Studying Cinderella. [a thesis]
Think about this: where did Cinderella come from? Who wrote the first version of this story?
a) If you’re thinking Disney – that’s wrong. Sorry! (Although the Disney version is almost always the one people think of first, so good for you if you went in that direction)
b) If you’re thinking Charles Perrault or the Grimms brothers – that’s also wrong. They wrote the most popular versions, but not the earliest ones.
c) If you’re thinking I have no idea, man – that’s totally right!
No one really knows there the first Cinderella story came from. Some people speculate that it probably came from ancient China or Egypt, but there’s no definitive origin text. Cool, right?
It’s still interesting to see how people’s minds go straight to the Disney version – did yours?
Mine totally did when first thinking about this, and that led me to wonder about other adaptations of Cinderella. How do other cultures tell the story, and how does that differ from how we’re telling it today? I thought it might be a cool to share with you, our loyal readers, my senior project analyzing how Disney plays a big role in our lives outside the movie theatre. One of the ways Disney comes into play in my life is in school and, yes, I really did do a whole project on Cinderella!
This project looked at 19 different versions of Cinderella, ranging from adaptations from Egypt to Persia to the Philippines, all the way up to modern versions like Ever After and A Cinderella Story. While I was reading I asked myself: What are these stories trying to tell kids? How does culture affect these adaptations? What does that say about our culture?
For those of us who like the academic side of things, here’s my actual thesis taken straight from my paper:
“…older Cinderella adaptations reveal older, culturally-specific traditions, while modern, western stories reveal which traditional cultural forces have been challenged and those which are still reinforced by popular culture. Furthermore, themes that persist between all adaptations reveal institutions and ideas that cross cultural boundaries. The differences and similarities across adaptations of the story thus expose how forms of prejudice, especially in regards to gender and race, are addressed in different Cinderella adaptations. The study of the way these stories are presented is thus significant in that they reveal cultural values as they are passed on from generation to generation.“
I feel like some people don’t think we should turn a critical eye on Disney – they’re for kids! they claim, don’t ruin the magic!
I understand why some people might feel that way. After all, being critical about a part of your childhood is really hard, and can even feel wrong. Disney’s always been a part of my childhood too, and I agree that it can feel weird challenging what I always thought was perfectly innocent.
But we can’t ignore the fact that stories and fairy tales are used to shape kids’ minds. How many of us were introduced to mythology because of Hercules? How many of us have pretended to be Ariel while swimming, or have been inspired to read by Belle? How many of us believe in true love and magic just because Disney has shown us that they’re real? (Ok sorry that was a little cheesy, but you get what I’m trying to say)
I feel like an examination of how Cinderella came to be, how different cultures use the story, and how we’re using it now really adds to our understanding of what the “magic” really means to us. Stories – even those formed by Disney – are not isolated from cultural forces, and I think it’s important for us to really take a closer look at what these fairy tales are teaching us.
So here’s what I found:
Older Cinderella stories teach a lot of prejudice
Cinderella herself can be seen as every culture’s female ideal – she’s physically beautiful and wins the Prince at the end so she’s perfect, right?
But a lot of Cinderella adaptations, no matter where they’re from, portray Cinderella in the same way: submissive, quiet, and white. On the flip side, the stepfamily is also almost always evil, spiteful, and dark. Cinderella and her stepfamily are also always at odds, which is weird – women should stick together, right? Not in the old versions: no matter which culture adapted the story the stepfamily and Cinderella are always competitive against each other.
What about the shoe? In early versions it’s almost always a physical or material figure – a gold shoe in the Grimm’s, an anklet in Shirly Climo’s The Persian Cinderella, a gold star mark on Robert D. San Souci’s Little Gold Star. Since this material “shoe” symbol is how Cinderella is literally identified – the Prince, after call, can’t tell who she is without the shoe – it goes without saying that Cinderella in many early versions is objectified. She is identified not for her character or her personality, but for her physical attributes.
Another important point I found was that Cinderella and her stepfamily are almost always poor, and their only means of living were by the help of the Prince. Again, it’s all a bit prejudiced – Cinderella is unable to stand up for herself, and it’s only the Prince who can “save” her from her low social and economic status.
These older, cross-cultural versions of Cinderella can then be seen as teaching children sexism: As the ideal woman, Cinderella is quiet and passive while her stepfamily, or the examples of how not to act, are spiteful and outspoken. They rely completely on the Prince, and as such the story gives total authority to male figures (can you say patriarchy?!).
Of course the subject of race also comes up and yes, Cinderella is always associated with light and whiteness while her stepfamily is connected with dark and blackness. Early versions are then really affected by colonialism in the way that one group of people is almost always portrayed as superior, despite the adapting culture. This is subtle, but there are scholars out there who claim that such representations really make a big impact on how children grow up understanding race.
However, modern versions are working to reverse a lot of what these older fairy tales were passing on. Here’s what else I found:
Newer adaptations teach independence and tolerance.
So many new Cinderella stories pride themselves on totally changing up the Cinderella story.
An aspect they almost always change is the way Cinderella is characterized. Check out, for example, Ever After, Elle: A Modern Cinderella Tale, A Cinderella Story, Ella Enchanted, Rags, Malinda Lo’s Ash, Marissa Meyer’s Cinder – all these stories change the way the Cinderella character is portrayed. A reoccurring trend in these modern versions is the way Cinderella starts to stand up for herself: see, for example Sam’s speeches to her stepfamily and to Austin in A Cinderella Story or Ella’s commands to herself in Ella Enchanted.
The shoe also becomes important for how it changes from a physical/material feature into a symbol of personality. In Rags and Elle: A Modern Cinderella Tale, the shoe turns into a CD/a song, showing how Cinderella is valued for her (or his, in the case of Rags) talent rather than her physical appearance. In A Cinderella Story the shoe becomes a cell phone with which Sam, the Cinderella character, talks to Austin, the Prince, showing not only our modern obsession with phones but also the acknowledgement of the importance of communication in a relationship.
Another big change can be seen in the way these new versions treat the stepfamily. While older versions make them pure evil, these modern stories make them more understandable, if not more likable. Cinder, for example, hints at the stepmother character’s tragic background, making her malice towards Cinder a little more rational.
Sometimes one stepsister totally changes from pure competition to a friend-figure for Cinderella. In Cinder again, one stepsister actually becomes one of Cinder’s best friends and is her main inspiration to action throughout most of the novel. Finally, the women are beginning to stick together! The evolution of the stepfamily’s roles points to how modern versions are teaching feminism and gender equality, as well as trying to show an acceptance towards alternative family types.
It is also interesting to note how the role of the Prince in many modern works becomes more and more complex. A few older works (like Shirly Climo’s The Persian Cinderella) gave the Prince a large role, but many subjected the Prince to a two-dimensional, and often namelessness, character (I’m looking at you, Disney!). Many modern works however give the Prince a much bigger part in the story. In Ever After, for example, he falls in love with the Cinderella character Danielle after admiring her political ideas and travelling with her. Some adaptations challenge gender roles completely: for example Ash replaces the heterosexual love between Cinderella and the Prince with a homosexual love between Ash and the Huntress Kaisa. As this character changes, it shows the way different genders are viewed and interact with each other.
That’s not to say that all negative prejudices have died out in modern Cinderella stories. In many cases the Prince figure is still one of power, and many stories still end with the Cinderella character marrying him, implying the continued presence of patriarchal authority. Many still also associate Cinderella with whiteness, continuing the colonial association between white and good.
Still, some adaptations have worked to combat these traditions. Rags, for example, switches all the characters’ genders, putting a woman in a position of power. The 1997 TV adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella challenge the parallels between whiteness and goodness through their casting decisions. So, while modern versions are still affected by older Cinderella traditions, we can see new ideas making their way through these new stories.
So how can we apply this to really, really current versions? The last part of my project took a look at the newest Cinderella adaptation, and I found that:
Disney’s 2015 “Cinderella” is pretty alright!
It’s by no means perfect – Cinderella still has to marry the Prince, she’s still connected with lightness, and the stepsisters, at least, remain truly antagonistic.
But the movie does a lot of good things too: The Prince’s character is expanded, showing his personal relationship with the King and his conflicting desires to serve his people and to listen to his own heart. Lady Tremaine also gets her time in the spotlight, as she get the chance to explain the reasons behind her actions. The casting is also varied, and people of different races play significant roles.
But perhaps the best indicator of this movie’s forwardness in terms of feminism is the way Cinderella herself is characterized. While she is still obedient and passive, scenes such as when she scolds the Prince for hunting unnecessarily or explains who she is to him at the end of the movie teach a beautiful combination of compassion and strength.
I think this is best seen in her mantra, said many times in the movie: “have courage and be kind.” Cinderella in her 2015 reincarnation can be seen teaching kids that standing up for yourself is just as important as standing up for others, and I think that’s a pretty good lesson.
Cinderella adaptations aren’t perfect – no story is, after all – but we can see many cultural forces working behind them. Does this mean some versions are “better” than others? Of course not! What’s important is that we’re aware of how these stories work and how they affect what we think. Aside from that, Cinderella continues to be a favorite among children everywhere, and I for one think that should continue.
Thanks for sticking with me through this article! Feel free to respond with any comments or questions below. I’d love to hear what you think.
Works cited here, full paper available upon request. Just ask me!