Why Cinderella Is Actually Kind of Awful
…Really? This is what I'm writing about now? Cinderella? Come on, Writer's Block. There's no way I can even think about this fairy tale without fighting the urge to vomit. What about something awesome like Harry Potter, The Avengers, or The Hunger Games? You know, stories that get me pumped up?...Really, Writer's Block?...Well, okay. Fine. Be that way.
Apparently, the sledge hammer in my head named Writer's Block will let up for a while on the condition that I write about my least favorite fairy tale, Cinderella. There's a lot I can say about the formula, the prince, and the title character brought to the table by this evidently popular story. So without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, I give you Cinderella.
Here's the basic formula for every story based on Cinderella: There's conflict, she falls in love, she gets married, the end. That's as exciting as it gets, people.
There's a beauty pageant in the middle of the story and a shoe fitting contest to determine whether or not Cinderella is worthy of a happy ending, but that's it. I'll admit that it was brilliant—that is, when it was fresh. In 1697. When Charles Perrualt wrote the most popular version of the story. And that's the first problem with Cinderella: The formula has been used so much that it's become an easy way of profiting off of telling a story.
Some adaptations of Perrualt's Cinderella are very well done. For example, Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted is a witty retelling of the story that updated the fairy tale for today's young adult female audience (I loaned my copy to my fourteen-year-old cousin this summer, and she loved it). Margaret Peterson Haddix's Just Ella is another positively modified adaptation of the story. Ella got to the ball on her own. She didn't have a fairy godmother, she didn't have mice as friends, and she was a lot tougher than she was in the Perrualt version.
For the most part, Hollywood just uses the story as a way to make a movie that will be profitable. Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella. Cinderella Story. Another Cinderella Story. Disney's Cinderella. Okay, to be fair, Disney practically lives off of fairy tales. But aside from that, Disney's version and others suffer from predictability. If you know what's going to happen, then what's the point? It might be fascinating for children hearing it for the first time, but it just doesn't work as an interesting storyline for adults.
The second problem with Cinderella is the characters, more specifically Cinderella and the prince.
The prince is a bland, boring, idiotic, sexist pig. The ball was really just a beauty pageant. He chose Cinderella based on her looks, and as soon as he saw her, he thought “whoa, baby! This is my wife right here!” His counterpart in Ella Enchanted, Char, seems a little smarter than in the original Perrualt fairy tale. He actually pursues Ella when she leaves, and he loved her for her sense of humor and intelligence, not just because of her physical appearance. And he also knew her a lot longer than in the original, so that worked out in his favor too. But he doesn't question Ella's inordinate obedience or why her feet would be unrealistically tiny, hence the word “little” smarter.
Cinderella herself isn't that much better. Every adaptation of the fairy tale portrays her as a patient, kind, and strong willed woman. In adaptations like Ella Enchanted, she's independent, funny, and intelligent. There's nothing wrong with that, but for the most part, she's just...bland. Though in all honesty, I don't blame Perrualt for that as much as I blame historical sexism.
Women didn't become interesting story figures until Shakespeare gave us Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing, Queen Hermione from The Winter's Tale, and Lady Macbeth from Macbeth. Even then it took a while before strong literary women became more common. We celebrate female characters like Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Catwoman, Mrs. Frisby in Mrs. Frisby and the Secrets of NIMH, Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, Carmen Sandiego, and Hermione Granger from Harry Potter because they show what women can do beyond appeal and house making. They leave the house. They learn. They explore. They take chances. They stand up for themselves and their beliefs when no one else will. They enjoy what they like, and they show it. They prove that they're human beings.
The third problem of Cinderella is that it's not updated enough to accommodate the cultural differences between then and now.
In Perrualt's time, it was common for a man to judge a woman's ability to be a good wife based on physical appeal. Today, the idea of love at first sight is starting to die down, and for good reason. What you see is only half of what's there, and people aren't always what they appear to be. But Hollywood doesn't recognize that, so in the so-called 'updated' adaptations of the fairy tale the characters still fall in love as soon as they see each other.
The failure to update the fairy tale has a more damaging impact on girls then it does on boys.
Nowadays, you'd see a woman making a life of her own, getting a job, meeting people under more natural circumstances than a royal ball, dating around a little before finding someone she wants to commit to, and ultimately putting a year or two between getting engaged and getting married. Sometimes women nowadays never get married at all, and they survive just fine on their own. But Cinderella never gets a chance to do that in any adaptation. Even in Ella Enchanted and Just Ella, the heroine gets her happy ending after falling in love (it's Cinderella; I don't think I'm giving anything away when I say that).
Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella is the most frustrating adaptation because it almost gave Cinderella and the prince a chance to meet under natural circumstances and have a more natural story. At one point, the prince and his mother agree that he would find a girl to marry in his own way if he didn't find one at the ball. At another point, Cinderella almost leaves her home for good in order to make a life of her own away from her step-family. Those were great ideas! I'd love this adaptation if that was the direction they chose to go with the story! But nope. They meet at the ball, they fall in love, the prince finds Cinderella again just as she's about to leave her house, it's Perrualt's fairy tale ripping off the sheep disguise. It's like they said “Hey, we're going to give you something unpredictable and worthy of your time! Just kidding!”
And that, dear readers, is the mother of all flaws with Cinderella: Hollywood doesn't work hard enough to give us what we should see coming from the fairy tale today. Even modern adaptations of the fairy tale still teach that a girl isn't enough without a fairy godmother, beauty, or a Prince Charming to take away her troubles and give her a happy ending. But the world has changed a lot in those centuries since Perrualt's fairy tale, and if we want to continue evolving then we need to acknowledge that we've grown out of 1697. We need to see both Cinderella and the prince sticking up for themselves and making their own decisions. We need to see Cinderella leaving her step-family, creating a life of her own, and having a chance at a natural romance. We need to see her seizing opportunity rather than waiting for it to seize her.