There is hardly a single fairy tale character that has been interpreted in so many ways, introduced to so many cultures and both loved and hated as much as Cinderella. An epitome of femininity and a staple of the way in which women are portrayed in most tales and legends in practically any culture, “Cinderella” with her numerous “clones” is, indeed, a character for a thrilling analysis.
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Despite the fact that Cinderella is viewed mostly as a passive character who does nothing until a fairy godmother does everything for her to help her go to a ball, Cinderella can be viewed as a decent role model for young girls and, moreover, as a rather proactive character when considering the existing interpretations of the tale.
Perrault’s Cinderella also tends to display the traditional feminist qualities; although the narrator never took out most of the magic elements, leaving the initial “enchanted” atmosphere, he still made Cinderella a proactive character who achieved her goal mostly on her own. According to Haase, Perrault’s Cinderella is an “active and happy girl who does not need magic to find her way in the world” (Haase 205).
It is rather peculiar that, instead of simply providing Cinderella with the dress, the crystal slippers and the carriage to get to the palace in, the fairy godmother turns the process of helping Cinderella into another set of tasks for her. First, Cinderella is supposed to bring the fairy godmother a pumpkin, then the mousetrap, then the rat-trap, etc. Therefore, it can be supposed that these actions might have a specific meaning.
Perhaps, these rituals symbolize all the hard work that the leading character had to do to find the way to happiness. Moreover, these small tasks could be a metaphor for the price that Cinderella has to pay to go to the ball. As it has been mentioned above, in most cases, Cinderella is restricted by the boundaries of the role that women played at the time.
Therefore, the process described by Perrault could be a metaphor for the actions that Cinderella was not allowed to do because of her gender (e.g., ride a carriage to the ball on her own, disobey the stepmother, run away and start living on her own, etc.). That said, Perrault’s Cinderella must be regarded as a character with rather distinct feminist traits.
The Grimms’ version is a much darker parable than Perrault’s one. The Grimm brothers obviously took more risks with the story, creating a fairy tale for the older audience and taking a very realistic, though doubtlessly gruesome take on certain details, like the fact that one of the older stepsisters actually cut her foot to fit it into the shoe: “the girl cut off a chunk of her heel, forced her foot into the shoe, fritted her teeth against the pain and went out to the king’s son” (Grimm and Grimm 632).
The same can be said about the feminist issue – Cinderella in Grimms’ version differs greatly even from Perrault’s tale. Not only does she go to the ball, but also climbs the tree, which is rather unexpected from a girl in Grimm brothers’ epoch. In addition, the Cinderella’s relationships with her mother are mentioned, in contrast of other versions.
In contrast to the previous two versions of Cinderella, the Chinese tale is a huge step backwards in terms of feminism. Unlike the previous two tales, the one told by Ch’eng-shih does not even mention whether the girl in the story had any positive qualities, or any specific character traits, for that matters. Compared to the previously mentioned Cinderellas, this character is pretty bland and does even less than Perrault’s and Grimms’ Cinderellas.
Though she is also very hardworking, she is less daring. In addition, unlike the previous two characters, who only had one wish and one single chance to make their way to their dream, Yeh-hsien had everything handed to her as soon as her fish friend died: “The girl followed his advice, and was able to provide herself with gold, pearls, dresses and food whenever she wanted them” (Ch’eng-shih 634). At this point, the feminist image of a young woman who suffers and strives to achieve at least something is pretty much ruined.
Therefore, Ch’eng-shih’s tale takes all the feminist ideas out of Cinderella’s story, turning it into the tale in which suffering is finally rewarded. However, such a downgrade in Cinderella’s feminist qualities can be explained by the fact that Ch’eng-shih’s story is the earliest known version of “Cinderella” (Cullen 646), and, thus, obviously belongs to the era when women’s social role was restricted solely to household.
The African tale takes the feminist image of Cinderella down a few more notches. Even when introduced to the African prince, she remains silent, and it is the prince who recognizes her: “There is my wife” (The Maiden, the Frog and the Chief’s Son 637). However, the Indian Cinderella makes for the two above-mentioned downgrades in the feminist portrayal of Cinderella.
She did not fear the unknown and was seeking an encounter with the so-called “the Invisible One,” the local goodness: “She would try, she thought, to discover whether she could see the Invisible One” (Oochigeaskw – the Rough-Faced Girl (A Native American Cinderella) 640).
In his turn, Disney upgraded Cinderella’s story, making her less active, yet emphasizing such important qualities in the character as kindness and diligence (Grant 641).
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As a matter of fact, Disney often mentioned that “Cinderella” was his favorite animated movie period, and that he often felt like Cinderella, with all the hard work and the reward that he finally got (Maclain 246). Finally, Sexton offers a modern perspective on “Cinderella.”
Incorporating the traditional elements and the less known details, such as the punishment of the stepsisters, Sexton sums up Cinderella’s story as the tale of a girl who was finally rewarded for all her hard work: “This time Cinderella fit into the shoe/Like a letter into the envelope” (Sexton 645). Even in the XXI century, the feminist ideas are cast aside for the sake of keeping the fairytale magical.
Needless to say, each of the “Cinderella” versions incorporates the elements of a specific country’s culture together with the basic plot points, which, therefore, defines the balance between feminism and femininity in the main protagonist.
However, considering the story as a whole, trans-cultural phenomenon, one still must admit that Cinderella is far from being a stereotypical fairytale princess. Not only does she act on her own, but also has a unique and, quite honestly, very believable personality.
It is not only about Cinderella’s good qualities, which have been mentioned above; it is also about her unique characteristics, which make her look real. It is rather peculiar that the traditional Cinderella can be viewed as not as positive a character as she is typically portrayed; according to Panttaja, she is not that morally superior to her stepsisters or stepmother:
She disobeys the stepmother, enlists forbidden helpers, uses magic powers, lies, hides, dissembles, disguises herself, and evades pursuit. The brutal ending of the tale, in which Cinderella allows the mother (in the form of two pigeons) to peck out the eyes of the stepsisters, further complicates the story’s moral thematic. (Panttaja 660)
In addition to the vengeance that Cinderella laid upon her stepsisters, the issue of “sibling rivalry” (Bettelheim 651) should also be mentioned. “Pushed down and degraded by her sisters” (Bettelheim 651), Cinderella can be viewed as a vengeful victim, which perfectly explains the eye-plucking issue mentioned above and adds a tint of gloating delight to Cinderella’s triumph, which also makes her not so big-hearted and, therefore, rather weak, which stands in a contrast to a feminist portrayal of a woman.
To make the matters worse, Cinderella has become a stereotypical princess, “the girly dream of glass slippers and true love” (Poniewozik 667). Moreover, even if casting the feminist ideas aside for a while and considering Cinderella’s personality or a change, one will most likely find out that she was not such a charming young woman, after all: “She would starve before she’d cook a meal and let her clothing get stiff with dirt before she’d wash it, but tending the fireplace was a task she appeared to enjoy!” (Rossner 663).
Then again, the big decisive point concerning the feminist significance of “Cinderella” is not only the means, which Cinderella uses, but also the ends. No matter how active and energetic Cinderella might be portrayed, her main objective is still finding the handsome prince and marrying him – or, to be more exact, dancing with him.
To Cinderella’s credit, she does not fall in love with her Prince Charmin without even seeing him, and they still share some chemistry, even though it lasts only for a few hours. Anyway, the problem of “Cinderella” that most feminists find so hard to nail down is not her lack of initiative – on the contrary, Cinderella is very active; whenever she is in the story, she is doing something, and she never sits twiddling her thumbs.
The problem, however, is that in every version of the story, her priority is to marry the handsome prince. Nevertheless, to solve the conflict, it is required to mention the time context and make it clear that marrying was mostly the only possible choice for a woman then; therefore, Cinderella’s “feminist” nature should be evaluated according to what she does rather than what she finally gets. Therefore, Cinderella can be viewed as a positive feminist character, corrected to the time period and the shift in women’s priorities over time.
Though it must be admitted that a modern idea of an active woman who has the guts to do significant things and strive for her goal does not quite correlate with the existing interpretations of Cinderella, it will be appropriate to say that the given image of a woman must have been rather feministic at the time.
Even with the character traits that cannot be considered feministic nowadays, the image of the Cinderella of the past can be considered rather revolutionary for its time. Moreover, Cinderella also had several qualities that might not be considered important for a feminist, yet still add much to the likeability of her image.
She was good-hearted, polite and well-mannered, which alone should be considered as an incredible achievement given the environment in which she lived in. Therefore, it can be concluded that in every interpretation of the seven suggested ones, the portrayal of Cinderella can be viewed as an attempt to introduce feminism into both children’s fairytales and legends representing national culture.
Bettelheim, Bruno. “’Cinderella’: A Story of Sibling Rivalry and Oedipal Conflicts.” Writing and Reading across the Curriculum. Ed. Laurence Behrens and Leonard J. Rosen. Boston, MA: Longman, 2011. Print. 651–657.
Ch’eng-shih, Tuan. “A Chinese ‘Cinderella’.” Writing and Reading across the Curriculum. Ed. Laurence Behrens and Leonard J. Rosen. Boston, MA: Longman, 2011. Print. 633–635.
Cullen, Bonnie. “The Rise of Perrault’s ‘Cinderella’.” Writing and Reading across the Curriculum. Ed. Laurence Behrens and Leonard J. Rosen. Boston, MA: Longman, 2011. Print. 645–650.
Grant, Campbell. “Walt Disney’s ‘Cinderella’.” Writing and Reading across the Curriculum. Ed. Laurence Behrens and Leonard J. Rosen. Boston, MA: Longman, 2011. Print. 641–642.
Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. “Ashputte.” Writing and Reading across the Curriculum. Ed. Laurence Behrens and Leonard J. Rosen. Boston, MA: Longman, 2011. Print. 628–629.
Haase, Donald. The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007. Print.
Maclain, Adrienne Marie. Playing on the Edge: Performance, Youth Culture, and the United States Carnivalesque. Ann Arbor, MI: ProQuest, 2006. Print.
“Oochigeaskw – the Rough-Faced Girl (A Native American Cinderella).” Writing and Reading across the Curriculum. Ed. Laurence Behrens and Leonard J. Rosen. Boston, MA: Longman, 2011. Print. 639–640.
Panttaja, Elizabeth. “Cinderella: Not So Morally Superior.” Writing and Reading across the Curriculum. Ed. Laurence Behrens and Leonard J. Rosen. Boston, MA: Longman, 2011. Print. 658–661.
Perrault, Charles. “Cinderella.” Writing and Reading across the Curriculum. Ed. Laurence Behrens and Leonard J. Rosen. Boston, MA: Longman, 2011. Print. 627–628.
Poniewozik, James. “The Princess Paradox.” Writing and Reading across the Curriculum. Ed. Laurence Behrens and Leonard J. Rosen. Boston, MA: Longman, 2011. Print. 666–669.
Rossner, Judith. “I Am Cinderella’s Stepmother and I Know My Rights.” Writing and Reading across the Curriculum. Ed. Laurence Behrens and Leonard J. Rosen. Boston, MA: Longman, 2011. Print. 662–665.
Sexton, Anne. “Cinderella.” Writing and Reading across the Curriculum. Ed. Laurence Behrens and Leonard J. Rosen. Boston, MA: Longman, 2011. Print. 643–645.
“The Maiden, the Frog and the Chief’s Son.” Writing and Reading across the Curriculum. Ed. Laurence Behrens and Leonard J. Rosen. Boston, MA: Longman, 2011. Print. 636–638.