My daughter absorbed fairy tales through her skin when she was a little girl; Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel — she knew them all. I don’t remember owning a collection of these stories, or reading them to her, but I must have, somehow. She knew them as well as I did. I confess to taking her to see the Disney “Beauty & the Beast” just before her second birthday; it was the closest thing Disney had done to a feminist fairy tale, and we both enjoyed it.
She knew, too, how to revise the tales to her liking. A friend of mine saw her playing with dolls one evening at a party. There was a Beast doll and a brown-haired Belle, clad in her blue dress and pinafore. Beast was asking Belle to marry him, but Belle, through Mariah, said, “No, I won’t marry you! I’m going to put you in the zoo!”
Later we had a dog that ripped the heads off the Barbie-princess dolls, though I think Belle survived.
Sometimes I worried about the Disney princess fixation, the fairy tale dreams. I’m trained as a feminist literary critic, after all, and one of the founding articles in my field is Karen Rowe’s Feminism and Fairy Tales. It’s a 30-year-old essay that still makes a useful point: the message of the classic fairy tale (certainly the standard Disneyfied one) is that passive, pretty women get the goodies, most often symbolized by men, indeed, princes. There’s more to the story than that, of course, but I tried to counteract any potential misogynist influence anyway, reading Mariah The Paperbag Princess and other tales of female daring and exploration.
So when students ask me, “Do you read your children fairy tales?” I always say, “Yes.”
But Cinderella is a tough one for me. I hate the way she’s so passive. She lets her stepsisters and stepmother push her around, she does the chores uncomplainingly (obviously this part didn’t sink in around our house!), she cries about the ball but accepts her fate.
At least in the Disney version. Actually, Perrault’s Cinderella has a little spunk to her — she teases the stepsisters and asks questions about the mysterious princess they’ve seen. And there are things to like in the connection with the fairy godmother — godmothers in traditional cultures, after all, were often friends of the mother, and I like to think of this one as representing a maternal legacy, long-buried, but arriving just when she needs it. There’s no fairy godmother at all in the Grimms’ version. In fact, the Grimms’ Cinderella is not even called Cinderella — she’s Ashputtle, which is really pretty nasty-sounding — and there’s a lot less magic in her story. It’s a somewhat mystical tale of her connection to her mother, represented in the story by a tree under which she prays and cries. The dress for the ball floats down from the tree, rather than being conjured by her fairy godmother. In both cases, though, the magic that redeems the heroine is maternal. Even after death, Cinderella’s mother protects her, loves her, provides for her.
Mothers, in fact, are everywhere and nowhere in fairy tales, once you know to look for them. Often, they’re hair-raisingly awful: the mother who convinces her husband to abandon Hansel and Gretel, for example, or the stepmother who commissions her woodman to kill Snow White. Sleeping Beauty’s mother is merely ineffectual, but Rapunzel’s mother trades her for a lettuce. A lettuce! I’ve heard of pregnancy-induced cravings, but this one takes the proverbial cake.
Fairy tales confront real situations, real fears. In the peasant cultures where they may originally have been told, maternal death was just as real and just as common as stillbirth and infant mortality. Many children had stepmothers and stepsiblings, and it might not have been uncommon for the stepmothers to favor their own children, perhaps even to the point of turning the stepchild, like Cinderella, into a servant in her own house. Hunger was common — Hansel and Gretel’s mother fears starvation and sends her children into the woods to fend for themselves rather than starve. They, of course, save themselves by encountering magical food and killing off a wicked witch — another version of their mother? — before returning home to discover that — surprise! — their mother has died in their absence. Unlike most fairy tale heroes and heroines, Hansel & Gretel return home and bring their father the riches they’ve garnered from the witch. More common are the tales of salvation through marriage: the heroines like Snow White and Cinderella who marry out of their positions of servitude, never to return.
So why still read them? These stories may tell truths about the past, but what value do they have for us? I’m not always sure; in fact, I recently discovered that I’d neglected my son’s education to the point that he actually didn’t know the Cinderella story. A couple of years ago when he was five or six, we were looking for a book to read together and came across one I like, Philip Pullman’s I Was a Rat! Nick asked for details: what was it about? Why did I want to read it?
“It’s about the boy — the rat in Cinderella who gets turned into a boy.”
“Well, the rat who becomes a little coach boy. Remember?”
“Do you know the story of Cinderella?”
No joke. So I offered to tell it to him.
I did stop to wonder why he didn’t know the story, when Mariah knows it so well. Did I, in my feminist parenting, forget that little boys like fairy tales as much as little girls? I’d read The Paperbag Princess to him a hundred times (give or take). How could he not know the story it was spoofing?
What to do? Tell him the “real” version (and if so, which one?) or alter it? But wait, I needed there to be a rat-coach boy, or the whole thing would make no sense. And really the rat-coach boy is fairly insignificant in my understanding of the tale (which is, of course, why the Pullman book works).
So I told him the classic version, pretty much straight out of Perrault. (No rat boy in the Grimms’ as far as I could remember.) It was a pretty bare-bones version, nothing fancy, but it did have the pumpkin coach and the various animal transformations.
Once he heard the story he chose not to read I Was a Rat!; I can’t quite remember what we chose instead. But in the two years since I learned he didn’t know Cinderella’s story, he’s immersed himself in mythology, most recently making a diorama of the horrific tale of Niobe, the boastful mother who lost all her children to Latona’s anger. Though it’s nothing like Cinderella, it’s certainly a tale of transformation, rivalry, and magic, just not the one I would have chosen for him. But that’s the point, and that’s why I keep reading fairy tales and providing them for my children: even if the specific situations differ, kids still encounter cruelty, rivalry, unfairness, and death — as well, I hope, as kindly helpers, maternal love, and even the occasional magical transformation. Cinderella isn’t the only such tale, and I’ve tried to provide other versions. But it’s the one our culture keeps telling, and as long as it does, I’ll keep reminding myself that it’s a mother’s story, too.
- For Further Reading:
- The Cinderella page includes links to other versions, illustrations, and notes on variants. If you love fairy tales, it’s well worth spending some time at this site.
- The Cinderella Project at the University of Southern Mississippi archives a dozen English versions of the fairy tale.
- D.L. Ashilman has translated the Grimm Brothers’ version of Cinderella.
- Robert Munsch’s The Paperbag Princess is now out in a 25th anniversary edition with “the story behind the story.” What I love about this version is the final illustration, and Princess Elizabeth’s decision not to marry Ronald after all. It’s really not a Cinderella story except that she gets covered in ashes at one point.
- Babette Cole’s Princess Smarty Pants; Ellen Jackson’s Cinder Edna; and the 1999 Sesame Street/Muppet sendup, Cinder Elmo, all provide funny feminist takes on classic fairy tales. Cole’s is least indebted to Cinderella, but they are all fun for young readers and listeners.
- For readers past the picture book years, Just Ella, by Margaret Haddix, belongs with Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted, and Philip Pullman’s I Was a Rat! All three take issue with Cinderella’s obedience and question whether becoming a princess (or a boy) is really all it’s cracked up to be.
- The fairly recent Drew Barrymore vehicle, Ever After, provides another feminist take on Cinderella, with a heroine who saves herself and Leonardo da Vinci as the “fairy godmother.” Even so, there’s a significant nod to the theme of the lost mother. Another less well-known film version is Tom Davenport’s Appalachian Ashpet, which places the tale just before World War II and provides our heroine with a wise African American conjure woman for a fairy godmother. This tale also makes the heroine’s connection to her mother central to the story. You can learn more about Davenport’s other fairy tale retellings at From the Brothers Grimm.
- Marina Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde is one of my favorite critical texts on fairy tales; it’s highly readable and very thorough.
- Some material in my column and this listing comes from my article about Ashpet and Ever After: “Saving Cinderella: History and Story in Ashpet and Ever After,” Children’s Literature 31 (2003), 142-154.