Send Her to the Ash Heap

Karen Stabiner is the author of "All Girls: Single-Sex Education and Why It Matters."

It is time to retire Cinderella. The penniless gal saved by a handsome prince has been a Hollywood favorite ever since Disney's animated version hit the screen in 1950, but "The Prince & Me," the latest retread, proves that the story has run out of steam. The target audience -- tween-age and teenage girls -- stayed away from it in droves, as well as from several other recent versions of the once-unassailable myth. What used to work doesn't anymore, confounding executives who await the release of this summer's fairy tales with growing apprehension.

If not for Botox, there would be plenty of furrowed brows around town. Was it the wrong star, the wrong setting, the wrong release date? Are girls too young or too jaded for this kind of romance? The movie industry wants to know why audiences have turned their backs on the whole glass slipper thing.

They are asking the wrong questions. There is no point in wondering why so many modern Cinderella movies have failed. The real question is why any of them succeeded at all. Those of us old enough to have seen the animated version in its initial release were brought up to believe in princes. Those of us, myself included, who can sing all the songs from the 1965 Rodgers and Hammerstein television production came of age just as the prince's reputation was being ground to dust, along with other remnants of pre-'60s culture, but we remember. We're susceptible. Our daughters, though, weren't raised to think that way.

The disconnect between audience and message is profound: The heroine in "The Prince & Me," a poor girl from the sticks, falls in love with a prince who is convinced that he will find the meaning of life in Wisconsin. Although she is the far more able of the two, the Cinderella playbook demands that he sweep her off to his palace, which he does. Then she has second thoughts and decides instead to go to medical school at Johns Hopkins. Now everybody's miserable, both the moviegoers who wanted happily-ever-after and the ones who think a girl ought to have a career but found the prince rather adorable. So the writers go for a hybrid ending, in which the thoroughly modern prince announces that he will wait for his Cinderella.

Hang on. Assuming that he waits, and she waits, what's she going to do when she finishes her residency -- open a free clinic in an empty wing of the palace? The teens I know walked out of the movie theater scratching their heads. Talk about whiplash: We send them to SAT tutors and urge them to take advanced placement classes; we enrich their young lives until their cultural arteries threaten to clog; we expect them to be athletes and class officers and scientists and artists, and then we condescend to them with romantic images that have nothing to do with real life.

Studio executives cling to the tried-and-true like vinaigrette on baby greens: They swear that the key to the Cinderella genre is in finding the right mix of ingredients, which dovetails nicely with their yen for job security. They're almost right; there's nothing inherently wrong with formulas. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back is a hardy perennial. But with Cinderella, it's boy saves girl, and that's what's out of date.

In fact, a couple of newer movie models are getting much better mileage by acknowledging that girls are a) capable and b) complicated, simple truths evident to anyone who has actually spent time in the company of tweens and teens.

The heroine of the popular "13 Going on 30" is an outcast 13-year-old who grows up nasty, figures it out, changes her life and, in the process, drops the celebrity athlete and nabs a guy who is, if anything, the anti-Prince -- not drop-dead handsome, not multi-digit rich, not powerful, more than a bit rumpled, but the sweetest boy on many a block. She determines their fate, not he; there's nary a Cinderella in sight. And "Freaky Friday," which in its first month grossed more than three times what "The Prince & Me" did, is about a soul-swapping search for common ground between a mother and her teenage daughter, who have long since lost the ability to communicate with each other. Along with the recent "What a Girl Wants," it suggests the radical notion that what a teenager truly desires is a couple of decent parents who pay attention to her and do their muddled best to understand.

As for the first-weekend popularity of "Mean Girls," it might be a sign that we have reached a crossroads. Girls would rather laugh at themselves than keep dreaming.

Now, I love unreal romance as much as the next person, because I can dimly recall a time when a successful husband was as essential to daily life as were matching shoes and handbag. Cinderella fit quite nicely into that social scene. But the world was narrower then; the definition of happiness was shorter than it is today. Now it runs whole paragraphs, rewritten daily by girls who are as complex as the world in which they live.

They can handle something less linear than Cinderella, if we bother to dig beneath the fairy tales and the caricatures to find out who the audience really is. As long as Hollywood feeds them formula whose shelf date has long since expired, they're going to look for something else to do, and those weekend grosses will continue to disappoint.

The movies have been kinder to the wicked stepmother and stepsisters, who have been replaced by decent, hard-working parents whose only crime is being undercapitalized, than they are to Cinderella, whose pension fund by now must be large enough to support her in the style to which she's become accustomed. She ought to turn down the next project she's offered.

Besides, what really made her story work was its moral rectitude, the notion that good people escape adversity simply because they are good, a concept that does not hold up at all well these days. Strip away the compelling notion of justice, and Cinderella sounds distressingly like the saga of The Donald and his latest supermodel fiancee, not a story that modern parents would want their daughters to emulate. None of those splendid universities we hope to send them to offers a major in trophy wife.

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