Finally saw Cinderella—a predictable, paint-by-numbers story, but, far worse, an annihilating message for girls. When the movie ended, the whole theater cheered. I couldn’t understand why women weren’t gathered outside, waving protest posters. My friend said it was about time somebody made a movie that celebrates old-fashioned values. She managed my anger politely, as if I had incontinence. Offering a way out, she suggested that perhaps I disliked the movie because I’m a writer, and I could see the hidden ways the story doesn’t work. But it did work, I wanted to say. The audience cheered.

My friend wondered what could be wrong with liking Cinderella. In the current version, Cinderella is courageous and kind. I’m still trying to answer that question: what is wrong with liking it? I don’t want to write about Cinderella, because I don’t want to stir the embers of my unhappiness, not unless I find an argument that slams the movie back into its seat and shuts it up, the way AO Scott can silence a bad movie with one of his perfect reviews: yes, that’s right, that’s what’s wrong.

We all want love, girls and boys. The most powerful human drives are love and work, connection and purpose. We are moved by stories about identity, like Rocky, and Chariots of Fire, and the Fugitive, stories of mastery and competence and achievement. We are also moved by love stories—Maurice, My Beautiful Laundrette, Kiss of the Spiderwoman—stories where two souls meet and become more than the sum of their parts.

Maybe the problem is that some books and movies offer love (to girls) as a substitute for identity, and/or as if it can forge identity. Which is like foot-binding. In boy movies– Imitation Game, Guardians of the Galaxy— love is a by-product. You learn how to slay the dragon, which might as a by-product make you attractive to some young woman, but your goal is to save the universe. In girl movies the goal is the guy. And the best way to get the guy, it turns out, is to be pretty and kind.

When my daughter says, “I shouldn’t have asked him out, I should have waited until he asked me, because if he were actually interested he would have asked,” I want to scream. Never mind the fact that we’re not talking about a soccer game, or an essay she’s trying to write. If you teach yourself to wait, you set yourself up for a lifetime of waiting. Girls wait. Boys choose. That’s what’s wrong with Cinderella: the story can’t begin until the prince settles his gaze.

When I say Cinderella is bad for girls, people look at me with suspicion, tinged with hostility. Are you saying you want Cinderella to be mean? As if those are the only two alternatives: meek or mean. If Cinderella were a boy, she would organize those mice into a squadron. They’d make a mouse tower and pick the lock, slip down to the stepmother’s room and tie her hair to the bedposts. Then Cinder, boy, would roar down the stairs with ash on his face like war paint, head into the kingdom and free every person chained to a pot in the kitchen. He would raise an army and overthrow the king, who has too much power in the first place.

I read A Room of One’s Own, and it was incredibly comforting. Woolf talked about how the psychology of women and the history of women and the social and political place of women in our culture works against becoming a writer. Even though she wrote it 85 years ago and the circumstances of women have improved, I was comforted. Because I saw, in her descriptions, my own vacillations, and hesitations, and built-in sense of failure. Who am I to write something? What in the world do I have to say? Why should anybody listen to me?

Her friendly, brilliant, funny mind, cutting to the quick of the horror without becoming dramatic, or lugubrious, or enraged, just deftly laying it out, reminding us of Shakespeare’s sister, and the Beadle who keeps you off the grass and locks the library doors, with an anthropologist’s detached fascination, a humorist’s eye for irony, so you can bear to read it, you feel almost uplifted by it: of course men can write, because they are in a warm study, eating pudding and drinking port, while we chew tough prunes and drink cheap wine.

Woolf said no wonder women haven’t written. Maybe in a hundred years we will have women writers, because women will have gotten permission to do lots of things– vote, have money, run their own business, get divorced. As she predicted, the subjugation of women has been coming to an end, and more women are writing. But still. There are no men in mother’s groups. Men don’t volunteer at school. And the women who work successfully sometimes seem like mutations, unexpectedly full of themselves, unexpectedly driven, or self-absorbed, or focused. They are different from most women, who still, in spite of everything, do the shopping and make dinner and keep track of doctor’s appointments and socks, choose no work at all but instead volunteer, or wait to work, half-time, when the kids are in school.

Success breeds enthusiasm, and practice breeds success. That is the feedback loop, the mysterious spinning top that, once you hop on, just keeps turning: you work, you have success, success makes you feel energetic and enthusiastic, so you work, which brings success, which makes you feel energetic and enthusiastic. The secret question: how do you get that top spinning? When you are a boy, men run along beside you, helping you build momentum, giving you a push, encouragement. Institutions do it if your father or your uncle won’t, schools and banks and professional sports teams; history will inspire you, or the newspaper, filled with men building things, making and changing rules. For a girl, even today, after so much time, those influences are not robust. Maybe your mother stayed home, and her life was spent organizing the kitchen cabinets. She can say, you are such a hard worker, I saw your movie, I’m so impressed, but she can’t tell you how to do it, and she’s a little baffled, even bored, by your struggle. She has other engagements. She has dinner to cook, laundry, she wants to play bridge. And the institutions– well, so much history still belongs to men and so many books, so when you write what that you think about they say, “that’s a kitchen play,” or a “kitchen poem,” which is to say, not serious. Muddled. Parochial. Private. You can fuck the professor, and grade his papers, but you don’t get invited to his poker parties, and nobody sits you down and says look, if you want to be a writer, here’s how to do it. You yourself are paralyzed by politeness, wanting to be nice. You linger at the door, waiting for an opportunity to sit down and talk, waiting for somebody to invite you in. All that time they spent playing the piano, or playing soccer, you spent getting tan, painting yourself with baby oil and lying on the hot grass out back, buying the dress (blue with rhinestone straps, and silver shoes to match) that you would write the poem about, the poem about the boy who broke up with you, the poem that won a prize, one year before the Harvard professor told you that you wrote kitchen poems and kept you out of his class.

Woolf says the whole world of women is different, the things we value, the way we talk to each other, the way we think and what we think about. So it’s not as simple as having the Beadle unlock the library and stepping inside, sitting down at the table and joining the conversation. What we find there will seem alien, both because we have been raised in the kitchen, and because our thinking about the world is different. Either because of our genes, or because of the things we learned in the kitchen, taking care of children and men.

Downstairs I hear Jesse play, puttering and humming and singing and talking to himself, the faint clicks of him moving Lego pieces, the pop and hiss of his sound effects. Then my mother slap slaps into the living room, her velvet slippers smacking against the floor as she shuffles in, probably holding her tea. She stops by the table where he plays and starts asking a slew of questions: she found these Lego pieces by the door, does he want them? What is he building? When he doesn’t answer, she drifts into observation: it seemed, yesterday, that he didn’t know how to build this thing, but now it looks pretty good; it’s very cold out, isn’t it, it was cold when she went to bed, but now it’s even colder, it must certainly be turning into fall. Then more questions: does he want some breakfast, will he want breakfast when she comes back out again? I am in agony, listening to him try to answer politely. He just wants her to go away. Then she leaves, and he goes back to playing, and about five seconds after that, Käthe comes in— Hey, Badoodles. He doesn’t answer. She says it again. He doesn’t answer. She says it again, louder, sounding annoyed. He says, “Hey.” His privacy hard to maintain, with all these women around, trying to say good morning.