Strong Female Characters: Cinderella

For those of you that don’t know, Cinderella is the story of a beleaguered young girl forced into servitude by her stepfamily. Good, kind, sweet Cinderella would be doomed to a life of eternal scrubbing if it were not for her fairy godmother, who whisks her away to a royal ball. There, she meets and falls in love with a prince who clearly has a thing for feet, as when she leaves at the stroke of midnight and leaves behind a shoe, he decides to keep it. The prince declares he will marry the girl whose foot fits the shoe, finds Cinderella again, and they get married and live happily ever after.

This story is a staple of literature all around the world. What’s really interesting about Cinderella as a story is that almost every single civilisation has had a variation on the tale. The earliest version can be traced back to the Ancient Greeks, where a courtesan winds up marrying a king when he finds her shoe. There’s a version in Chinese folklore where Ye Xian – our Cinderella character – prays to the bones of a dead fish instead of waiting for her fairy godmother. There’s a version in Native American Algonquin folklore where the heroine’s face is burned by her two stepsisters, and her Prince Charming is a supernatural chieftain who restores her beauty. There’s a version from Zimbabwe where the Prince Charming character – in this case, the King of Zimbabwe – can turn into a magical talking snake, and this is how he and the heroine meet.

Indy understands me. (image: tumblr.com)
Indy understands me. (image: tumblr.com)

The version that is most commonly known these days is a variation on Charles Perrault’s tale, but the story has been adapted so many times that even this may not give a truly accurate representation of her character. Like Mina Harker, Cinderella has been portrayed in so many books, movies, TV shows, operas, musicals and Saturday morning cartoon shows that all the variations of the character tend to blur into one. Cinderella in the popular consciousness isn’t necessarily the Cinderella belonging to any one version of the story – she’s an amalgamation of thousands of different tales.

But I’m not going to look at all of them. I’ve chosen six variations on the Cinderella story and I’ll be seeing how each measures up to my Strong Female Characters test.

Let’s get started – but watch out for spoilers!

 

image: liveinternet.ru

This version of the story – rather than the more gruesome tale by the Brothers Grimm, where people chop off bits of their own feet – is the basis for most of the modern Cinderella adaptations. Cinderella is a central character, but she’s very passive; even though the story revolves around her she does very little. She does what she’s told all the time, even when it isn’t in her own best interests, and has no goals, beliefs or hobbies mentioned in the original text.

She’s consistently portrayed as a kind, sweet, good-hearted and obedient girl, and this remains the case through most of the story. However, there’s not much to her as a character apart from this – her love life is so integral to her trajectory through the story that it’s impossible to describe her role in the story properly without referencing it. She makes no decisions of her own – all the important parts of the plot are the results of other characters’ actions – she doesn’t develop as a character and doesn’t have any weaknesses that hold her back, as her refusal to stand up to her stepfamily was – at the time – seen as a sign of her inherent goodness.

Oh Ben, you beautiful tropical fish. (image: giphy,com)
Oh Ben, you beautiful tropical fish. (image: giphy,com)

This is largely due to the time in which this version was written. Cinderella is the archetypal good Christian girl: she’s kind, sweet, obedient, loving, forgiving and is eventually rewarded for her forbearance with a rich husband. She’s not so much a character as a collection of clichés intended to teach girls the importance of patience and obedience. She does have relationships with other female characters (namely, her stepmother, stepsisters and fairy godmother) but these are very simplistic, and have no real variation other than whether the character is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. All in all, Cinderella is very much a product of her time, but she still has about as much agency, personality and character development as her pumpkin.

FINAL SCORE: 2.5/10

 

image: youtube.com

This version follows the Perrault fairy tale reasonably closely, so much of what I said in the previous section still applies. Cinderella still has no real control over her own destiny, although she does take some small steps to make it more bearable, such as befriending all the castle vermin. She doesn’t have a clear goal but it’s well-established she believes in the power of dreams and whishes, and she’s clearly interested in singing and making tiny mouse clothes (whatever floats your boat). She’s consistently portrayed as kind, good and sweet, and is also shown to be an accomplished singer.

Her beauty is a huge part of her character in this version (especially when compared to the Ugly Stepsisters), and as above her love life is so integral to her progression through the story that you can’t describe her without mentioning it. This is really what motivates her, unless she’s palling around with some rats or whatever. She doesn’t develop, she doesn’t have any weaknesses, and she’s such a fundamentally passive character that in the climax of the film she literally has to rely on rodents to save her.

Can you pull a muscle from rolling your eyes? Asking for a friend. (image: giphy.com)
Can you pull a muscle from rolling your eyes? Asking for a friend. (image: giphy.com)

Cinderella’s relationships with other female characters are cast in a similar vein – there are a fair few of them, but they’re inherently simplistic, just like in the original fairy tale. And the influence doesn’t stop there. Much of the traditional gender stereotypes I discussed above still apply to this version of Cinderella, too, but they become more politically loaded when you consider the context. Released just after the Second World War – when women who had been drafted into the workplace in their thousands were kicked back out again as the GIs came home – the film serves to reinforce traditional gender roles that many were beginning to question with the earliest beginnings of Second Wave feminism. Long story short, there’s not really all that much difference between the Walt Disney cartoon and the Perrault fairy tale, aside from the fact that a little more time and attention is paid to Cinderella’s character.

FINAL SCORE: 3.5/10

 

image: blackheartmagazine.com

This adaptation of the classic Cinderella story was written almost fifty years after Walt Disney’s take on the story. It’s a part of the enormous wave of revisionist approaches to fairy tales initially spearheaded by Angela Carter in the 1980s, and I’ll be focusing on this rather than the movie adaptation. The story covers the life of Ella, the unconventional daughter of a nobleman who was cursed to be obedient by an extremely misguided fairy. Realising how many opportunities for abuse this presents, Ella sets out to remove the curse.

This frames the question of Ella’s destiny in an entirely different light. She’s cursed to do every single thing she’s told – even if she doesn’t want to – but she still doesn’t let this stop her, actively seeking out the fairy who cursed her despite this considerable handicap. This is also one of her main goals throughout the story, and ends up influencing a lot of her beliefs too – she comes to really value independence, freedom and the ability to refuse stuff just for the hell of it. Her hobbies are also well-developed: she enjoys pranking people, reading, and sliding down banisters. She’s consistently shown to be a creative, brave, kind girl with a wicked sense of humour, and her skills at languages – and her lack of skills with all things feminine – are a constant feature of the book.

When applying eyeliner, she always uses the Cage technique. (image: tumblr.com)
When applying eyeliner, she always uses the Cage technique. (image: tumblr.com)

You can describe her without mentioning her love life or appearance: “a brave, inventive young woman is trying to break her curse of obedience”. In fact, her love life doesn’t really factor into her decision-making all that much; her primary goal is still to break the curse. She actually ends up going to great lengths to make sure that she doesn’t get too close to Prince Charming while she’s still cursed, as she’s afraid that it could be used to hurt him.

Over the course of the story she grows up, fights to retain her independence and ends up breaking the curse. She has flaws, too: she’s stubborn, and can be extremely impetuous when she feels like it. She’s a driving force on the plot, actively running away in an effort to force the fairy to remove her curse, and ends up breaking said curse herself, through the force of her own willpower. In terms of gender stereotypes this brings the character forward leaps and bounds – while she does fall into the standard ‘spunky heroine’ tropes quite nicely, she’s still a resourceful young woman who’s fully prepared to make her own destiny, and to pull away from the people she loves in order to keep them safe. The relationships she has with other female characters are much more well-developed too. She hates, then pities, the fairy who cursed her; she loves and misses her unconventional dead mother; she’s had some serious tough love from the cook who raised her, Mindy; she hates her cruel stepsister, Hattie, but ends up pitying her needy, neglected stepsister, Olive. Ella is a brilliant character on several counts, and a really excellent example of how to bring the classic Cinderella story up to date without losing touch with the original source material.

FINAL SCORE: 9.5/10

 

image: swotti.com

This adaptation of Cinderella was written by the guy who wrote Wicked, and it’s pretty clear that in writing this version, he was following a similar formula. This version is set in 16th century Holland and told through the eyes of one of the ugly stepsisters, who arrive in Haarlem to start a new life away from persecution. The book was reasonably well-received, and was completely eviscerated by a 2002 movie adaptation which I might make snide references to.

Clara – our Cinderella character – is a very different beast in this version of the classic. As a child she was held to ransom and when her parents found her, they refused to let her out of the house. As such, she’s not really in control of her own destiny, but with very good reason. This also affects her beliefs, goals and hobbies; while she doesn’t have many hobbies, as a result of her kidnapping she comes to believe that she is a changeling child. Her goals are shaped around this too, although they are mainly reactive: she wants to go outside because her mother won’t let her, and later in the book, she wants to get away from her stepfamily because she hates her stepmother.

GOD MOM GET OUT OF MY ROOM (image: giphy.com)
GOD MOM GET OUT OF MY ROOM (image: giphy.com)

Clara is a very passive child who’s curious, intelligent, haughty, petulant and extremely self-centred, and she remains this way throughout the book. However, it’s impossible to describe her character or her journey through the story mentioning her beauty: it’s both the reason she is shut away and how she eventually finds her way out. She doesn’t have much of a love life, apart from right at the end of the book: in the larger part of the novel her decisions are mostly influenced by her desire to get away from her stepfamily. Her development comes along in leaps and bounds, as she stops believing she’s a changeling, eventually becomes a tiny bit nicer to her stepfamily, and realises that people want to possess her for her beauty. She has plenty of flaws – she’s haughty, self-centred, spoilt and behaves like a brat – but most of the time this doesn’t always translate into influence on the plot due to her inherently passive nature. In this respect she falls into two main gender stereotypes: the spoilt rich girl and the passive beauty (although these are subverted to a certain extent). She has a range of relationships with a range of different female characters that are dictated by more than just their moral alignment, so she scores on that front. Ultimately, she’s an interesting twist on the classic character, but she just doesn’t do enough to pass my test.

FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10

 

image: fanart.tv

Ah, the early 2000s. Home of questionable hairstyles, whiny teen rock bands and instant messaging – and this latest adaptation has all three. Set in Los Angeles, the story follows the life of Sam, a young girl oppressed by her stepfamily who meets her Prince Charming in a Princeton chatroom. The movie was panned by critics, but achieved enough commercial success to warrant two sequels and a flurry of terrible IM screen names – not that that was difficult in the early 2000s.

Exhibit A. (image: buzzfeed.com)
Exhibit A. (image: buzzfeed.com)

However, it still falls into many of the same traps as the traditional Cinderella adaptations. For most of the movie, Sam isn’t in control of her own destiny, only really taking charge when she stands up to her stepmother in the final third. She has clear goals, beliefs and hobbies – she wants to get into Princeton, she believes in ‘being true to herself’ and enjoys either baseball or softball (I can’t tell the difference). She’s a consistently kind, sweet, intelligent character who stays good at sports and school throughout all the movie, and thanks to her goals, it is possible to describe her personality and her character arc without referencing her love life or appearance. Her love life does motivate her in part, but so does pursuing her education, and over the course of the story she learns to stand up for herself.

Her character falls down in all the other places that Cinderella characters traditionally fall down: flaws, gender stereotypes and agency. Her inability to stand up to her stepmother isn’t really portrayed as a flaw, more as something she chooses not to do in order to preserve her financial stability and home life – she’s perfectly capable of standing up to other characters, and does so frequently. For most of the film she doesn’t do an awful lot on her own because she’s ordered around by other characters so often. And in terms of gender stereotypes – OH BOY. Sam falls into the classic trap of being ‘not like other girls’: she likes sports, cheeseburgers, is totally chill about her appearance but not chilled enough for her to actually look ugly. Just like Hazel Lancaster, Sam’s interests and personality are constantly portrayed in contrast to other girls – namely to make her character look good by comparison. This also undercuts her relationships with other girls: the girls who enjoy ‘girly’ hobbies are always the ones who bully her, and the ones who don’t are the ones who help her. Ultimately, she was an interesting character when I was an impressionable wee lass, but ten years on she doesn’t quite hold water.

FINAL SCORE: 6.5/10

 

image: noteburner.com

This latest adaptation of Cinderella sticks to the original storyline pretty closely. An amalgamation of the 1950 Disney film and the Brothers Grimm version of the story – albeit with considerably less maiming – the film returns to the classic Cinderella formula rather than trying anything really different. It was a smash hit at the box office and very well-received by critics, particularly on the strength of the actors’ performances.

In terms of storyline, however, Ella is one of the most passive characters I have ever come across. She gets pushed along through the plot like she’s on coasters, with all the major events in the film being generated by the actions of other characters (whether it’s her stepmother locking her away, or her fairy godmother setting her free). All her decisions are made for her apart from on two occasions – when she goes for a horseback ride and bumps into Prince Charming and when she stands up to her stepmother, even though it means sacrificing her chance to be with the Prince. She’s so fundamentally passive that in the final scene she doesn’t even open her own window – the mice have to do it for her so the prince can hear her angelic voice, realise she’s been there all along and rescue her from her evil stepmother. RODENTS HAVE MORE AGENCY THAN THIS WOMAN.

This lack of agency also severely hampers her character. She doesn’t have any goals, or any hobbies – she believes in being kind and brave, but only really succeeds in the former. She’s consistently portrayed as a kind, sweet, good character, so she gets points in that regard, but her lack of any other interests means that her romantic life becomes the sole focus of her character – you simply can’t describe her without referencing it. This is what influences the bulk of her decisions: the desire to be with total babe Richard Madden.

Not that I have a problem with that... (image: tumblr.com)
Not that I have a problem with that… (image: tumblr.com)

She doesn’t develop over the course of the story and she doesn’t really have a weakness – like in many other adaptations, her inability to stand up for herself is portrayed as an expression of just how kind and good she is, rather than something that in reality, holds her back and makes her miserable. Her relationships with other women are all largely generic, apart from the one with her stepmother, which is given depth when Lady Tremaine confesses her jealousy, and when it comes to gender stereotypes DON’T EVEN START. She’s the archetypal good, sweet, patient beauty who puts up with everything that’s thrown at her and is eventually rewarded with a smoking hot husband – you can’t get any more cliché than that. A lot of these flaws aren’t necessarily to do with this adaptation – rather, they stem from the original story – but regardless of that, Ella definitely hasn’t passed my test.

FINAL SCORE: 3/10

 

So that’s my analysis of Cinderella. Long story short, a lot of these adaptations’ problems stem from themes central to the original story. The persecuted heroine is a stock character in stories from all across the globe, and Cinderella is no exception; much like all of these other tales, one of the central themes of her story is that simply by virtue of her own, well, virtue, she will eventually be rewarded. However, the idea that good, kind characters will be rewarded for their actions doesn’t always translate into well-developed characters, particularly if they don’t have to work for their happy ending. To my mind, active characters who really have to struggle to get the things they want will always have more interesting and meaningful stories than those who are simply rewarded.

Next week, I’ll be returning to the old format, but with a twist. I’ve decided to do a themed month: to celebrate all things spooky, I’ll be looking exclusively at villainesses for the whole of October, and kicking it off with one of the originals. Lady Macbeth, I’m coming for you.

 

 

And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.

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19 thoughts on “Strong Female Characters: Cinderella”

  1. Cinderella 87. Every After. both adaptations which are based on the Perrault version and are much better than most of the ones you listed (there is also a third, but that one is not based on the Perrault version, but more on the Russian take of the story).

    The Disney take…well, that would require a whole article to take apart. But in a simple rundown: I think what a lot of people miss is that the movie is not about “be obedient and you get rewarded”. Not even the original story is because if that were true, it wouldn’t be an act of disobedience (going to the ball) which eventually leads to a better live for Cinderella. It is about “no matter what life throws at you, when you work hard and never give up, you’ll get your break eventually”. Cinderella is trapped in a bad situation, but does she give up? No. She demands that she is allowed to go to the ball, not because she wants to marry the prince, but because she wants to go. And when her family does everything in their power to prevent her from going, she has friends who help her along, not because she was obedient, but because despite her hard live she made the best out of it and when she was given a chance, she took it, with both hands. Which, in a way, mirrored Walt Disney’s own life.

    That the lucky break boils down to marriage is naturally problematic, but it is too easy to dismiss Cinderella on this grounds. There is more to the story than that.

    1. I did actually consider talking about Ever After but in the end I decided to cut it – it is a very good adaptation, but ultimately I just had too many I wanted to look at.

      As far as the issue of Cinderella’s agency goes, she still doesn’t really do a lot to take her fate into her own hands. The chances she takes aren’t something she’s set in motion herself; they’re things that other characters have set up for her. She only takes that chance because it literally falls into her lap, whereas some of the other versions I looked at are much more active.

      And as for the question of marriage – yeah, it is problematic, but mainly because in a lot of these adaptations Cinderella doesn’t actually have anything else she wants. This mainly applies to the older versions of the story, which are of course influenced by the time and place they were written, but these days it’s very easy to flesh out such characters by giving them outside interests – some writers just can’t be bothered to do it.

      Thanks for your comment – there’s a lot of really interesting scholarship on the Cinderella story which I would definitely recommend. It covers all the themes that I touched on here in much greater detail – I’d really recommend reading it!

      1. I think we shouldn’t put our modern standards on Cinderella. At the time at which the story was written, a woman didn’t have the option to leave her family and live on her own. The only socially accepted way to escape the situation in which Cinderella is in was, back then, marriage. Because of this, I don’t see Cinderella as a character who doesn’t have agency, but as a character who is prevented by circumstances from acting on her agencies. She is like a prisoner with no chance of parole, and yet, she rebels as soon as she gets the chance. The historical context is why modern adaptations are so challenging. Ever After did very well by pointing out a lot of the realities of this period.

        1. I disagree – looking at the story in the original context is very helpful, but considering how often Cinderella has been adapted for modern audiences there comes a point where you simply have to talk about it in a modern context.

          And actually, even at the time there would’ve been more than one way out for Cinderella. I’m a history graduate, and while you’re right about marriage being the most common way out of an abusive family situation it wasn’t the only solution. With no living male relatives/blood relations she actually would have had fewer restrictions, and it would have been quite common at the time for young girls to leave home and go into domestic service somewhere else. However, in classic fairy tales marriage is often promoted as the ideal outcome because a) it would have given the girl a bit more status/support and b) society as a larger whole didn’t really endorse the idea of young girls making their own fortunes in theory (although of course this was another matter in practice).

              1. I know this…but you were talking about the Perrault version in which the father is still alive. And in the Grimm as well as the Bechstein version (which are arguably the closest related to them), he is not only alive, he actually turns up in the story but somehow overlooks how his daughter is treated.
                The idea that the story is about “be good and you will be rewarded” is only the most banal reading of it. It is the reading which turns up the most often in the reception of the story, but the symbolism in it is more layered than that. As it is with most fairy tales. In Perraults version, there are two morals added at the end of the story. The second one is particular interesting, because it actually says that even having the true virtues (which are not beauty but courage and common sense) don’t guarantee success. It is therefor especially difficult to level criticism at the Perrault version, because he himself puts a “well, this is a fairy tale” disclaimer at the end. And in a way, Disney does the same. That is the whole function of the Duke, who does nothing but constantly point out “this can’t work, we are not in a fairy tale” (and then it does work because yes, the movie actually is telling a fairy tale).

                1. Personally, I still think my criticism applies. Given the incredibly strict Christian climate in which Perrault’s fairy tale was written, I think the moral of obedience is much more important – if anything, the fact that Cinderella’s father is still alive in his version only adds to that. You are right, there is more than one message in the story, but the one that comes through the strongest is ultimately the one about Christian virtues being rewarded. I don’t think the inclusion of a disclaimer really excludes him from criticism when the message carries so much more weight.

                  Looks like this is another one where we’re just going to have to agree to disagree!

                  1. I know…but it is so much fun to discuss it with you once in a while…especially since my own article series about Cinderella is planned for December next year. Still a lot of time left to think about it.

                    1. Well, this is more than one year…this years fairy tale month will be about The Little Mermaid, unless I reconsider in the last minute and tackle Beauty and the Beast after all.

  2. I have to admit that even though the fact that Cinderella never really has to overcome anything to achieve her happy ending, I still find that I do have a soft spot for her. Growing up my parents would always put an emphasis on the fact that she does get rewarded for all the hard work that she does and eventually gets rewarded for it, and I do like the fact that for the majority of the story her motivation isn’t to get her prince but rather just to have a chance to go to the ball and have a night off. But I do suppose that nostalgia also plays a big part in how much I enjoy the character, and I do think the problematic elements of the story are due to the historic background of it.

    1. I think you’re spot on there – there’s something really comforting about a story that reinforces the idea that good people who’ve been dealt a bad hand will eventually be rewarded. I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for fairy tales too 🙂

  3. And what about the Rodgers and Hammerstein Cinderella? Especially since a new book was written for the 2013 Broadway production? I’d like to see a look at other fairy tales, especially the Little Mermaid.

    1. Well I’m never going to be able to look at every single adaptation of a fairy tale – I just wouldn’t have the time. When I’m choosing which adaptations to look at, I try to come up with a selection of different versions that include some of the most famous retellings as well as those which have done something a bit different with the story. I’m also limited by those I’m actually able to see – and being English, a lot of Broadway productions aren’t always available for me.

      The Little Mermaid is a great suggestion, though!

      1. The Rodgers and Hammerstein Cinderella was originally made for TV with Julie Andrews as the lead and had a huge audience, then it was redone in 1965 with Lesley Ann Warren and again as a made for TV movie instead of a live musical in 1997 with Brandy. Then it finally came to Broadway in 2013 with a whole new book. Each version is pretty much similar, with Cinderella being meek and timid but ultimately standing up to her stepfamily in the end. The latest Broadway version has quite a few changes, with Ella taking a few more active steps, such as giving the prince her glass slipper, and the fairy godmother originally appears as a demented beggar to whom Ella shows kindness, so she’s really returning the favor.

        I can see why Disney’s Little Mermaid isn’t that progressive–like other Disney princesses her wants aren’t clearly defined and end up being fulfilled by her love life. Also, Ariel doesn’t learn from her mistakes, and while her actions allow for Ursula to take over, she’s not the one who sets it right (at least not in the movie). When Triton agrees to take her place, she doesn’t make any effort to dissuade him. The Hans Christian Andersen Little Mermaid had more of an interest than landing a man, she wanted an immortal soul, and in the end, she was able to earn one herself.

        Speaking of fairy tales, have you seen Disney’s Descendants? I think Mal would pass your test.

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