day of hard play, but I never mourned the loss much. There was always another trip to the store, another opportunity to enter princesshood anew.
You have to understand something: I was bucktoothed and knock-kneed, a tomboy who could spit farther and throw faster than most guys in a time when saying "you throw like a girl" was just asking for it. The notion of wearing makeup was akin to crossing over to the enemy, but I could comfortably abandon my catcher's mitt to take up a scepter, for I had been weaned on Cinderella and stories where the ugly duckling becomes a beautiful swan. And in that transformative moment, the swan gets the guy, the throne and a white horse thrown in. It worked for Cinderella, who, beneath those rags (buck teeth) and ashes (knock-knees), was a knockout perfect for sitting on a throne, or perhaps in a really nice car.
It wasn't just the tiara, of course. It was the looks and divine providence in the form of a physical make-over. The duckling needed a fairy godmother, a dress, her hair straightened or curled, some change in her physical self so she could attract the eye of a man and live happily ever after.
Now, the whole idea makes me faintly ill. It smacks of girlhood--not the good kind, but the kind where females are defined by their looks and the best you can hope for is a good rescue just around the corner.
This is how far we've come: The earliest Cinderella-type story comes from 9th century China. The fairy godmother was a fish. The shoe was not glass, but gold. Other than that, all the familiar elements are there. The heroine is mistreated because of her beauty, and it takes a fairy godfish to earn her just rewards.
That story has informed so much of our culture, I can't begin to separate fact from fiction.
We all grew up on Barbie and Cinderella and assorted other buxom liars who led us to believe that no matter how lousy our lives, if we looked pretty, at some point someone somewhere will ride up on a black horse (I was under the impression that only girls rode white horses) and fix things.
Here's the latest Cinder-horror. Worldwide, viewers of the telenovela "Betty La Fea" erupted in anger when at the last minute, the smart-but-ugly Betty turned tail and ran back under the safe-but-stupid Cinderella umbrella. Since August, when it debuted on Telemundo network, Betty had been delivering a powerful message that beauty is only skin deep. She is a woman of decidedly average looks, and she is mistreated because of it.
The audience ate it up, and here the writers and producers completely misjudged the phenomenon. They thought the audience wanted Betty to pretty up in the end, to do a Cinderella and catch the guy (who is, you should know, a bit of a louse). But when she prettied up, and married her boss-louse, boom! The ratings dropped into the basement, and the public discourse was fiercely anti-pretty-Betty.
Note to self: Write a movie that accurately reflects the life and struggles of an average-looking, real woman, make a boatload of money, wallow in public acclaim and blow this clip joint.
No one else is doing that. In August, expect yet another duckling-swan movie, "The Princess Diaries," in which a shy and lonely 16-year-old New Yorker discovers she's a--you guessed it!--princess! Of a country you never heard of! And she gets a tiara and everything! And she is transformed into a beautiful young woman!
It could take your breath away, or leave you chewing off your arm in frustration.
Meanwhile, the cult-favorite "Xena: Warrior Princess" filmed its last episode in March, but the healer-warrior lives on in reruns. Yeah, she wore skimpy clothes, but she earned fans one karate chop at a time. Yeah, she was pretty, but she packed a mean punch.
Cinderella lives. Bring back Xena, and keep your ratty old tiara.