But let's review a canonical fairy tale, shall we?
This is the tale of a woman who allows her "evil" stepmother to force her into household service (wimp). She calls on birds to assist her with her chores (helpless). Then she decides that she must go to the big ball (materialistic) where she meets the man of her dreams who loves her based on her looks (shallow). Rather than show him who she really is she attempts to escape (the "real" story had her attend several balls, not just one) and the day of the last ball, she drops her shoe (dainty). After having no luck with getting the shoe on the big-footed step-sisters (thus signifying their lack of femininity which becomes their downfall), the shoe fits on the lovely Cinderella who has incredibly tiny feet (Chinese ideal). And she lives happily ever after. If I were to teach this story literally, here is what my students would (in theory) learn from it:
1) Whatever crappy things happen to you, you just have to take it because eventually it will get better.
2) That when facing any difficult task in life you will have help to overcome it (birds, fairy godmother).
3) That one must hide one's flaws (Cinderella hiding her poor attire).
4) That step-families are evil.
5) That a man will rescue you from your crappy life if you're attractive enough.
With the popularity of the Disney Princesses line, I think it's a good thing to at least look at what ideas we're introducing our children to. Admittedly, I read this tale and watched the Disney film many times as a child, and I still was able to see past the superficiality of the relationships within it. However, there are lots of little girls (and teenage girls) who believe some of these ideas about beauty and men, so not everyone hears the tale without being influenced by it.
The Cinderella "formula" has been around since the 7th century, so it does promote an ancient concept of love and a woman's place within society. In other words, it's dated. And there are several good novels out as well as the film Ever After that try to update it. But the Disney Cinderella is still out there (apparently you can buy a standee of her for $32.95 since that's where I got the picture above). Should we encourage young girls and boys to read fairy tales which often describe women as helpless until a man comes and rescues them from their various dilemmas? What's really awful is that the fairy tales that didn't follow this formula, like one called "Tattercloak," fell out of circulation in the Grimm and Anderson collections. So anything that might have offered a different perspective died out because they weren't as popular as the traditional tales.
I don't know what the answer is--there is a part of me that would want my daughter and/or son to read and watch films that do not make her/him feel like she/he has to be this caricature of womanhood/manhood. However, I grew up loving those films for their sentimentality and cute supporting actors (namely the mice or whatever creature was the hero/heroine's assistant). So why shouldn't children of the 21st century get to have their own say? I guess the compromise is to expose them to it but talk to them about what they think of Cinderella's decisions and how the story ended. I don't believe in censoring literature for language or unpopular ideas, but I also think that fairy tales can be dangerous because they don't specify a specific time or place, so in theory, they could be happening in a small European country somewhere. Whereas tales of women being mistreated in ancient Rome are historical and not timeless. We can look at them and say, "Aren't we glad it's not like that anymore!" With fairy tales, they are archetypes, so they live on forever in several chic lit. and romance books out there. Thus they stop being "once upon a time" and become very much a part of the modern world. As with all things, the discussion is necessary even if it does yield a definitive answer.