Academic journal article Cultural Analysis

After the Ball Is Over: Bringing Cinderella Home

Academic journal article Cultural Analysis

After the Ball Is Over: Bringing Cinderella Home

Article excerpt

Cinderella, a popular children's story, features a woman of ideal proportions elevated to myth. This is not the ubiquitous folktale's nature but derives from mistranslation and application. The contemporary Cinderella's most memorable and crucial features--glass slipper and ugly sisters--have little original relevance; now magic, not maturity, is lauded. Feminist phenomenology reveals Cinderella as a primer for moral and gender role conventions, leeched of race, gender and class. Sub-textual messages train girls in anti social behaviors and antipathetic family relations. Despite the almost thoroughly female content of Cinderella, the end-result of this instruction is the eventual absence of female agency and identity.

The Cinderella Myth

The tale of Cinderella is encoded as a text of patriarchal moral instruction in which a sense of female agency will always by definition be absent. In this folk tale, which is also a fairytale, female character is positioned in terms of what it is not: not dominant, not powerful, not male. Cinderella herself, non-hero of a dubious tale, evinces more depth than most archetypes. She is capable of developing relationships, meting forgiveness, manipulating her own destiny, even of attracting magical help. This latter suggests a divine personage, with whom ancient myth is rife, but in fact there is never any indication that Cinderella is inhuman. On the contrary, her essential humanity is her salvation.

These qualities on their own make Cinderella an anomaly among fairytale principals: she is given no journey, no quest, no troll to enrage or woo, but permitted to stay at home (albeit in a life of unrelieved drudgery). Although one of three sisters, she does not best them in riddles or games of strength or chance; even the sewing for which she is punished is not her own. Cinderella does not return from the party with a prize but (as I will show, I will shout) the opposite: she comes home missing what she had when she set out. Cinderella does not experience any perceivable growth or transformation with the exception of the tangible one directed by her magic guide--one which is also undone. We can read Cinderella as a mythical character only because of what she means to us as women.

But that is enough. By virtue of what Cinderella represents to contemporary women, the character of Cinderella passed from her fairytale origins to mythical proportions. Cinderella has escaped the bounds of her own story. Cinderella defines girls' first choice for a romantic partner, the strictures of friendship and obedience that girls are trained to uphold, unconditional family love and, not least, ideals of personal appearance and deportment. Cinderella demonstrates the potential of even the least socially advantaged female to achieve public success, the ability of the meek to triumph over the (female) competition, the trick of appearing to be what one is not. These are important techniques in the battle for male approval. If we have impressed Cinderella into service as a myth, it is because we need to look up and forward to a figure who has successfully navigated the obstacles on the distinctly female journey. Cinderella's rags-to-riches story inspires females to prevail against improbable odds. We do not believe in myths because of some inherent truth in them, but because they substantiate what we most wish to be true: Cinderella is a falsehood painted as possibility. What we worship in her is not what she is but what she gets; by subscribing to the myth of Cinderella, we sustain our collective female belief in wealth, beauty, and revenge.

New Origins

Folktales had their origins in oral accounts, stories told by people before the advent of writing, or before someone determined them worthy of literary transcription. Grimm Brothers Jacob and Wilhelm did not, in an original creative act, write the tales published under their names, but went out as folklorists (before there was such a profession) into the countryside, like anthropologists in their wilds, and listened. …

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