Cinderella isn’t a superhero

I’ve never liked the story of Cinderella.  Actually, although I like fantasy, I’m not big on traditional fairy tales in general.  But Cinderella has long been one of my least favorites.

I’m sure some know-it-all is going to comment that I have too much time on my hands if I spend my time critiquing a classic children’s story.  (And chances are, it will be a man.)  Fine.  Here’s your warning:  I’m going to bash Cindy and her perfect, tiny feet.  Go read something else if you don’t like it.

Like my post from yesterday about faulty messages in children’s books, I think there’s a lot to dislike about Cinderella.  On the surface, it seems like a pretty good story.  The moral message even seems decent, that being kind and generous is better than being rude and mean.  That’s certainly a lesson I’d like my kids to absorb.  Unfortunately, there are a lot of other underlying problems.  The one I want to address specifically is the problem of the stepmother.

When the story starts, poor Cinderella is under the thumb of her wicked stepmother.  Without even getting into the fact that there are plenty of kind, loving, and generous stepmothers (although that’s true too), I think there’s an anti-feminist undertone to the whole thing.  Rather than being sweet and demure, Mrs. Stepmom is nasty from day one.  She marries Cinderella’s father because he’s got money, then makes it clear that she doesn’t want anything to do with her stepdaughter.  Depending on which version you read, either she waits for Cindy’s dad to die so she can make up for lost time beating her, or she does it right under her husband’s nose—and he just stands by.

I am in no way defending child abuse.  But I think that the tales in which Cinderella’s father doesn’t stop the abuse are far worse than the ones where he dies.  The subtle message is that the stepmother is “ruling the home,” and that her weak, ineffective husband should have been more of a man and defended his daughter.  That, or he obviously should have picked a proper woman to marry.  In some versions, Mrs. Stepmother does start out seeming to be the picture of a gracious wife.  Later, we find out it’s only an act and she’s really a cruel tyrant.  Again, the message is that there is a socially acceptable way to be a woman, and she isn’t it.

In fact, this is the message of many fairy tales, not just Cinderella.  Strong women are being abusive tyrants, while passive women are sweet and gentle.  Strong women get what’s coming to them, passive women are rewarded by marrying the handsome prince.  Strong women are always jealous of the beauty and grace of passive women.  Strong women are nearly always taught some lesson in the end, which usually involves learning that they should have been more humble.  Passive women learn that if they are good enough, they will be rescued from all their problems.

We still find this in our modern world.  Oh, I don’t just mean in our stories, although there’s still quite a lot of Stepmother/Cinderella in women’s literature.  I mean in the real world.  We’re still taught that being to strong or independent means men won’t like us.  We’re informed that if we are too “overbearing” (and our husbands don’t cure us of it) we will turn our sons into effeminate gays.  We’re asked if we’re “mom enough” and then told that when we make confident choices, we will be questioned at every turn.  We’re promised happy homes, well-behaved children, and satisfied husbands if only we will demonstrate “proper” submission (even though no one seems to be able to define that).  We’re told that if we covet positions of leadership, it’s because we want to be men.

None of it is true.

Lots of strong, independent women are married.  Lots of men like that kind of woman—one who can take care of herself and isn’t a pushover.  There are plenty of gay people from homes with quiet, gentle mothers and strong, manly fathers; there are plenty of straight people from homes with parents who are the opposite.  We are all “mom enough” regardless of parenting style.  Children are happy in happy homes, not homes with parents who fit certain male/female roles.  Women in leadership are there because they’re capable, not for any other reason.

My daughter will not be six forever.  One day, she will be an adult woman.  I hope that she learns to seek out the kind of woman she wants to emulate.  She should never feel that there is a “right” way to be a woman in order to reap some reward.  I especially want her to know that being strong and independent isn’t the opposite of being kind, generous, and loving.

It’s time to stop looking to fairy tales for feminine role models.

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6 thoughts on “Cinderella isn’t a superhero

  1. You know what? I never thought about where Cinderella’s father was until now!

    You’re right, a lot of those old fairy tales are pretty disturbing once you look back on them as a grown-up. “One day your Prince Charming will come and save you!” Uh, sorry, it doesn’t quite work that way.

    Just do me one favor, won’t ya? DON’T MESS WITH “WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE!!!!!!”

  2. Amy, you have Cinderella all wrong. Cinderella, is probably one of the best fairy tails out there, right up there with Sleeping Beauty. You need to follow me on this one. . .

    The Bible says that God’s laws are written on the hearts of man. If that is true, wouldn’t it follow that man’s stories would reflect God’s truths? Cinderella, or some very close version thereof, is a story found in just about every culture and language in the world. Different cultures use different names, maybe not a glass slipper, but some item or another. Cinderella tells the story of the Gospel, and when we hear the Gospel, it is familiar to us because we have heard it all before.

    See, like Cinderella, we are all living under the curse of a “wicked stepmother.” Our enemy is jealous of who we are and would destroy us if he could. When the Prince (Christ) invites us to the ball, our enemy tells us that we are not good enough and does everything in his power to keep us from it.

    But God sends the Holy Spirit (the Fairy Godmother) to make us ready for the ball. The working of the Holy Spirit is to make us ready to enter God’s presence. He draws us to Christ. While Calvin and Arminian would disagree on the logistics, the fact is that the Holy Spirit is at work in all our lives to make us ready.

    We go to the ball and Christ (the Prince) falls in love with us. Not that God was not in love before, but it makes the story flow as the Prince can not be omniscient. When we leave the ball as Cinderella does, the Prince leaves his castle and searches the kingdom for his bride. Just as in the parable of the pearl of great price, or in the actual God leaving heaven and giving his life for us.

    When he finds his love he marries her and they all live happily ever after. Revelation talks of the wedding feast of the lamb and Proverbs states that in his presence is fullness of joy and at his right hand is pleasure evermore.

    So you see, the story is not one of an overbearing stepmother and a gentle passive Cinderella, it is one of redemption, the work of Christ, and his great love for his bride, us. The fact that every culture has this story is an amazing “coincidence” that show that God’s law is in fact written on men’s hearts.

    Sleeping Beauty is also a great example of biblical principles. The wicked queen seeks to destroy the princess and the prince kills the queen, who turns herself into a dragon, using the shield of virtue and sword of truth and then awakens his bride with love’s first kiss.

    • I don’t think I’ve ever looked at fairy tales that way. I don’t think I agree, but it’s certainly a perspective I hadn’t considered before. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard it put that way. I do think it still speaks to the idea of being passive, though. A lot of Christians seem to think that their story ends with belief, that they’ve been rescued and that Prince Charming will do all the work. In terms of salvation, this is true. In terms of “love your neighbor as yourself,” not so much.

      I still think there are far too many cultural overlays on most fairy tales. Unfortunately, that has also been absorbed by the many modern adaptations of them.

  3. Well, yes and no. Firstly, I think it is true that most fairy tales are hideous horror stories, without the explicit blood and gore – something that TV series makers have often cashed in on. They are tales from a less sensitive age, with good moral stories behind them, not necessarily the obvious ones.

    However, my biggest issue with the Cinderella story is aligned with yours, that the only hope of salvation from an oppressed home/working environment is for Cinderella to get married to a man who will look after her. And that the only hope she has of getting out is by “magic”, which we all know is the Deus ex Machina of fairy tales, and so doesn’t happen in the real world.

    Cinderella, like so many of the beautiful female heroes of fairy tales, is a wimp. She seems to always need someone else to take care of her, and sort her out. That is no role model for anyone. The prince, incidentally, is also a bit rubbish – falling madly in love, and then deciding who to marry by shoe size – without any serious considerations of what such a marriage might mean after the honeymoon period is over. They both seem like rabbits in the headlights, and “happily ever after” is only until the closing of the book.

    Fairy tales are good and important, because they bring us messages – in this case, that we should never give up hope, and that however tough things get, there can be a way out. But as role models, they are useless.

    • Yeah, that’s what we try to impress on our kids when we read fairy tales. There are some good points, but we have to balance that with understanding the problems with some of the social constructs in the stories. We try to look for tales from non-European cultures, which have a very different feel to them. I’m reading a book of African and Caribbean folk tales with my daughter at the moment. They are wonderful! There are a few, of course, that have some of the less good qualities of European fairy tales. But the majority are quite fun, full of mischief and clever people or animals who outsmart the ne’er-do-wells. We particularly like the Anansi tales. Often, Anansi is the one making trouble. But in some tales, he’s the hero who saves the day, frequently with the help of his wise wife.

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