Vedu got the fairy tale Cinderella from her grandparents a while back and we read it together last week. It ended up being such a tiring exercise for me because damn!!, it’s not just a sweet children’s story that you can read to your kid and finish off. None of those fairy tales are, for that matter, as I realize now. I had to keep looking out for problem areas and change them, as and when they came up, to something harmless – a few of which I have mentioned below. At least some people might look at this as me “over-analysing a simple children’s story” or “nitpicking over trivial details”. I choose to think of this as a small step towards creating a better future generation. For me, these stories that our little kids read, listen to and see in their minds can have a huge influence on them, shaping their thought process and views towards life in general. And the more we feed them age-old stereotypes, overt and covert clichés of discrimination, the more we are turning them into “us”, the regressive version of “us” that is there in everyone, that we have consciously moved away from or are still in the process of ditching.

1) It started with the “cruel stepmother and stepsisters” trope that has been from time immemorial used as the perfect stereotype for stepmothers and half-siblings. Even today I see so many people who assume that another person who comes into your father’s or mother’s life after a separation (by death or divorce) is bound to hate the kids from a previous relationship and will no doubt, hurt them in whichever ways possible. Especially when news articles of kids who went through abuse at the hands of a stepfather/stepmother come out, the comments sections are filled with generalized abuses for everyone who plays that role in a kid’s life. People do not seem to have the sense to understand that just because stories have almost always portrayed them as villains, or there have been some cases like these, it does not mean that every person hates his partner’s kids from a previous relationship. In fact, there are so many who play the perfect dad or mom to these kids and never let them feel the sorrow of having a broken home. I have personally known some of them and feel that such nasty comments are a personal attack on these wonderful people. And if we are to go by news items alone and come to a conclusion, there are so many cases of kids being killed or hurt by their own parents. Would we ask all kids to hate their parents because of that?

So, every time there was the mention of the “cruel stepmother and stepsisters”, I simply read it as “a cruel lady and her mean daughters”.

2) The next was the repeated mention of the “ugly stepsisters”. In the first place, I guess the idea was to correlate cruelty and physical ugliness as two parameters that go together. Almost like saying “How can someone with an angelic face ever be cruel? She will always be the heroine of the story.” While that ticks me off, I guess I am even more ticked off by the usage of the word “ugly” in itself. As a person who believes that everyone is beautiful, I do not understand how it is okay for us to teach our kids that some are beautiful and others are not. Wouldn’t that be the first step to them dividing and judging people based on their looks and even be the foundation for shaming others for looking different from the “accepted notions” of beauty that still prevail in this age?

I simply omit the word “ugly”, or for that matter any adjective like “fat” that is derogatory when used to talk about people. Unless it is a harmless description of their features to help us imagine the character in our minds, why the hell should their looks matter at all when we are telling a story about them as simply people?

3) The most difficult ones to omit in such stories or to explain as wrong to a 3 or 4-year-old kid is the fairy tale love – “The Prince took one look at the lovely Cinderella, fell in love and decided to marry her” and “Cinderella married the Prince and they lived happily ever after”. Yeah, keep telling your kids that when they grow up, they are going to find “true love” in a person they met 2 minutes back! And also, that if they are girls and are having a hard life, all they need is to find a Prince to rescue them, and bam! Life is good. Because to do something about it themselves and find happiness in their own ways instead of waiting to marry a guy who would take them out of their misery – nah, what’s fun in that life lesson?

When we read through these portions, I make a “Yuck” face and say, “This Chettan and Chechi are so dumb, aren’t they? Who marries someone they just met and don’t even know well?” Thankfully, Vedu has watched Frozen and it is one of her favourites, and I am always able to use the example of how Hans pretended to be a good guy and then ended up being a “bad boy” who fooled and tried to hurt Anna and Elsa. Every time we watch the movie too, I tell her “See? This is why we should always get to know people very well before considering them friends or falling in love with them.” Not that I expect her to understand it completely at this age. But I am sure that such little gems of wisdom will imprint in her mind and help her see things slightly better when she is growing up.

And when she asks me when she will get married (Yeah yeah, she seems keen on the prospect at 3!!), my answer is never that she will get married when she is grown up. It is always “When you are really, really big like Acha and Amma, if you want to get married, you can. If you don’t want to, that’s fine too.” Why should “happily ever after” only mean “happily married”, right? And when someone like me who can watch Pretty Woman a million times says that, it has to mean something. I have nothing against love stories, even the feel-good “fairy tale love stories” that take you away from reality for a while and make you go “Awww”. But they are beautiful, only when the girl learns to rescue herself when needed and like Vivian says “rescues the guy right back”.

As I said, this story is not the only one which is highly popular, but needs revamping to suit the changing times. I am not really sure of the original story of Jack and the Beanstalk. But in most of the versions you read for younger kids, there is nothing about the giant’s treasures being originally stolen from Jack’s family. They only talk about how Jack found magic beans that lead him to the giant’s castle and how he takes the treasures from there and escapes down the beanstalk, eventually killing the giant who follows him. How on earth am I supposed to read that story to my daughter and say that Jack and his mother lived happily ever after with the treasures he literally stole from the giant’s castle??? So, in my version of the story that I read to her, I change it to how Jack should not have taken anything from there because it is not right to steal. Bit of a bummer for the “happily ever after” enthusiasts. But certainly a better alternative to the kids coming back with someone else’s stuff and saying “It belonged to bad people anyway and I only did what Jack did.”

Fortunately, a lot of the comparatively recent children’s books, even the ones that came in the latter half of the twentieth century, are easier to read through without having to worry about such problem areas. If you are parent to a book-loving kiddo, please think about this. You might be able to make a difference too, no matter how small it is. 😊