Deconstructing Cinderella - Helping students explore their personal myths
by Tim Newfields (Toyo University)
Why is it important for learners to critically examine their own myths? How can EFL classes facilitate the process of myth exploration?
This paper explore these questions, illustrating one way to critically analyze a myth portraying various gender roles. It also discusses broader issues
about how myths are ways of maintaining power, identity, and cohesion.
Keywords: myth deconstruction, myth analysis, gender roles, Cinderella complex, Disneyfication, critical inquiry, rhetorical fiction
Nelson (1999) has commented that unless we critically examine the myths we learned as children, they tend to shape us unconsciously as adults.
Although many people associate myths with the stuff of ancient legends, folk tales, or religions this paper argues for a larger notion of what
constitutes myth, suggesting that they are fictional narratives which play a crucial role in shaping all of our lives. Far from being phantasms
of marginal significance, there is compelling evidence to suggest that myths are vehicles for instilling core cultural values and defining complex variables
such as gender, power, and notions of right (Campbell et al, 1991; Levi-Strauss, 1995). Warner (1995) hints at their potency by stating:
Myths define enemies and aliens and in conjuring them up they say who we are and what we want.
They tell stories to impose structure and order. Like fiction, they can tell the truth even while they're making it all up. (p. 63)
Though it is easy to dismiss myths as trifling affairs affecting only children, they are more pervasive. For example, Glantz (2004)
postulates that American foreign policy during the Bush administration was powerfully shaped by the cowboy myth – the image of a lone ranger
trying to "set things right" with hard bullets. Conversely, Alsto (1986) avows that many Japanese embrace what could be called a
samurai myth – a way of viewing the world as competing clans in which collective loyalty is tantamount.
" if we want to discover what is important to an individual or culture, it is often good to examine their underlying myths."
One of the most compelling reasons to analyze myths is because they are manifestations of social values and ways of making sense of the world.
As Ellwood (1999) suggests, myths are inherently political in that they justify certain belief systems while discrediting others.
There is no such thing as a neutral or non-political myth. Therefore if we want to discover what is important to an individual or culture,
it is often good to examine their underlying myths.
Teaching English in Japan, I have been continually surprised by the way many students seem to cherish quasi-mythical notions about marriage and gender.
For example, one junior college expressed these thoughts about her future:
Of course I will marry a kind man and have children. If a man and woman love each other, they will be happy.
If a couple is unhappy, maybe they don't really love. . . . Couple who love can solve any problem and feel happy forever.
I want to be like that and raise a wonderful, close family. - Miho (Age 19)
From the perspective of many students such statements seem ordinary, even common sense. From my perspective, however, they
paramount myths: a lot of information is being accepted without any critical analysis. And to some degree, that is the goal
of myth-making: to get a population to accept a set of assumptions without resistance. The myths of many young Japanese women
seem to be quite Cinderellafied and Disneyfied. This paper explains those terms and also considers one way to help students critically
examine some of their own mythical belief systems.
In EFL classes it is important to offer a very simple, basic definition of myth that can be widely understood by those with limited
second language proficiency.
As a starting point I describe myth as, "an idea which is physically false, but believed to be true." This definition is not without problems (and is mythical itself in many respects),
but it functions as a classroom expedient.
To make this working definition more vivid to students, I draw the logical quadrant in Figure 1 on a classroom blackboard.
Lombardo (2003) suggests that truth and belief interact in four basic ways, as depicted in Figure 1.
Figure 1. A model of factuality / belief interactions suggested by Lombardo (2003).
Mythization can be understood as a process of getting people to believe things which lack "objective reality". Quite likely,
the interaction of belief and objective reality is more complex than Figure 1 suggests. Although the entire notion of objective
reality is worth examining, as a classroom expedient I have found Lombardo's quadrant useful.
In EFL contexts, I explain this as "a way of making people feel they are similar to Cinderella in some way".
Though Cinderella refers not merely to a character in a specific story, but more broadly to any person who
". . . unexpectedly achieves recognition or success after a period of obscurity and neglect." (American Heritage Dictionary, 4th Ed.)
for most university age EFL learners, it seems best to stick with the narrow use of this term as a character in a specific story at first.
Among lower level EFL students, pointing out the main traits of the 1950 Walt Disney movie Cinderella seems like the most expedient way to
introduce this concept: they have almost all be exposed to that movie or its 2002 remake.
If the language level permits, I prefer to skip the Disney movie and mention how Cinderellafication impacts women by introducing the Cinderella
Complex (Dowling,1981). The key elements are summarized in Table 1.
Table 1. Some key aspects in the Cinderella Complex as espoused by Dowling (1981)
Though Dowling wrote from an American feminist perspective several decades ago, it is interesting to hear students comment on how her observations resonate
today in a Japanese context. Rather than interject my own notions about the verity of her thoughts, I find it more interesting to simply present
some tenets of Dowling's ideas and let students reach their own conclusions.
- Women are culturized to feel subservient and inferior to men.
- Though outwardly many women present images of bravado, inwardly they often lack confidence and feel ambivalence about their lives.
- Secretly, most women long for a daddy-like "prince" to take care of them.
- Women who idolize their fathers often desperately seek male attention.
- Success is often defined in terms of male standards of achievement.
Incidentally, for higher level EFL classes, one way to present this information is to place the information in Table 1 onto "wall strips" as
described in Sharpe (2004, pp. 27 - 29) and have students walk around the room, commenting on each strip. All of the vocabulary items mentioned
in this section of the paper can be presented this way if time, interest, and student language proficiency permits.
Disneyfication could be described as "a way of promoting the main values espoused in Disney products". Though it is difficult to pin down so-called
"Disney values" with precision, Table 2 depicts some the key elements that many Disney films espouse.
Table 2. Some prevailing meta-themes inherent in many Disney films
Having said this, it is worth pointing out that the themes associated with Disneyfication have been evolving over time.
Not all Disney products promote the same values, but if we examine the cluster of distributions there is a lot in common.
For instance, many of the early Disney movies such as Alice Cans the Cannibals (1925) were overtly racist.
Others such as Snow White (1937) and Sleeping Beauty (1959) placed women in clearly submissive roles.
Though these criticisms that Disney films are sexist and racist continue, it should be acknowledged Disney films are changing.
In fact, the most vociferous criticism of Disney films appears to be coming from the Christian Right,
who feel Disney films fail to adequately portray family values or respect for Judeo-Christian beliefs.
For an example of this sort of criticism, one has only to the article by neo-conservative Weber
lambasting Disney in the Journal of Historical Review. It is fascinating to observe how companies such as Disney respond to
pressures from different directions.
- Cuteness is good.
- Good triumphs over evil.
- Controversy is to be avoided and sexuality side-stepped.
- Discourse is geared for those with short attention spans.
- Humor and lightness are essential.
- The petty bourgeoisie is heroic.
"I prefer to think of [deconstruction] . .. as a basic process of critical exploration which anyone can (and should) undertake."
Instead of regarding deconstruction as an arcane, analytical process appropriate for only for those well-versed in post-modern philosophy,
I prefer to think of it as a basic process of critical exploration which anyone can (and should) undertake. In EFL contexts I refer to it simply as
"a process of systematically taking ideas apart".
Although the deconstructive process could be approached innumerable ways, for university EFL students I prefer to use the questions listed
in Table 3 as the initial tools for deconstructing a topic. The list is by no means exhaustive, but it seems like a good beginning
point for many classes.
Table 3. Some basic preliminary questions to facilitate deconstructive examination of any idea
- When and how did this idea come into existence?
- How does it compare with other key ideas?
- What implicit beliefs does this idea contain?
- What are the political implications of this idea?
- Who supports or rejects this idea - and why?
Myth exploration: Some teaching constraints
EFL teachers attempting to explore myth and gender in their classes are likely to face three significant constraints: (1)
linguistic hurdles, (2) curricular limits, and (3) psychological barriers. It is worth commenting on each briefly.
The fields of myth analysis and gender studies have their own specialized vocabularies. EFL teachers need to think carefully about how proficient
their students are before deciding which terms to introduce. To avoid task overload three basic choices are available: (1) simplifying the content,
(2) expanding the time frame, or (3) changing the mode of interaction. The lesson plan described in this paper has adopted all three strategies:
the time frame was expanded from one to two lessons, and I gave students the option of discussing some of the points in Japanese.
In an ideal situation, I would like to devote an entire semester to the notion of myth, systematically exploring ideas of Vico, Jung,
Barthes, Eliade, Levi-Strauss, and others on this fascinating topic. Many undergraduate liberal arts courses do precisely that, but in the students' native language.
Teaching a general communication course in an Japanese EFL context, in 2003 I devoted just two lessons explicitly to gender
and myth exploration.
A final constraint to recognize is that some students are not comfortable talking about gender. Students need to be given the option
of not answering any questions that cut too close. Also, to increase their sense of ownership in the entire process, I believe it is useful for them
to formulate most questions themselves: they learn more from active engagement.
" myths are not unlike cocoons which nurture as well as confine."
Related to this, many students seemed quite happy to embrace the predominate Cinderella myth and felt uncomfortable when considering alternative
choices. I had to be careful of my own agenda in this regard, because part of me wanted to encourage them to explore non-traditional directions.
As Duncan (2004) points out, some people feel afraid of discarding cherished myths because much of their identity structure is wrapped up in a
cherished myth. In a way, myths are not unlike cocoons which nurture as well as confine. Although they might be useful or even necessary
at certain stages of growth, they can also be constricting and blinding. Some students may prefer not to acknowledge the double-edged
nature of myths. Critical exploration is a process of continual inquiry into all beliefs – that process seldom seems fully complete.
The lesson outlined in this paper has three specific objectives:
- To make participants conscious of some of the gender-related values they have been exposed to.
- To reflect on the value structures inherent in some parts of the Cinderella myth.
- To challenge the Cinderella myth by generating creative alternatives.
This lesson is designed for university age EFL students with intermediate levels of proficiency or above.
I used this lesson successfully with a group of twelve sophomore English majors at a junior college in Japan in May 2003.
A minimum of ten participants are suggested.
Room Requirements and Materials
For some of the activities in this lesson, a classroom with open space which allows participants to move freely in at least one direction is needed.
The Step Forward activity in Lesson 1 does not work well in classrooms with chairs that are bolted-down to the floor.
In Lesson 2 copies of sample student essays need to be prepared for students who forget their homework.
In Lesson 2 role play cards with six Cinderella characters need to be prepared in advance. There should be one set of
cards for each group of 5-6 participants.
This activity is designed for two ninety-minute class sessions. The first class consists of five activities as outlined in Figure 2.
Figure 2. Suggested activities for a first session of a myth exploration class by the author
Question Formulation & Discussion
||New Pairs/Sm. Groups
||10 min. max.
Let us go through this procedure systematically.
1. Concept clarification
For intermediate level EFL classes, I recommend clarifying three terms: (1) myth, (2) gender, and (3) empower.
If time and student interest permits, these additional terms could be clarified: (1) mythification, (2) Cinderella complex,
(3) Disneyfication, and (4) deconstruction. After giving examples of each term, ask students to come up with one or two examples of each
to make sure they understand the basic concepts.
2. Preliminary discussion
Arranging students in groups of four, use the Kagan square discussion procedure that is described online at
discuss the following points:
Next, tell a new partner in the same small group what your previous partner said about the seven prior discussion questions – summarize your partners views in English.
Make it clear that students should not express their own views about the previous questions, but the views of their former partners.
After this, tell a new partner in the same small group one point at a time that you and your first partner agreed on during the first discussion.
Finally, working with all members of the small group, mention one point which you and your first partner disagreed about during the first discussion.
3. A Step Forward activity
This activity (as described in Newfields, 2003, p. 6-15) has three phases: orientation, simulation, and debriefing. In the orientation phase,
participants go to the center of the class and stand in a straight line. The facilitator briefly explains the procedure of this activity,
mentioning the basic dos and don'ts. Those rules are summarized in Table 4.
Table 4. A summary of the rules for the simulation phase of the Step Forward activity based on ideas by Simms,
Vasquez, and Sherover (1990)
|Take a step forward if a statement applies to you or you agree with it.
|Feel free not to step forward if you are uncomfortable.
|Observe the patternings of the group after each statement.
|Verbally explain why you stepped forward at this point - work in a non-verbal mode.
|Comment on how others are positioned in the room - maintain silence during this phase of the activity.
|Mention who stepped forward outside of this class- respect the privacy of the participants.
The first phase takes less than five minutes. In the simulation phase the facilitator raises a series of statements. Participants step
forward if they feel a statement applies to them – or remain standing where they are if they feel a statement does not apply.
They also have the option of opting out and not responding. Table 5 lists some suggested statements to facilitate the exploration of gender myths, Disneyfication, and Cinderella roles.
Table 5. Some exploratory statements about the Cinderella myth in a Step Forward activity
- If you enjoyed the Cinderella story when you were young step forward.
- If you sometimes identify with Cinderella step forward.
- If you admire Cinderella step forward.
- If you think Cinderella is rather stupid step forward.
- If you know any persons who seem to be like Cinderella step forward.
- If you believe in magic step forward.
- If you believe some spirit is protecting you step forward.
- If you long for a prince or princess step forward.
- If you believe once you love a person everything is OK step forward.
- If you believe there is a perfect person out there for you step forward.
- If you think most step-mothers are bad step forward.
- If you believe your life will have a happy ending step forward.
As participants move forward, it is important they observe who has and hasn't stepped forward and reflect in silence.
This makes it possible for even shy people or those with limited language skills to participate in this activity provided their
listening skills are good enough to understand the questions. It also cuts through the tendency to justify or rationalize preferences or beliefs.
After the simulation phase of this activity is complete, be sure to go through the debriefing phase. Some suggested questions for this specific
activity are mentioned in Table 6.
Table 6. Some debriefing questions about the Cinderella myth in a Step Forward activity
- How did you feel at the start of the activity?
- How did you feel at the end of the activity?
- What surprised you?
- Were you embarrassed about stepping forward to any questions?
- Did this confirm or change any of your ideas about love or Cinderella?
This gives participants a chance to reflect and process the ideas more deeply.
4. Question formulation and discussion
Give students some blank strips of paper and ask them to write 2-3 questions about Cinderella, gender, and myth.
One question should be written on each strip of paper. Unobtrusively, move around the room and help them with this for
about five minutes. After most of the students have completed their questions, put them together into a hat together.
If you are teaching a lower level class, you might also want to add some of the teacher-prepared questions listed in Table 7 to the hat.
Table 7. Some optional discussion questions about the Cinderella myth
Participants should then sit in new groups of four. Hand out about a dozen question strips to each group.
Some question strips will contain essentially the same question. These question strips should be placed on top of each other.
After the question strips are analyzed, ask group members to select six items they wish to discuss.
- When do you first remember hearing a Cinderella story?
- How many different versions of the Cinderella story do you know?
- Describe each of the major characters in a Cinderella story.
- What do the Japanese terms Shindererra Gaaru or Shinderra Boi mean in English?
- How are Princess Diana or Harry Potter like Cinderella? How do they differ?
- Can you think of any other real-life Cinderella stories or recent movies with Cinderella themes?
After participants discuss those questions in small groups, two members from each group will be "reporters" and tell a neighboring
small group what was discussed. The remaining two members will be "inquirers" seeking to gather information.
Finally, participants return to their original small groups and mention one thing they learned from the previous discussion to the other members of the group.
This discussion procedure develops summarizing skills and increases the chances students remain focused on the activity.
5. Homework assignment
I asked a class of EFL students to write short essays in the following way:
Imagine that you were Cinderella and you could enjoy one special night as you wished.
What would you do that night? Who would you meet? Where would you go? What
would you wear? What would you eat? Describe how you would spend your special night
in as much detail as possible. Your essays should be about 100-200 words in length.
In explaining this activity, I carefully avoided defining the gender of the person they would meet.
In fact, to reduce the latent homophobia among some students, I pointed out how their partner could be either gender.
It was fascinating to observe the surprise some students had when hearing that some partners were the same biological gender: many had automatically assumed a heterosexual relationship was implied.
Appendix 1 offers some subsequent Cinderella essays written by students.
The second class consists of four activities as outlined in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Suggested activities for a second session of a myth exploration class by the author.
Traditional Role Plays
Alternative Role Plays
Rescripting your stories
||groups of 5-6
||with partners or homework
||up to 20 min.
Let us discuss each step briefly.
1. Story comparisons
After arranging the class in groups of four, have students get into pairs, then ask students to exchange their homework assignments with a partner.
(If a student did not complete their homework essays, give them one from Appendix 1).
Give students a few minutes to read their partner's essay and go over any unfamiliar words. After this, ask students to point out at least three ways
that both of their stories are similar, then at least three ways their stories differ. (With lower level EFL classes, teachers might need to model
Next, ask students to explain their previous partner's story to a new partner in the same small group. Ask students to try to remember the key
details and tell it as accurately as possible to a new partner.
After this, students should find yet a new partner. Ask students to retell their first partner's original story, but this time by changing it in three ways.
This is a preliminary step towards more creative story telling. Emphasize the importance of modifying the story in at least three ways. For example,
the gender, age, race, or costume of the evening date might be changed in the revised story.
With the entire small group, use a "Rally Robin" structure (Kagan, 1994) and have participants mention one thing at a time that surprised them about
the stories they heard. Each student should have a chance to mention at least three items in a story they heard which surprised them in a story they heard.
2. Traditional role plays
Reform the groups and ask participants to work in larger groups of five or six.
Each person in the new group should randomly select a card from a list of Cinderella character cards which are face-down. These cards consist of the following characters:
a. Cinderella b. The Royal Heir c. Step-mother
d. Fairy Godmother e. Elder step-sister f. The Privy Minister
If only five participants are in a group, Card (f) should be removed before the cards are shuffled face-down. If only five participants are in a group,
Card (e) and Card (f) should both be deleted. A minimum of four participants are needed for this activity.
Try to imagine how the person with that card is "supposed" to behave when they take on that role according to the traditional Cinderella myth.
Interact with the other persons in your group in a way that conforms to the assigned role.
Explain the situation to all participants: you are in a castle in a large hall at a dinner party. Somehow you are all together in the same banquet hall.
What will you do next? (Give participants a moment to think about this for a moment before starting the actual role play.)
In lower-level classes or classes with lots of shy students, the teacher might need to model this though a "fishbowl technique" (Butler & Rothstein, 1998)
in which the teacher works with five participants while the rest of the class observes. Classes with more proficient students will probably not need this preliminary modeling.
Now do the actual role play. Being traditional and hierarchical in nature, the Royal Heir is empowered to speak first.
After this role play game is finished, step out of the role, reflect on these questions in your group -
- How did it feel being in the role you were assigned?
- Who had the most power? Who had the least power?
- What motivated your character?
- What did you like about your character? Dislike about your character?
- Do you know any people who act like this character? Why?
- Could you see something of the character you portrayed in yourself?
3. An alternative role play
Give students the following instructions -
Now imagine you have the magic to recreate your own character and change the
way you acted in your assigned role. Go through the role play one more time with the same participants, but this time instead of worrying how you are "supposed"
to behave according to the traditional Cinderella myth, imagine you could change that myth and act the way you really wanted to. (Give participants a moment to
think about this before stepping into the actual role play.)
Make sure participants understand everyone is the same character as in the previous role-play, but now they are given permission to act differently
if they wish. The reason for this activity is to encourage students regard roles as negotiated behaviors rather than rituals written in stone.
When starting this alternative role play, any character may speak first.
After going through the role play, ask participants to step out of their roles and reflect on these questions in their groups —
- How did you feel differently this time?
- Was it easy or difficult to change the way you acted?
- Specifically, what things seemed easy to change? What things seemed difficult?
- Did anything surprise you?
- Did any of the old roles seem to linger (persist even after things had supposedly changed)?
- What roles in real life do you wish you could change?
4. Rescripting your stories
The final phase of the activity can be done two ways: orally in twenty minutes or as homework.
If done orally, ask participants to go back to their original partners and retell the Cinderella story that they wrote as homework, this
time changing something about what they wrote.
Alternatively, participants could be asked to rewrite their Cinderella stories.
Two concerns arise regarding this type of activity in university EFL contexts.
The first concern is whether foreign language classrooms are the best place to raise complex issues concerning gender, identity, and myth.
An in-depth discussion of these issues requires considerable linguistic skills. Wouldn't it be better for most students to discuss such issues
in their native languages? In many cases, I concede that it would. However teachers should also consider whether their students will actually have
a chance to explore such themes in other courses. As universities become more market-oriented (Margolis, 1998) there is a tendency among
many teachers to avoid such issues concerning gender, identity, and myth. So the EFL classroom might be the only chance many students have to explore such issues in depth.
A second concern is whether complex topics concerning gender, identity, and myth are above the level of most undergraduate students — even in their native languages.
Can they actually grasp such concepts as genderification, myth creation, and critical belief? The feedback from the survey using the instrument
described in Appendix 2 suggests that although many students found this activity challenging and also unfamiliar,
most found it interesting as well.
"the need for consciousness raising activities such as the ones described in this paper seems . . . timely."
This paper has described some activities designed to help students explore the relation between gender, identity, and myth.
It is hoped the activities described in this paper will help some students begin to examine some of the ways that legend, selfhood, and gendered discourses interact.
Teachers wishing to explore the themes presented in this paper in greater depth are encouraged to read Sunderland's (1994)
Exploring Gender: Questions and Implications for English Language Education. Drake (1999, pp. 8-10) also provides
insights on how to explore attitudes towards gender and word usage.
When we consider how rampant sexism is in Japan (Pulvers, 2000), the need for consciousness raising activities such as the ones described in this paper
seems all the more timely. Further research in this area should investigate related gender myths such as the
Frailty Myth (Dowling, 2000) and the
Mommy Myth (Douglas & Michaels, 2004), and the Masculine Myth (Easthope, 1990) which also shape gender-identities.
Many thanks to Jane Jortiz-Nakagawa and Peter Ross for their feedback on this paper.
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