…and if the little engine could, then so can we.
I must have sat through thousands of school assemblies in my life, but there is only one I remember. I think I was around twelve or thirteen years old. I know this because I was sat at the front of our school games hall; I was on the floor, in the dubious and uncomfortable position reserved for the youngest year groups, getting pins and needles; and I was looking up at Mrs Powick, one of the school’s English teachers, delivering it. Despite the fact that it was over twenty years ago, I still remember it quite clearly now. From her outfit (a bold 90s printed skirt complimented by audaciously red lipstick), but, most importantly, her message.
Ordinarily school assemblies were a dull affair. My school would enlist the occasional Christian rock band or drama performance to spice things up, but generally it was the same mundane formula: teacher who didn’t want to be there doing this + tired moral concept = a numb sensation in more than just my back side. Row upon row of blank faces would sit, stifled and bored by the same thing; staff would be standing around the room pretending to look interested. Not much has changed over the years. But in the sea of similar insipid attempts to inspire some sense of morality, pride or consciousness in the assembled children, there is this one that stands out.
Mrs Powick began by discussing the childhood stories we all knew: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White. Each and every one of them the stuff of Disney dreams. I knew them all: I had spent the majority of my childhood calling myself ‘Cindy’ or ‘Aurora’ in games of ‘let’s pretend’ depending on which cartoon was the flavour of the month. My parents bought me the films, the books, the clothes with their faces on.
And why not? Mrs Powick said: Princesses are beautiful. Princesses are beloved. Princesses are conditioned and controlled. Princesses are subordinate victims, reliant on a handsome prince to ride to their rescue.
I had never seen it like this before. These characters had been my heroes; the heroines my mum had exposed both of her daughters to, and which countless other mothers had presented their daughters with. I realised that the Disney dreams, so aspirational to little girls everywhere, were tiny prisons, ready and waiting to enslave rather than save us.
Mrs P then went on to describe her favourite childhood tale: The Little Engine That Could. A story about a little red train than huffed and puffed and accomplished the impossible all through the effort of its own endeavours, despite being told it couldn’t by all the other trains. In short: the little engine that we could aspire to be like. And while it was a train – not the most attractive option for a pre-teen girl – I related more to this astonishing anthromorph than any pseudo-royal.
Mrs P explained that Handsome Princes don’t exist. They are fiction. And anyone that handsome is unlikely to also be brave, rich, valiant and utterly moral. Or at least, he would be likely to spend more time on self-grooming than rescue attempts. Even if we did manage to somehow stumble across this rare breed, did we really want to spend our lives awaiting rescue? Did we want to be dependent on the possibility that one day someone else might deign to save us, pull us up onto his high-horse and ride into the sunset without asking us what direction we’d prefer?
That wasn’t my idea of a happy ending.
The modern way (thank goodness) is to teach our girls that they can soar; they can achieve; they can succeed. But then we give them figure after figure of fantasy to undermine their aspirations and lower their expectations of themselves. I wonder how often we share traditional tales with our daughters, without considering the traditional gender roles they are prescribing. I know I have.
But now at least, our girls grow up in a fantasy world rich with female characters to aspire to: Merida, Elsa, Anna and Rapunzel. Examples of modern day Disney damsels that might (or might not) find a prince, but don’t need his services to escape their distress. Their own magic, their relationships with other women, or just their own strong arm and a frying pan will save the day – not least their intelligence, bravery and conviction. And the traditional tales are still fine, but our girls don’t have to grow up with every story and hope and dream pointing them towards a future of subservience and helplessness. And our sons aren’t bought up with the burden of expectation that they can, or should, be solely responsible for the salvation of the women in their lives.
So, thanks Mrs P. I think you might have been the first person to open my eyes to the fact that our world wasn’t playing fair with its girls (or boys). And to make me think it was about time I aspired to rely on myself, aspired to be successful in my own right and aspired to achieve the impossible.