Monday, June 10, 2013

Cinderella, Her Stepmother, and Alternative Lifestyles

Once upon a time, there was a grandmother named Sarah. Every day, she would read her beloved granddaughter, Rachel, a book. One day she chose Cinderella, that hallmark of fairy tales and children’s stories. Rachel’s mother Rebecca, who is Sarah’s daughter, noticed her mother’s choice of story. Later in the day, Rebecca asked Sarah not to read Cinderella to Rachel anymore. The end.

In the above story (names have been changed), Sarah is my mother’s best friend, Rebecca is her right-wing Orthodox daughter, and Rachel is Rebecca’s daughter as well as the sweetest four-year-old to be found, may God keep her. Now, why is it that Rebecca didn’t want her daughter exposed to Cinderella? I wish I could say it’s because of the questionable feminist implications of the story, or the undue importance of physical beauty that the story stresses. Alas, that’s not it. 

The reason Rebecca didn’t want her daughter to know the Cinderella story? Because it talks about a stepmother.

When my mother told me that Sarah told her this, the sheer stupidity of it floored me. It didn’t take me long to appreciate the extraordinary irony in the situation, since Rebecca’s parents have been divorced since she was a kid (although neither ever remarried). However, what bothered me most about this wasn’t the inherent irony, but the fact that Rebecca is actively denying her daughter the opportunity to hear about alternative lifestyles.

Since the family is pretty religiously conservative, it would be unfair to expect them to expose their daughter to lifestyles that may be religiously questionable. However, there is absolutely no religious issue with a widow/er or divorce/e remarrying and giving his or her children a stepmother/father. In fact, it’s a religious obligation for a woman whose husband died without having children with her to remarry his brother.

So why is Rebecca so reluctant to expose her daughter to the concept of a religiously acceptable family lifestyle, albeit an alternative one? Honestly, I don’t know. But I can guess. And my conjecture is a fear of anything different.

It’s understandable to be wary of the unknown. However, everyone knows someone who’s divorced or widowed. It’s very far from being a rarity or uncommon occurrence in this world. We don’t live in a vacuum; throughout life, we meet all sorts of people from all different backgrounds. As a result, we have to teach our children that lifestyles other than the one they lead exist. If a little one is raised in a household where there are two heterosexual parents who have never been divorced or widowed, s/he needs to hear about one-parent households and same-sex parent households and blended families and so on. If a child isn’t exposed to alternative lifestyles, s/he won’t be able to comprehend them when s/he does finally encounter them. This is what leads to bullying and bigotry and baseless hatred.

To avoid this unfortunate fate and foster tolerance and understanding among children instead, it is imperative that we expose them to alternate lifestyles. Children, by nature, are innocent and accepting. They don’t have the prejudices and biases that adults possess, since they haven’t had as much time in this world to absorb them. Because of this, we must teach them not to be afraid of people who lead different lifestyles. They’re also people. They just live in a different way. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

There are many legitimate objections a parent can have to Cinderella. The mention of a stepmother, however, is not one of them. I wish I could say that Rachel’s story has a happily ever after and Rebecca has seen the light regarding alternative lifestyles, but that’s just not how the plotline went down. I just hope that Rachel is able to learn beyond what her parents are willing to teach.

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