After the ball is over: bringing Cinderella home.

Author:Baum, Rob
Position:Critical essay

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. What they brought back they then edited, like the good ethical binary German men they were: anything that didn't suit their "Christian" standards simply disappeared. I have read transcriptions and abstracts of their notes and wondered at the absence of certain types of tales. Stories about children surviving on their own, or women leaving the husbands who beat them, somehow never made it to press; concurrently, stories about Jews being robbed and hung in thorn trees, or torn apart by dogs while (mendacious) villagers laughed, stayed in. The Grimms were very careful not to let what they heard get in the way of what they wrote. Charles Perrault held the same view, concerned lest women and other children go astray. Both Perrault and the Brothers Grimm published these folktales as if they were their own--under their own professionally upstanding names, and not as anthropological records but as literary fictions.

The performance of meaning for fairy tales ... becomes both an intratextual and an extratextual matter, one enacted by (re)writers of the tale, who rescript stories passed on to them, and by its readers, who collaborate with the (re)writers to negotiate yet another production of textual meaning (Tatar 277). Although "old wives" may have originally imparted the stories we read today, the power and authority of writing sat fast in the hands of male scholars; publication, moreover, was granted to the wealthy. For each fairy tale, Kindermarche, folk legend and myth with which we are now familiar, there are possibly thousands for which there is no record. Folk legend, like history, is selective. Cinderella was similarly written (or transcribed) from oral accounts as a piece of moral instruction. A Cinderella by any other name exists in a variety of languages and cultures, (1) with many culturally-revealing alterations to the basic storyline, most telling us of a poor but beautiful girl who, by going to a party on the hill, wins the attention of a wealthy man. Look what the right pair of shoes will do for you.

Cinderella's story is a curious one. Many of us know this tale in its modern extensions but cannot say how we know it--whether we read it in a child's picture-book, watched Disney's animated version, saw a movie with human actors unanimated by comparison, or "fell in love with" the ash-girl in her other forms (including in Dickens' revival). Indeed, Cinderella is legion: as Barbie in diversely perfect incarnations, the "heroine" of almost any romance novel, new and sometimes relevant literary concepts (for instance, the "Cinderella complex," the "whore with a heart of gold"). (2) Bernard Shaw's drama Pygmalion presents another instance of male bonding conducted through the service of a woman, in this case one who believes that she can only win by trying, as she has started with nothing. To his credit, Shaw allows the character to shove off at the end, bearing her body away, but to have true love and devotion this Cinderella must give up all pretenses to education. Education therefore becomes a pretense. Further transformed as the Lerner and Lowe musical My Fair Lady, (3) the music ends with a new-made woman who newly makes man: Eliza converts her creators. The underlying message is one Mary Shelley crafted a hundred years earlier: Frankenstein has no loyalty. But in this case the monster manages to marry one of the scientists.

Both Pygmalion stories are commercial perversions of an ancient Greek myth that performed a service for its culture. In the original, a male artist falls in love with his own sculpture, surely an intriguing commentary on the power of art to seduce even its own creator, and a warning to gaze on verisimilitude with suspicion. This brings us to Hollywood's contemporary Pretty Woman and another Disneyized threat, The Little Mermaid (if there is a hell, then Hans Christian Anderson is now in it). In these movies Cinderella transforms from foul and fish into a lady that only proves how far women will go to change for their men. As Oedipus provides a model for the male (kill Daddy, bed Mommy), so Cinderella serves the female, directing us to similarly anti-social behaviors and antipathetic familial relations: to hate and compete with other females, suffer in silence, and seek rapport with males through the mysteries of flirtation, fashion and marital fitness. Fortunately for women, this involves only virtuous activities, easily enough acquired in the observance of girlhood duties: cleaning, cooking, sewing, nurturing and displaying ourselves publicly, all the while taking up little space. Taken to its logical conclusion, woman herself at last disappears from view. This is true in the story of Cinderella, as we shall see.


Let it be known that the ballerina is not a woman dancing; that, within those juxtaposed motifs, she is not a woman, but a metaphor that summarizes one of the elemental aspects of our form, sword, goblet, etc., and that she is not dancing, suggesting, by the wonder of ellipses or bounds, with a corporeal writing, that which would take entire paragraphs of dialogued as well as descriptive prose to express in written composition: a poem detached from all instruments of the scribe (Mallarme, Oeuvres Completes (4)). One of the first absences in the text occurs in translation of Cinderella from an earlier publication in French (5) to English--the absence of a word. It is a simple word and a little loss that heralds an enormous and important one: exchange of the French velours (velvet) for verre (glass). In the centrality of the image conjured by its sign, this Word reads as Logos for the remaining popularized text. It is an understandable mistake given the hardships of transcribing in the field (from which Charles Perrault, at least, copied out his manuscripts), of hearing and absorbing frank orality and then transforming it to arid print. The terminological difference, however, leaves...

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