Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Would the Real Cinderella Please Stand Up?

I've already introduced the idea of fairy tales serving as morally-enriching stories that serve to teach children the difference between good and bad. It is almost impossible for kids today to grow up without learning fairy tales, whether that is from a book their parents read to them just before bed or if it from Disney Animated Classics. It is interesting, therefore, to look at the history of a specific fairy tale and see how its meaning and message has changed over time--after all, we are teaching our children these stories (and what is good or bad) often without any thought as to what it means for them as creatures of morality.

It can be argued that the most popular fairy tale is (by far) Cinderella. Check out the Google trends (http://google.com/trends) for fairy tales (pale blue is Cinderlla, red is Jack and the Beanstalk, yellow is Rapunzel, green is Snow White, and dark blue is Sleeping Beauty). It's easy to tell that Google searches for Cinderella far out-number searches for other fairy tales. I believe part of this fascination stems from its rags-to-riches theme, the idea that anyone can become anything (which is appealing to nearly everyone). This story has been subtly changed over time, however, with its final message today differing quite a bit from its message of years past.

The earliest recorded version of Cinderella comes to us from ninth-century-China, written down by Tuan Ch'eng-shih. Instead of the nearly-cliche fairy godmother figure, however, Tuan Ch'eng-shih's version employs a magical fish. Yeh-shen, our plucky heroine, uses her wits throughout the story and clearly revels in her cleverness; much like our modern-day Cinderella, she is identified at the end of the story by her tiny golden shoes (which makes sense in a culture that values small feet to the point of binding them). [2] It is important to note, however, that Yen-shen is no shrinking violet; she is tough, brave, and clever, and is decribed as being "'good at making pottery on the wheel." [4] The story emphasizes the importance of thinking for oneself and taking action on those thoughts.

The story of Cinderella didn't make its debut in Europe until the 17th Century when Italian Giambattista Basile's "La Gatta Cenerentola" ("Cat Cinderella") was published in Naples in 1634. In this version, the heroine complains of her evil step-mother to her governess, who tells the girl, "When your father leaves the house, tell your step–mother you would like one of the ragged old dresses she keeps in the big chest. She'll open the chest and say, 'Hold the lid.' While she is rummaging around inside, you must let the lid fall suddenly so that it breaks her neck. When she is dead, beg your father to take me for his wife, and then we shall both be happy." [4] When Zezolla, our Cinderella figure, has done this, the governess reveals that she has six daughters of her own and treats the girl even worse than the first stepmother did. The story continues in a fairly-familiar vein, but it was written with in a very adult tone, with double entendres that made it both popular and inappropriate for children, but it should be noted that Zezolla is, again, incredibly clever.

A different version of story would be later collected by the Brothers Grimm, who recorded it in their1812 publication of 86 fairy tales, Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children's and Household Tales). [1] This version, known as "Aschenputtel" ("Ash Girl"), while a children's story, shows no hint of either a pumpkin carriage or a fairy godmother: "The heroine plants a tree on her mother's grave from which all of the magical help appears in the form of a white dove and gifts. At the end, the stepsisters' eyes are pecked by birds from the tree to punish them for their cruelty." [3] It is the heroine's strength of heart and faith that are rewarded in this version of the story.

The version that is most like what most modern-day readers are familiar with originated with Charles Perrault's 1697 story Contes de ma Mere L'Oye. This is where the tropes of the fairy godmother, the pumpkin carriage, the glass slippers, and the animal servants came from. [2] It is important to note, however, that Perrault's aim was to teach girls how to become ladies by emphasizing the "morals" of beauty and grace, and his Cinderella was neither clever nor brave but instead waited to be rescued from her horrible fate.

Unfortunately, it was this Cinderella that set the precedent for the character American children grow up with. In yet another argument for Walt Disney being Satan's representative on earth, Jane Yolen argues that it was Disney's Golden Press Book that

"set the new pattern for America's Cinderella. The book's text is coy and condescending. (Sample: 'And her best friends of all were — guess who — the mice!')The illustrations are poor cartoons. And Cinderella herself is a disaster. She cowers as her sisters rip her homemade ballgown to shreds. Not even homemade by Cinderella, but by the mice and birds.) She answers her stepmother with whines and pleadings. She is a sorry excuse for a heroine, pitiable and useless. She cannot perform even a simple action to save herself, though she is warned by her friends, the mice. She does not hear them because she is 'off in a world of dreams.' Cinderella begs, she whimpers, and at last has to be rescued by — guess who — the mice!" [4]
Cinderella does not earn her rags-to-riches story, she is just pretty enough to receive it. The story essentially teaches young girls that if they are pretty and quiet, a man will come by sooner or later to give their horrible lives meaning. It is clear to even the most casual observer that the story's original message of resourcefulness rewarded has been subverted and perverted to encourage helplessness and whining in an ultimately anti-feminist figure. Is this what we want to teach our daughters? I mean, really?

Works Cited:

[1] Ashlimann, D.L. "Grimm Brothers' Home Page." http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm.html#chronology. Accessed at 8 September 2008.

[2] "Charles Perrault." http://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/harris/StudentProjects/Student_FairyTales/WebProject/Bios/Perrault%20Bio.htm. Accessed 5 September, 2008.

[3] Heiner, Heidi Anne. "History of Cinderella." SurLaLune Fairy Tales. http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/cinderella/history.html. Accessed 5 September, 2008.

[4] Wildling, Terri. "Cinderella: Ashes, Blood, and the Slipper of Glass." http://www.endicott-studio.com/rdrm/forashs.html. Accessed 5 September, 2008.


Chatty Cathy said...

Yay, something new to read! I did not know about all the other stories of Cinderella. Your piece made me want to read those other versions. Oh, and I am sorry, but I think the worst of these fairytale heroines is Aurora (a.k.a Briar Rose) that mute, narcoleptic princess from Sleeping Beauty. Who the hell would dance with a stranger in the woods!
p.s-Goooo Belle!

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

How is Aurora any worse than Snow White--she goes to sleep and wakes up with a stranger making out with her, so, of course, she marries him! I'll do pieces on those two, too, I think...

Anonymous said...

It's interesting that, at least in western Europe, the helpless female ideal arose around the time when anyone who was anyone had tuberculosis. Pale, rosy-cheeked, damsels became chic, and we're still paying for it.

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

You know, I never thought about it quite like that, but you're right. Between tuberculosis and the plague, they had all their bases covered!

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