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One of the key characteristics prized in women throughout much of human history has been the idea that they are to look charming and desirable while remaining pure, pious and biddable by their elders. These ideas have been reinforced through the fairy tales and cultural elements passed down from generation to generation. Fairy tales such as Cinderella continued to perpetuate the idea to young girls that if they simply did what they were told without complaint or reservation, good things would come to them.
This idea of female submissiveness has been reinforced with every retelling of the Cinderella story, such as that of the Brothers Grimm and of Disney, to the point that even when girls are faced with an obviously dangerous situation, such as that faced by Connie in Joyce Carol Oates’ short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, they are unable to resist the lure of the myth and fall under its sway.
The Brothers Grimm, Jakob and Wilhelm, were the first to put the age-old story of Cinderella to paper as a means of preserving the rich oral history of their German homeland in the early 1800s. Because their original intention was not to write children’s stories, but to preserve folktales, there remain traces within Cinderella that hint of a darker past. Also, because the story was written during a time of strong Christian morality, it contains a blatant religious overtone – including the beginning when Cinderella is told by her dying mother that her responsibility in life is to “be good and pious.” The step-sisters in this version are beautiful to look upon, but the brothers describe them as “vile and black of heart.”
In this case, Cinderella was forced to leave the famous dance three times, once by jumping through a pigeon house, once by climbing a tree and the third time, she finally left behind a golden, rather than a glass, slipper. The prince twice picked up the wrong sister to be his bride after they each had mutilated their own foot in order to fit into the slipper, but the bird at the mother’s grave continued to warn him. On Cinderella’s wedding day, the two false sisters were punished by the birds by having their eyes plucked out one at a time, suffering blindness forever afterward.
The story of Cinderella presented by Walt Disney in 1950 only hints at some of the darker elements of the story’s past. Here the step-sisters have become as unfortunate-looking as they are in spirit, both mean and spiteful. Within this story, the father is let off the hook in terms of allowing the abuse of Cinderella to occur as he dies when she is still small. To make her dreams come true, Cinderella is given a fairy godmother, who decks her out for the ball and sends her off to the one night event in the luxurious pumpkin coach.
But she must leave by midnight when everything will turn back into the humble stuff of their origins. It is here that the slipper first becomes made of glass, which becomes broken just before she is given the opportunity to try it on and identify herself as the princess the prince has fallen in love with. However, her production of the other glass slipper proves her identity and she lives happily ever after – far away from her evil sisters who are left to enjoy their own misery.
In both cases, Cinderella’s meek approach to her life, submissive capitulation to her step-mother and step-sisters’ unreasonable demands and immediate acceptance of her fate marks her as the girl of the prince’s dreams and gains her all the riches and love she had ever wanted.
Oates includes enough of the symbolism of the classic story within her own short story to make the necessary connections in Connie’s mind with the rags to riches dreams of the mythical Cinderella character. Connie is an attractive girl, managing to turn heads regardless of whether she is in her ‘home’ attire as the conservative middle-class daughter or in her ‘ballroom costume’ as she hangs out at the teenage hotspot. The mutilated feet of the Grimm’s fairy tale becomes a strange impediment to Arthur’s attempts to look ‘cool’ and perhaps is meant to serve as a warning to Connie as they were warnings to the prince.
In addition, Arthur’s eyes remain covered by thick and dark sunglasses, alluding to the pecked out eyes of the step-sisters in the original written tale. Finally, Arthur, in the role of the prince, drives up in his ‘golden’ coach to rescue Connie from the drudgery of her everyday existence. All of these parallels work on Connie as she attempts to resist the evil that she feels is at her door, but in the end, she is forced to capitulate as a ‘good and pious’ daughter should for the interest of her family in an opposite motion from that experienced in the fairy tales.
Through her short story, Oates illustrates how the lessons of the fairy tales are working against the best interests of our children as they teach values and ideals that are not conducive to survival in the modern world. While it can be argued that new renditions of these stories such as those portrayed in the animated film series “Shrek” and the live-action film “Ever After” are attempting to change these ideals, it remains some of the older renditions, like Disney’s “Cinderella” that are young children’s earliest introductions and lifelong attachments to fairy tales and the lessons they are providing.
Cinderella. Dir. Hamilton Luske, Wilfred Jackson. Animated film. Disney, 1995.
Grimm, Jakob and Wilhelm. “Cinderella.” Ed. Robert Goodwin-Jones. Virginia Commonwealth University. (1999). Web.
Oates, Joyce Carol. “Where are you going, Where have you been?” The Ontario Review. 1991. Web.