For most working women, no fairy godmothers

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Americans traditionally undervalue domestic labor – nurturing children, caring for the sick, tending to the aged, cleaning up our living spaces, pushing our loved ones out of the nest or laying them in the ground. The recent release of the newest incarnation of “Cinderella” brings up femininity and the work associated with it and offers us an opportunity to address what we value.

Cinderella’s lovely mother says to her daughter early on, “I have to tell you a secret that will see you through all the trials that life can offer. Have courage and be kind,” suggesting her daughter’s moxie and compassion will triumph over any travail. In the film, she’s right: In an unlikely turn of events, Cinderella winds up a princess rather than a servant to the family her father marries into.

In spite of the unlikelihood of Cinderella’s future, the story endures, and its perennial popularity is fascinating: This film, like earlier versions of the story, upholds a paragon of femininity whose kindness, submissiveness and sacrifice converge in a body that does much of the work that mothers (and fathers) do every day. Not only does Cinderella scrub, wash, iron, sew and cook, she also performs the emotional work of femininity in acts of kindness and compassion – particularly toward animals, a nod perhaps to the cultural capital of the animal rights movement or to the endurance of tenderness toward small furry creatures. In that body that does so much of the work traditionally associated with femininity, Disney once again yokes the emotional work of mothering (kindness, compassion, and sacrifice) with the labor of cooking, cleaning and household management.

Cinderella sacrifices. Presumably, she’s rewarded for that sacrifice by not having to do any more of it once she marries the prince. But beginning a family is when the real work begins: not only the work of housekeeping, but the work of homemaking. The film celebrates and champions these two facets of domestic labor, even though culturally Americans often devalue both kinds of work by feminizing and underpaying them.

Last fall, however, a radical moment occurred that speaks to a prescient awareness

that could change the way we see and value women’s work. In September, Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and co-director of the coalition Caring Across Generations, won a MacArthur genius grant. As many of us intuitively, instinctively and anecdotally know but what Poo’s work makes clear in data-driven ways is that domestic workers are among the most exploited laborers in our national and local communities.

Poo and others successfully pressed New York to pass a domestic-worker rights bill that establishes minimum workplace standards and grants workers the right to bargain collectively. “It’s work that’s historically been taken for granted, and not accounted for in our economy,” Poo said, “yet without it, nothing else would be possible.”

At this moment, the United States is undergoing a domestic crisis, one fueled by the number of working women, the aging of our workforce, the decline in middle-income-wage jobs and the rise of the aging-in-place movement. Poo contends, “The work is only becoming more and more critical to our economic and social well-being as a nation – yet the work has been essentially poverty-wage work, where the workforce has not been able to essentially care for their own families on the income and with the conditions that they’re working under ... so it’s unsustainable precisely at the moment [when] it needs to be a much stronger and robust and healthy workforce.”

And as the Working Families project’s recent report observes,

black and Hispanic working families are twice as likely to be poor as white or Asian families. This is no fairy tale.

Optimistically, perhaps Cinderella speaks to seeing and to valorizing domestic labor. More problematically, we could view the latest Disney fantasy as another attempt to romanticize submissiveness and docility in our daughters who claw at the glass ceiling or for collective bargaining. As a mother and as a professor, I’m going to see the film’s release as a learning opportunity: one for us to reflect on the work of homemaking – that which is unseen and seen – to say thank you to those whose labor keeps our homes, our families and our nation running and to ask how we can more successfully compensate them.

As citizens of a democracy, we don’t live in a nation of Cinderellas. We can’t rely on fairy godmothers or magic to alleviate the brutality, injustice and unfairness of the world. But we can value the work of homemaking by offering paid family leave to all workers, paying living wages and showing respect and compassion to those who raise, wash, feed and bury our children and our elders.

In that, we can take a real lesson to heart uttered by Cinderella: “Just because it’s what’s done, doesn’t mean it’s what should be done.”

Katherine Montwieler is associate professor of English and women's studies at UNC-Wilmington.