The Myth Of Cinderella

The heroine is black. Prince Charming isn't. The new TV version of Hollywood's hottest fairy tale sends a sister to the royal ball--and raises some tricky questions about happily ever after.

FOR GENERATIONS, black women have been the societal embodiment of Cinderella. Like Cinderella, black women (and poor white women, too) have often been relegatedto the cooking and the cleaning, watching enviously as the women they worked for lived a more privileged life. Think about ""Gone With the Wind.'' Wouldn't Scarlett O'Hara have laughed, as the evil stepsisters laughed at Cinderella, if Butterfly McQueen had said that she wanted to go to the ball, that she wanted to dance with Rhett Butler? For years, the idea of a black girl playing the classic Cinderella was unthinkable. But this Sunday, when Brandy, the 18-year-old pop singer, stars in the Disney/ABC presentation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's ""Cinderella,'' reparations will be made. Finally, a sister is getting to go to the ball.

The casting of Brandy as Disney's latest Cinderella is especially significant because for many black women, the 1950 animated Disney Cinderella with her blond hair and blue eyes sent a painful message that only white women could be princesses. ""It's hard when you don't fit the traditional view of beauty,'' says Whoopi Goldberg (who plays the prince's mother in the new version). ""I've gotten letters from people that say if I'd just get my nose done or if I wasn't so dark, I'd be OK-looking. That's why I love this Cinderella, because Brandy is a beautiful, everyday-looking black girl.''

The Disney/ABC twist on ""Cinderella'' is to take multiracial casting to the never-never-land extreme: while Whoopi is the queen, the king (Victor Garber) is white; Bernadette Peters is the stepmother with one white daughter and one black. Whitney Houston plays the fairy godmother, in a soulful performance reminiscent of Lena Horne's in ""The Wiz.'' Jason Alexander is hilarious as the prince's much maligned valet. And who plays the prince? A Filipino actor, Paolo Montalban.

Even in this postfeminist era, where a Cinderella waiting to be rescued by a prince can be seen as a wimp, the myth still appeals. There are at least a half dozen other movies in the works, including one starring Drew Barrymore, with Anjelica Huston as the wicked stepmother, for Twentieth Century Fox; Tribeca Productions' ""Sisterella''; ""Cinderella's Revenge'' at Sony, and a Whoopi Goldberg project at Trimark.

Disney's politically correct version is sure to spark controversy in the black community. ""I'm genuinely bothered by the subliminal message that's sent when you don't have a black Prince Charming,'' says Denene Millner, author of ""The Sistahs' Rules.'' ""When my stepson who's 5 looks at that production, I want him to know he can be somebody's Prince Charming.'' But this ""Cinderella'' does mirror, unwittingly, a growing loss of faith in black men by many black women. Just as Brandy's Cinderella falls in love with a prince of another color, so have black women begun to date and marry interracially in record numbers. In 1980 there were 27,000 new marriages between black women and white men. By 1990 that number had doubled, to 54,000. While black men still marry outside the race in greater numbers, interracial marriages involving black women are growing at a faster rate. ""Some of it is a backlash because there are a lot of women who feel that black men have done them wrong,'' says Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Rita Dove. ""It's also a way of taking charge and saying, "I'm waiting for Prince Charming, but the important thing is that he's charming, not that he's black'.'' There's an irony here: for white women the Cinderella myth is about passivity, but for black women it's about actively seeking a partner who's their equal.

With many black women heading households, the issue isn't necessarily about becoming dependent. Estelle Farley is a clinical research scientist in Raleigh, N.C. In her 30s, Farley says, ""[The man I'm looking for] has to have a salary close to what I make or more. I've gone down the road with someone who didn't, and it's not a good road.'' bell hooks, author of the new book ""Wounds of Passion,'' is much more blunt. ""Keep this in mind, girlfriend,'' says hooks. ""This generation of black women is growing up in a truly integrated pop culture. Most black women under the age of 30 would rather have a rich white man than a poor black man.''

Whoopi Goldberg, whose companion is the white actor Frank Langella, has often been under fire for dating white men. ""First off, I have dated black men,'' explains Goldberg. ""But a woman with power is a problem for any man, but particularly a black man because it's hard for them to get power. I understand that, but I have to have a life, and that means dating the men that want to date me.''

Historically, the struggle for racial equality left little room for black women to indulge in Cinderella fantasies. From Reconstruction through Jim Crow and through the civil-rights movement, black women devoted their energies to these struggles while secretly hoping that one day their prince would indeed come. Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Alvin Poussaint remembers that during the 1960s, ""many of the black women in the movement used to joke--but it was partly serious--that part of why they were fighting was so black men would be able to get good jobs and they would be able to stay at home like white women and have their men take care of them.'' Furthermore, in the 1970s, many black women were reluctant to embrace feminism because it seemed that just when it was about to be their turn to be Cinderella, white women were telling them that the fantasy was all wrong. ""I think there was always more ambivalence about the women's movement on the part of some black women,'' says Poussaint. ""It meant that they were losing out on their chance to be in this dependent role.''

Today Cinderella, for better or worse, is much more accessible to young black women. Disney vice president Anna Perez recalls, ""Growing up, I loved fairy tales. But I never thought someone was going to come along and take care of me. It sure didn't happen for my mother, who raised six kids by herself.'' But Brandy says, ""I grew up listening to the Cinderella stories; just because she was white didn't mean that I couldn't live the same dream.''

What gives ""Cinderella'' such staying power is the myth's malleability, the many ways in which it continues to be transformed. Author Virginia Hamilton, a MacArthur ""genius'' award winner, is partial to a plantation myth called ""Catskinella,'' which appears in her book, ""Her Stories.'' In this version, Cinderella is strong and wily. The prince wants to marry her, but she makes him wait until she is good and ready. Hamilton says she loves the story because it is evidence that ""when black women were at their most oppressed, they had the extraordinary imagination to create stories for themselves, about themselves.''

For bell hooks, Zora Neale Hurston's classic novel ""Their Eyes Were Watching God'' is the best Cinderella story going. ""Janie rejects her rich husband for Tea Cake, the laborer,'' hooks says of the book, which Oprah Winfrey is developing into a movie. ""Janie talks about how there is a jewel inside of her. Tea Cake sees that jewel, and he brings it out. Which is very different from the traditional Cinderella myth of the prince holding the jewel and you trying to get it from him.''

In this latest version of ""Cinderella,'' Disney makes a subtle--some might say feeble--attempt to give the myth a slightly more feminist slant. When they first meet, Cinderella tells the prince that she's not sure she wants to get to know him. She says, ""I doubt if this stranger has any idea how a girl should be treated.'' He gives her a knowing look and says, ""Like a princess, I suppose.'' And she looks at him, with her big brown eyes, and says, ""No, like a person. With kindness and respect.''

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