by Margaret Kingsbury
No matter how many variations of “Cinderella” existed before Walt Disney’s film, every version after lay in its shadow, at least in the United States. The 1950 film saved the Walt Disney corporation from bankruptcy and became its highest grossing film at the time. And for good reason. With catchy songs, adorable mice, and a sassier princess than its predecessor Snow White, the film is immensely watchable. But not particularly feminist. Appearance is equated with inner worth — because Cinderella is kind, she is pretty; because her stepsisters are ugly, they are mean. And Cinderella’s story revolves around finding salvation through marriage, a marriage that only occurs because of her looks. What Cinderella (or any woman in the film) wants beyond marriage never matters. I suppose after her wedding, Cinderella became the ideal 1950s housewife, but in a castle instead of a ranch house. A castle with a larger than normal population of nicely dressed mice.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting a Cinderella wedding or identifying with Cinderella’s story. She undergoes abuse yet remains kind and hardworking. She wears a beautiful dress. I too love dresses. But the idea that a wedding and a romance should be the primary goal for women is problematic.
The idea that being pretty makes women more valuable is also hugely problematic.
A Brief History of Cinderella
Both the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault — the two most well-known classic fairytale authors/compilers today — reinforced patriarchal gender norms with their fairy tales, though it can be a bit unfair to criticize older fairy tales for their lack of feminist values when feminism had yet to be invented. But fairy tales originated as women’s stories — as discussed in Marina Warner’s excellent history From the Beast to the Blonde (as well as other fairytale histories). I imagine many times women storytellers used fairy tales as a means to complain about aspects of their realities. How much of their time was spent on chores? How much of our time is spent on chores? No one likes to clean and cook and sew, yet these activities invariably fall to women, then and now. It must’ve been nice to imagine leaving it all behind to live in a castle full of servants to do the work for you, and a handsome prince to boot. It’s easy to see the appeal in “Cinderella.”
The Disney film is based on a 1697 version by Charles Perrault, who gives us the most passive version of Cinderella. This is unsurprising. Perrault’s fairy tales always end with morals warning women of misbehavior and recommending they censor themselves in some way. In “Cinderella,” the ending moral is that women need to let others help them and be kind. His Cinderella cries a lot. She never acts on her own behalf, as previous incarnations of Cinderella did. But there is a certain magic to his tale. He gave us the glass slippers, the fairy godmother, the pumpkin turned into a carriage. His is also one of the simplest stories, which perhaps made it easier to adapt to film. But given the emerging view of women in the United States post-WWII — that they needed to stay at home and let the men work, that they were becoming too aggressive — it isn’t surprising that Walt Disney wanted to recreate the most passive Cinderella.
One of my favorite older versions, “Finette Cendron,” is by a contemporary of Charles Perrault, Madame d’Aulnoy, who coined the term contes des fees, or fairy tale. At the time, she was the most popular fairytale writer in France. “Finette Cendron” combines two recognizable tales for modern readers — “Hansel and Gretel” and “Cinderella.” It begins with three princess sister, Finette being the youngest. When their father and mother, the king and queen, abandon them in the forest because they’re running out of food, Finette seeks help from her godmother. Her godmother will help her as long as Finette leaves her bully older sisters behind. But Finette doesn’t take her godmother’s advice, and because of that, she and her sisters are abandoned in the forest, unable to find their way home. Eventually, they discover a castle that’s been taken over by an ogre and ogress. Finette tricks the ogre and pushes him into the oven where he burns to death, and then she tricks the ogress and decapitates her. This is the kind of princess I can get behind. Despite this, her sisters still treat her poorly and make her stay home while they go to a ball. But this Cinderella isn’t about to cry at home. She raids the ogre’s possessions, finds some gorgeous dresses, and goes to the ball anyway. You know the rest of the story.
Madame d’Aulnoy’s fairy tales usually feature adventurous and sassy women, and there were many other French women during that time period writing similar stories. But their tales took much longer to be translated into English, and because of this, they never became as well known as Charles Perrault’s in England and the United States. Instead, Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm collections became the most widely circulated, as well as Andrew Lang’s fairytale collections. All compiled by men, though both Lang and the Grimms had help from women storytellers.
But modern reinterpretations are reclaiming women’s voices in fairy tales, and are giving us decidedly feminist versions of the tale. Two recently released retellings tackle women’s lack of agency and the beauty myth from the earlier versions.
Let Them All Be Feminists In Stepsister By Jennifer Donnelly
In the young adult novel Stepsister, author Jennifer Donnelly confronts the beauty myth by expanding on the Brothers Grimm version “Aschenputtel,” but told from the perspective of one of the stepsisters, Isabella. She learns as a child that her stepsister Ella has more worth as a human being because she’s perceived as beautiful. She learns that from strangers, from her mother, from society. In bitterness, she treats Ella cruelly, but when Ella is saved with her happily ever after, Isabella is left with a reputation for cruelty and a growing desperation for beauty. So she makes a bargain with the tricky fairy queen: if she can find the three missing parts of her heart, then the fairy queen will transform her into a beautiful woman. But these missing parts of her heart show Isabella is worth so much more than what she perceives as beautiful.
The most memorable scene in the book occurs in the beginning and depicts how the best parts of Isabella can be twisted into something horrific by a misogynist society that won’t allow her (or any woman) agency. If you’re familiar with the Brothers Grimm version or with the musical “Into the Woods,” then you’ll know one of the major differences between it and the Disney film: the stepsisters cut off pieces of their feet to make them fit into that glass slipper. Because Isabella is mentally and physically strong, is determined and stubborn, has superior endurance, she can pick up a knife, take a foot, and slice off each toe one at a time. Then she can cauterize the wound, slip on a glass slipper, and smile when she meets the prince. Remnants of her childhood dream to be a general still linger in this supposedly ugly stepsister whose blood fills a slipper.
The brilliant cover depicts this scene, and also Donnelly’s purpose in retelling “Cinderella.” As the jacket says, she doesn’t just want to retell the tale, she wants to shatter it.
The pieces of Isabella’s heart lie in these childhood dreams, from the time before societal expectations told her what is and isn’t appropriate for a woman to dream about. It reminds me of the opening song in Disney’s Cinderella. When Cinderella gazes out the attic window of her bedroom (which actually looks pretty roomy and comfy), is she really dreaming of marriage, of a husband to save her from a cruel family? Is that all there is for her to dream about in this sanitized, Disney world of 1950s patriarchy?
A Contemporary, Feminist Classic In Cinderella Liberator By Rebecca Solnit
Rebecca Solnit’s picture book Cinderella Liberator has Cinderella dreaming of something else entirely. “I would like to own my own cake shop,” she explains to the prince, who only wants to return her shoe. “[A]nd I would like to be free to go see the people on all the farms who raise the food I cook, and I would like to ride the dapple-gray horses, and I would like to see my mother come sailing into the bay on a fine ship.” The prince also has his own dreams, as do the stepsisters. If only they can find the agency to fulfill those dreams, and with a little intervention from a kind if distracted fairy godmother, they do. They’re not the only ones given agency. In a nod to Disney, the fairy godmother asks the mice turned into horses if they’d rather be a horse or a mouse. She extends the same courtesy to a rat and six lizards. I guess the pumpkin has no choice, but turning into a coach seems better than becoming a pie.
By promoting the feminist, community-driven ideas of agency, choice, and lending a helping hand, Solnit undermines earlier versions of the tale that represent patriarchal and capitalist norms. What I especially love about Solnit’s witty and clever picture book is its presentation. By accompanying the tale with illustrations by Arthur Rackham, the 19th-century artist responsible for some of the most iconic fairytale illustrations, it sets up Solnit’s version as a classic tale, with as much authority as the Brothers Grimm’s and Perrault’s. Which of course it has.
Fairy tales are meant to vary from teller to teller, with no single version holding absolute authority. What the Disney films have done, with their brilliant art and musical numbers and lots of money, is monopolize the narrative. But thankfully there are writers like Donnely and Solnit, among many many more, who are reclaiming the story. And I hope that Solnit considers rewriting even more fairy tales and compiling them into an anthology that I can place on my shelf along with the Brothers Grimm.