Pretty people are nice; unattractive people are bad. At least, that‘s what our fairy tales signal, and what our secret lizard brains have always thought. A prime example of pretty=good; ugly=bad is “Cinderella.” Our contemporary Walt Disney version of Cinderella portrays the stepmother and stepsisters as ugly, as grotesque. And they are mean indeed. Our pink-cheeked heroine is beautiful inside and out.
Much more interesting and honest was the original: the stepsisters were young, beautiful women who had “bad hearts.” Psychologists and social workers report the effects of physical beauty on self-awareness, on self-acceptance, on peer judgment of both the pretty and the not-pretty. We can remember our own junior high days (when we are closest to our savage selves, I think). We taunted the not-pretty. We invented tales about a kid with an enlarged nose, or hairy arms. We were pretty horrid. As we grew up, we adapted a social veneer, and perhaps, even, compassion. But those early fairy tales reflect some of our nastiness--and also our fears. We did not want to be the one kid with curly red hair. We were afraid we just might be ugly somehow.https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20126957-300-how-your-looks-betray-your-personality/#
I suppose Cinderella’s stepsisters were smaller versions of their mother, who marries the shadowy father and sets about making her daughters mini-princesses and her stepdaughter a galley slave. Talk about ugly! In both the original tale and its remake, the father briefly appears, sad over the death of his wife, marries a substitute, and is never or rarely seen again. In the original, he does appear once again as a figure in Cinderella’s life, offering to bring her a present from his trip to the fair--as he will also bring expensive, chosen gifts for his stepdaughters. His Cinderella asks only for a twig from a tree as he brings the other gifts to his stepdaughters. Cinderella plants the twig to honor her mother; a gorgeous tree grows and is home to birds, who love to sing along with Cinderella.
What does it mean for a child to lose a mother? We see examples of its effects in novels, movies, and statistics. Although certainly there are success stories, and adults who emerge balanced after this loss, we understand that the loss of a parent, in this case a mother, has enormous effect. And if we layer on that loss with a life dominated by a cruel substitute, what could that produce? Children rely on the family to give them a sense of security, of comfort, of caring. When a child is not nourished as he or she grows, there is little space for a moral compass, for that feeling that all is right in the world.
In both the Disney version and the original, we recognize the cruelty—and anticipate a happy ending. Doves will bring a dress (three on three days in the original). The prince won’t give up and will test the entire kingdom. We expect goodness to overcome evil and quell the fear in our hearts. Stepmother and daughters “get what they deserve.” Beautiful slave galley daughter wins the heart of the beautiful king.
Yet, in real life, in cramped apartments and foster homes and juvenile centers, that’s not what happens. Toss-away or forgotten children continue to live with that insecurity, with the understanding that evil and fear are normal. Does the actual presence of fear cause criminality? Studies offering statistics on prison inmates who were once in “care” are staggering, and staggeringly different from each other. Not sure how this can be, but, for instance, “Almost 80% of inmates incarcerated in our prisons have spent some time in foster care,” reports http://www.fostercare2.org/ask-the-pros-2. (arguing to beef up foster care personnel and budget) But the Illinois Children’s Data Network, a data and research collaborative focused on the linkage and analysis of administrative records argues that “The fact is the number is much lower at 28%.” https://www.lilliput.org/blog/foster-care-prison-statistics-much-lower-previously-reported (arguing that foster care is a “beacon of hope” for children). Or the 2016 government report that “In addition to the 13 percent of prisoners who grew up in the foster care system, 10 percent were homeless in the year leading up to their imprisonment.” https://trofire.com/2016/04/29/know-13-percent-prison-population-grew-foster-care/ (arguing that poverty is the cycle that defines crime).
It doesn’t take a foster home environment to expose a child to cruelty, for course. These homes are mere symptoms of the careless way we raise or ignore vulnerable children. Until recently, society has ignored or downplayed the relation between early animal abuse and later cruelties, including rapes and murder. “One 21-year study found that 70 percent of animal abusers later went on to commit other crimes. The study also found that 100 percent of individuals who had committed sexual homicide had a history of animal abuse. About two-thirds of animal abusers also assaulted a person.” (study not identified in article) https://www.hg.org/legal-articles/animal-abuse-and-other-crimes-8011
Maybe we “know” all this. Why do we continue offering our children fairy tales of cruelty? Perhaps it is cathartic: the cruel sisters and mothers “get it” in the end, and we can console our primitive lizard brains for a while. Re-thinking this story makes me hope our grandchildren can watch Mr. Kangaroo, Mr. Rogers, and "Sesame Street” until they are about, oh, 25.