Disney, Fairytales, and Women, Part 7: Cinderella
If you keep on believing, the dream that you wish will come true.
I don't know if it's just that there are more versions of Cinderella out there or if that's just what I've stumbled upon most, but I've definitely read more versions of Cinderella than any other fairytale. The oldest recorded Cinderella-type stories we have are the Greek/Egyptian "Rhodopis" and the 9th-century Chinese "Yeh-Shen," and Cinderella stories can be found in almost every culture around the world, many almost as old as Yeh-Shen. Cinderella is also one of the most-used fairytales in modern reimaginings and revisionist fairytales; a quick run through your local bookstore's young adult section will probably turn up no less than 20 Cinderella re-writes, including but not limited to Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted, Malinda Lo's Ash, and Marissa Meyer's Cinder. And in this world absolutely saturated with versions of Cinderella from China to Scotland to Russia to Mexico to India, Disney chose the unarguably most boring version of Cinderella to adapt.
Okay, perhaps that's a bit harsh. I should note as a disclaimer I really don't like Perrault. But the heroines of Cinderella-type fairytales tend to be my very favourites, and Perrault's is a distinct exception to that rule. The heroines of other Cinderella stories tend to be very self-reliant, resourceful, witty, mischievous, and in many cases, really funny. The English Cap O'Rushes secretly goes to the ball and returns home before the rest of her family, and when they tell her that she missed the most beautiful lady at the ball, who was, of course, Cap O'Rushes, she professes over and over how dearly she would have loved to be at the ball and see this wonderful lady. The heroine of the Middle Eastern "The Little Red Fish and the Clog of Gold" convinces her father to marry the nice woman who turns into her evil stepmother, and when the heroine realises this, she says, "I picked up the scorpion with my own hand; I'll save myself with my own mind." These sorts of Cinderellas are the architects of their own escapes and their own stories, and their happy endings come from their own work. Perrault's Cendrillon is put to work, but she doesn't manufacture her own escape and her story relies on other people pushing it forward for her.
Many Cinderellas do have some things in common with Perrault's Cendrillon, however. The story "Little Gold Star" is attributed pretty much everywhere from New Mexico to South America, and the heroine of that story is rewarded for her obedience and gentle nature. The Grimms' "Aschenputtel" and the Russian "Vasilisa the Beautiful" feature heroines who obediently follow their mothers' dying wishes for them to be good and kind. Perrault makes much of Cendrillon being "a good girl," quietly and patiently enduring all manner of unkindness and never saying so much as "boo" to anyone or anything. It's another Snow White situation; while kindness is certainly something we want to have, there comes a point where unfailing kindness leads to putting up with horrific abuse - a situation which is made much clearer in Cinderella than in Snow White.
Disney's Cinderella does at least have more of a personality than Snow White did, but she's still more or less the same as her fairytale counterpart. Cendrillon is rewarded for putting up with abuse silently and not allowing her situation to shake her kindness. She relies on her fairy godmother to get her what she wants. She doesn't have a whole lot to do in Perrault's version. Perrault leaves explicit morals at the end of his stories, and Cendrillon, in fact, has two:
Beauty is a fine thing in a woman; it will always be admired. But charm is beyond price and worth more, in the long run. When her godmother dressed Cendrillon up and told her how to behave at the ball, she instructed her in charm. Lovely ladies, this gift is worth more than a fancy hairdo; to win a heart, to reach a happy ending, charm is the true gift of the fairies. Without it, one can achieve nothing; with it, everything.
It is certainly a great advantage to be intelligent, brave, well-born, sensible and have other similar talents given only by heaven. But however great may be your god-given store, they will never help you to get on in the world unless you have either a godfather or a godmother to put them to work for you.
Remembering that Perrault's audience was upper-class French society and the court of Louis XIV, we can at least see why he advocates "charm" in the form of quiet, obedient, kind, inactive women. That does not excuse him, especially remembering that his predecessors and contemporaries still managed to write strong Cinderellas. The second moral is particularly egregious, and seems to be a direct response to the hordes of intelligent, brave, sensible Cinderellas. Perrault seems to be even advocating against those heroines, encouraging talented women not to try to do anything for themselves. I'm not saying Perrault has a deep-seated fear of strong women, but...
Speaking of that fairy godmother, Disney's version, just like Perrault's, kind of pops out of nowhere. She makes more sense in other Cinderella stories where she's either explicitly or implicitly a magical reappearance of the heroine's dead mother. In "Aschenputtel" she takes the form of a hazel tree, in "Vasilisa the Beautiful" she's a doll, in "The Little Red Fish and the Clog of Gold" she's the fish, etc. etc. The dead mother reappears to aid her daughter from beyond the grave, which is still kind of a deus ex machina mechanic but at least makes more sense than a random fairy godmother popping out of nowhere. Some stories have no supernatural element coming in to help the heroine; Cap O' Rushes merely cleans herself up and puts on a nice dress (the origin of which is unknown). The theme of motherly love and devotion even from beyond the grave is a sentiment probably introduced to comfort children who had lost their mothers, which was certainly a much more common occurrence in the past.
Step-families were also a common occurrence, as they remain today. Losing a wife in childbirth was common, and so was re-marrying. I talked more about the evil stepmother trope in Part 2, so I won't rehash that here too much. In pretty much every version of Cinderella, the evil stepmother is trying to prioritise her own children over the heroine, presumably to secure her own legacy or to raise her family out of poverty or just to raise them socially because being royalty is a sweet gig. The ideal stepmother would have included the heroine in this goal, and had Cinderella been included in her stepmother's scheming, would we see the stepmother as evil? Would she just be a mother who wouldn't stop at anything to secure a future for her family? It's possible. But her exclusion of her husband's children is what makes her cruel, and I don't suppose there's much of a story if Cinderella is treated as one of her stepmother's children, so it's all speculative.
Disney's sequels to Cinderella explore the idea of one of the stepsisters being secretly kind-hearted, which is actually something that has precedence in the fairytales, if just barely. Perrault's Cendrillon is initially called "Cinderbritches," but the younger stepsister, "who was less spiteful than the older one," softened it to Cinderella/Cendrillon. In other versions of the story, the stepsisters' point of view is not really explored and the stepmother is the main villain of the piece. While they go along with their mothers' wishes, we don't always see them really acting out on Cinderella. Sometimes the stepsisters do give her cruel nicknames and lots of chores, but often it's just the stepmother. The stepsister in "The Little Red Fish and the Clog of Gold" never says a word, but through her mother's machinations, she ends the story with her hair falling out and smelling like "lifting the cover off a grave." Aschenputtel's stepsisters obey their mother and hack off parts of their feet to fit in the shoe, and their obedience is rewarded with having their eyes pecked out by birds at Aschenputtel's wedding. "Little Gold Star" has her stepsisters growing donkey ears and cow horns out of their foreheads. Perrault's unfailingly kind Cendrillon invites her stepsisters to her wedding and fixes them up with "great lords." The stepmother rarely gets such gruesome ends. Perrault doesn't mention what happens to the stepmother, nor do the Grimms. Little Gold Star's stepmother even gets invited to the wedding. On the other hand, Vasilisa's stepmother gets turned into a pile of ash by a fiery skull, so she didn't always get off so easy.
Disney's Cinderella is a bit spunky, has a bit of a sense of humour, and is certainly kind and gentle. There's more to her than there was to Snow White, but she's not a heroine in the way we like to think of our heroines. She doesn't really do anything. We feel sad for her being forced to work as a servant for her cruel and abusive step-family, and we rejoice with her when she gets the happy ending for which she dreamed. But it's hard to really identify with her as a person (as opposed to identifying with her situation). She's so unfailingly good, it's pretty unrealistic. And we almost don't want to be as kind as her, knowing it'll get us stepped on and our generosity abused. I doubt it'll happen, but I would like to see Disney tackle another version of Cinderella, because those are some heroines I would love to see in a Disney film. As far as what we have now, both Disney's fairytales up to this point in history have made a big deal of unfailing kindness without really talking about what that can lead to, and heroines who don't have a whole lot of personality to them. (It may have been a little unfair to do The Princess and the Frog first, because how could anyone follow the force of nature that is Tiana? But man, in comparison, Snow White and Cinderella are pretty boring.) On the bright side, things will get better! But they're gonna get worse before they get better.