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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.