How enchanting is Cinderella, is it not? The classic girl-meets-boy tale in which, through a touch of magic, the life of our persecuted heroine changes forever. But Cinderella, considered under its historic trajectory, hides a tale of class distinction, body shaming and impossible beauty standards. A grimmer tale that is still dangerously relevant today.
Thousands of versions of Cinderella have been documented around the world and two basic elements help folklorists pinpoint the story: (1) a heroic girl orphaned by fate and persecuted by her stepmother (2) is recognized with the help of her shoe by the prince. In fact, the version that is most popular in Europe today is the version adapted by Charles Perrault in Histoires ou contes du temps passé (1697), later retold by Grimm Brothers in Kinder- und Hausmärchen (1812).
However diverse, various researches have pinpointed the origin of Cinderella to Southern China, in the 9th century, when Duan Chengshi wrote a story told to Li Shih Yuan, his servant, by the people in the region. This version of the tale was then rewrote by Yeh-Shen and later made its way to Europe. However, in the original versions of the tale, Cinderella does not meet the prince prior to the shoe-hunt and her tiny feet are the only criteria for the prince`s selection, who, after finding the shoe, builds up an image of the young woman in his mind and is determined to find her.
In fact, in the Chinese court a ballet-like dance spurred a fascination with “Lotus feet” and paved the way for “foot binding”, a practice by which the feet are firmly bound in a ballet-shoe form (only pointier), to stunt growth and give the foot a conic shape. It became a common practice among upper class ladies – and a powerful symbol of class and elegance, which didn`t start to die out until the XXth century, despite the fact that the practice is severely debilitating. Here, you may see the effects of this practice, in an article by the Guardian – be warned, the images are shocking!
Even disregarding the historical context in which Cinderella emerged, our Cinderella still bares the mark of sexism, body shaming and a patriarchal attribution of power and choice. Like in many other fairy tales, the protagonist is at the mercy of her faith and the prince has the fortune, the rank and disposition to rescue her from her servant life. He is the one that goes on to search for her, while Cinderella passively awaits for her faith to unfold. The girls in the kingdom are portrayed as desperate gold-diggers, willing to marry someone they don`t know just to get their “forever after” in a castle. And Cinderella`s mark of beauty rests in her unmatched tiny feet – although the European version also speaks of her grace and kindness.
Why is all this dangerous for children?
Because it teaches girls that women are expected to be passive protagonists, it teaches boys that it is their responsibility to “get the girl”, and not any girl, but the prettiest girl – whatever standard is used to benchmark that beauty, it portrays the general population of young women as beauty- and marriage-obsessed twits and it sends the message that “special” means beautiful, rich and powerful.
And because most fairy tales follow this blueprint, and because socialization through stories – as symbolism of standards of behavior, is crucial to children development, Cinderella must be read and reread with a little caution.
So how about we write our own fairy tales? Ones where princesses are not ladies-in-distress at the mercy of a prince: stories filled with magic, where princesses themselves slay the dragons – or better yet, work together with the prince and the talking horse to tame it.
In the meantime, other facts about Cinderella:
Magical bones and ogresses
In other regional versions of the tale, Cinderella is tricked into killing her own mother, who reincarnates as a cow or a fish – later killed/ eaten by two ogresses/the stepmother. In one version of the tale, the bones of her mother (reincarnated as a fish and purportedly eaten by the stepmother) grant Cinderella unlimited wishes – which manages to get the prince turned king into trouble because he later misuses them.
A Tibetan tale?
Wayne Schlepp argues that in fact, he found an even older version of the tale in The Twenty five Stories of the Magic Corpse, a Tibetan collection of tales that traveled to Southern China by the Tea-Horse Road, before the 9th century version of the tale.
Disney`s Cinderella rocks!
The latest version of the tale, in the Disney adaptation, is just perfect: the story – and the emphasis on kindness, the performances, the soundtrack, the magic, the dress! It has an impeccable quality about it, infused with lyricism. I just loved it and already watched it several times, with my sisters and friends, and my dog etc. etc. 🙂 I warmly recommend it.