Sunday, May 16, 2010

Final Paper: Exploring Gender and Class in Cinderella

In its earliest version, Cinderella did not begin with "Once upon a time," and never included singing cartoon animals, ugly stepsisters, or a fairy godmother. Also missing from the tale was its modern "happily ever after" ending where Cinderella is rescued from an evil stepmother by a princely hero who falls deeply in love after dancing with her for a few hours at a ball. In fact, Cinderella as we know it today bears very little resemblance to it original source story—a folktale called All Fur, about a young woman who marries a king after being victimized by an incestuous father. Aschenputtel, or Cinderella was recorded around 1812 by the Brothers Grimm, who travelled around Germany collecting hundreds of folk tales from people who lived in the countryside, and published their collection in a large volume called Children and Household Tales. They revised and expanded the collection in later editions as they acquired more tales (Zipes, xvii-xxxii). The Grimms rescued Cinderella from its dark past and changed it into a sweet, digestible fairy tale fit for children. As the years passed, the Cinderella tale continued to morph and change, adapting itself to the tastes and requirements of each new generation in history. "In each historical epoch (fairy tales) were generally transformed by the narrator and audience in an active manner through improvisation and interchange to produce a version which would relate to the social conditions of the time" (Zipes 125). Cinderella, in its various incarnations, not only represents the intentions of the composer and his audience, but is shaped by and shapes the social and cultural ideas of its time. This paper will examine All Fur, Grimm's Aschenputtel, and Disney's Cinderella (Parts I and II), in order to demonstrate how fairy tales have functioned as a socializing tool, used to acculturate children by reinforcing each society's dominant ideas of race, gender, and class.

The main source story for Cinderella is All Fur, later called All Kinds of Fur by the Brothers Grimm and was included in an early collection of their work along with Cinderella. All Fur is the daughter of a king, whose beautiful young queen makes him promise that if she dies, he is to marry a woman as beautiful as herself. After she dies, he searches the land far and wide, but is unable to find such a woman—that is, until he sees his daughter, who has just reached puberty. The daughter is horrified by the prospect of marrying her father, covers herself in animal pelts and dirt and hides in the forest. Another king, who is hunting in the woods, finds her and out of pity allows her to work for him in his kitchens. She lives a miserable existence as a servant for a long time before she finds an opportunity to attend one of the royal balls upstairs. She put on a magical gown and ring and charms the king. He falls in love with her and searches for her after she runs away. Her identity becomes known to the king when he fits the ring that she left behind on her finger (Grimm 65).

Even though the father is the villain in the story, All Fur bears the responsibility for his lustful actions and pays the price by sending herself into exile. In her article, "The Daughter's Disenchantment," Elizabeth Marshall asserts that puberty is a dangerous time for women in fairy tales, because it represents her potential for sexuality. The father goes unpunished while All Fur must live in the woods like an animal. She is marked by her father's sin and her fur pelts symbolize her "wonton nature" (409).

When the Grimms appropriated this primitive folktale and transformed it into a children's fairy tale for their collection, they "eliminated those passages which they thought would be harmful for children's eyes" (Zipes 48). Marshall states, "The degree to which the brothers censored the lustful father is evident when the history of Cinderella is considered. In a definitive study of over three hundred versions of Cinderella,Marian Cox analyzes, the incestuous father appears almost as often as does the evil stepmother; thus, as literary theorist Maria Tatar points out, the heroine is as likely to leave the home because of her father's incestuous desire as her (step)mother's tyranny. Yet, for the one story in the Grimm's Children's and Household Tales that openly depicts a father's persecution of his daughter, there are twelve that recount a girl's misery at the hands of her stepmother…the stepmother had emerged as the central villain of the Grimm's' fairy tale collection" (407).

As the evil stepmother becomes the chief antagonist in Grimm's fairy tales, the father figure become less prominent. Cinderella's father never tries to stop the stepmother from mistreating his daughter and looks on passively as she turns Cinderella into the household servant. Furthermore, he only makes a brief appearance at the beginning of the tale when he gives gifts to his daughters. The fairy tales that feature weak fathers, who fall silent and become invisible in the presence of strong females, reinforce the misogynistic idea that men can be emasculated by strong women, and serve as a cautionary tale for men who would give their wives too much freedom. "This recurrent portrait of the evil mother serves one of the main cultural purposes of the fairy tale – conservation of traditional gender roles in the patriarchal state and family" (Zipes 36).

The evil stepmother is set against the good and passive daughter and their antagonistic relationship reflects what Gilbert and Gubar call the "angel" and "monster" dichotomy (813). As tools of acculturation, fairy tales, through their angel/monster construct force women into one of two roles. She is either a monster, who gains power through deception, or an angel who seeks power through "silence and complicity" (Fisher and Silber 125). The angel, victimized by the monster, is eventually saved by a man and lives happily ever after, until she dies young like her good mother did before her. It is important to note that even though the monster woman seems to have a great deal of agency, she has her agency through lies and manipulation, and she lies "not to take over the seat of power but to move closer to the male figures, be they kings or simply fathers. These fairy tale women defraud and betray children's trust in their quest to appeal to men" (Fisher and Silber 126).

Whether she is a monster or an angel, a woman can only claim power through a man in this patriarchal system. Gilbert and Gubar quote Sherry Ortner, stating that woman stands "'both under and over (but really simply outside of) he sphere of culture's hegemony.' But now, as a representative of otherness, she incarnates the damning otherness of the flesh rather than the inspiring otherness of the spirit" (819). Not only the stepmother, who is also a witch in many fairy tales, represents what is outside of the norm; but, the daughter represents what is "outside" and "other." Women, in the misogynist tradition—whether good or evil—are believed to occupy the carnal, physical, and natural sphere, while men have dominion over the spiritual sphere. In Grimm's story, Cinderella plants a tree on her mother's grave and uses it to conjure a dress and shoes for the ball. Also, the birds that nest in the tree help her finish the tasks her stepmother assigns her before going to the ball (Grimm 87-90). Cinderella, like a primitive witch is able to manipulate nature through magic to achieve her goals. At the end of the tale, she even uses the birds to exact revenge on her evil step-sisters by having the birds peck her step-sisters' eyes out. Although Disney's version of Cinderella, replaces the tree with a fairy godmother, Cinderella is still assisted by magical animals in her struggle against her stepmother. In her article, "Folklore and Fairy Tales," Clarese James asserts that as the patriarchate replaced the matriarchate, the hearth, which is associated with the home and woman, becomes a place of humiliation. The woman's realm is both the hearth (inside) and nature (outside) (340). Because Cinderella is associated with the hearth, nature, and magic, the monster/angel binary in this tale destabilizes as the line between Cinderella and her monster stepmother blurs and disappears, presenting the two women as two sides of he same coin rather than two separate and opposite forces.

Critic Cristina Bacchilega states "the mother-daughter plot in Cinderella as dramatizing power struggles within the bourgeoisie: Cinderella, her mother, the stepsisters and stepmother are representatives 'not of the category of woman, but of a particular social group.' This politicization…scripts gender construction within a socio-political system. For instance, magic and goodness in the Grimm tale…make the Cinderella-mother team appealing as a narrative representation of gender and, at the same time, they camouflage class ambition and violence ("Innocent Persecuted Heroin" 8). Because women died frequently during childbirth prior to the twentieth century, step-families like Cinderella's, were quite common, which often muddied inheritance claims whenever the patriarch of a family died. Due to the law of primogeniture, only the oldest male could inherit. In the case of mixed families with only female offspring, a stepmother like Cinderella's would have had a good chance of inheriting for her daughters, if she were willing to fight for it. So, the stepmother's treatment of Cinderella is a struggle motivated both by economics as well as gender.

In her article, "Going up in the World: Class in Cinderella," Elisabeth Pantaja points out that although most of Grimm's fairy tales reflect and reinforce Bourgeois ideals of class and gender, "Cinderella appears to be one tale…in which the narrative perspective is more feudal than middle class" (95). Pantaja suggests that Cinderella represents the aristocratic woman, who takes precedence over the displaced step-sisters, who represent the ambitious bourgeoisie class trying unsuccessfully to marry up into the aristocracy. In Grimm's tale, although the step-sisters are described as "fair" and Cinderella is described as "deformed" the prince chooses Cinderella. Pantaja posits that Cinderella's lack of beauty is of no consequence to the prince and that "the story's values are actually historically prior to middle class ideas of romantic love, sexual attraction, and/or family romance. As Anita Levy points out, concepts of blood and alliance are integral to kinship arrangements in pre-modern societies, while concepts of gender and sexuality (as we understand them) are not fully operative until modern times. In feudal times, especially among the elite, endogamy is prized over exogamy" (96-97). If members of the aristocracy married each other based on class and bloodlines, regardless of romantic attachment, one way of identifying class is through clothing—and in Cinderella's case, also through shoes. The prince chooses Cinderella because she represents herself as a member of the elite through her clothing. When she does not wear her finery, the prince does not recognize her and nearly rides off with her sisters.

In later versions, the Cinderella tale shifts to represent bourgeois ideals where love, beauty, and romantic attraction are the means to marry up. While the angel/monster dichotomy remains firmly in place, the role of the prince is enhanced to male hero. He is no longer the passive male who selects a woman based on her clothing and pedigree, he is a man who falls deeply in love with Cinderella and rescues her from her evil step-mother. In her article, "Introduction: Feminist Revisions," Beverly Stoeltje states:

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries witnessed the triumph of this well-balanced triangle of forces in the Western world: Patriarchalism, Nationalism, and Imperialism. Operating in harmony, these forces effectively achieved the condition necessary for the success of a nation: unification. In order to achieve power a nationalistic effort must unify diversity, must harness the energy and identity of the people residing within its boundaries (and that of the colonies and other forms of imperialism to which it is linked) toward one political entity, the nation. Such an effort relies considerably on symbolic systems for arranging meaning in the world; therefore, intellectual constructs become relevant, and fields of study emerge in conjunction with the political development. Thus folklore, literature, language, and anthropology developed as fields concerned with issues raised by and as the result of these forces; but these fields were valuable as well because of their power to shape meaning through their use of symbolic constructs. (149)

Folktales were used to create a national identity and aided the
Western European patriarchy in achieving its imperialistic ambitions. The strong male hero and the weak female protagonist were emphasized in folktales, which were included in school primers in order to "reinforce notions of power in young children of the upper classes and suggest ways for them to maintain power" (Zipes 33). The goal of the patriarchy was to define and maintain its power by subordinating women, the lower classes, and non-Europeans (Zipes, 34).

The strong hero prince stays around for a long time and can be seen in twentieth century versions of Cinderella. The most popular version of the tale in the twentieth century is Walt Disney's 1950 film. In this version, Cinderella's father is barely mentioned and her dead mother is of no consequence. Her step-mother still plays an important roll and her step–sisters have a more prominent role. Cinderella no longer has any supernatural agency, but obtains her magical clothing from a fairy godmother. By the time she arrives at the ball, the King is complaining to that Duke, "The Prince has met all the girls in the kingdom and he has not found the one he likes…he has had enough time!" (29). Upon seeing Cinderella, the Prince is instantly "smitten" and dances with her all night. When she runs away and leaves her glass slipper behind, he insists on marrying her and proposes to find her by having the Duke take the shoe around to fit the women of the town" (30-31). The Prince falls in love with Cinderella because she is beautiful and marries her as soon as he is able to find her. This is a change from the Prince in Grimm's version, whose chief interest in marrying Cinderella was maintaining the purity of his aristocratic bloodline.

Although beauty is often mentioned in Grimm's fairy tales, it begins to have its own agency in later versions of fairy tale, especially in Disney's versions. Critics Lori Baker-Sperry and Liz Grauerholz point out that the fairy tales that were reproduced as films and books into the twentieth century were those that placed an emphasis on feminine beauty. They state, "references to women's beauty are associated with the likelihood that a tale has been reproduced many times, as is the number of references to women's physical appearance. For men, physical handsomeness and appearance are not significantly related to a tale's reproduction…Discussion of women's beauty in tales plays a significant role in whether or not the tale is reproduced… Our findings suggest that those that have been reproduced the most (Cinderella and Snow White) are precisely the ones that promote a feminine beauty ideal" (721-722). In the stories that survive and are reproduced, feminine beauty is mentioned with greater frequency and is associated with goodness, industriousness, youth, whiteness, economic privilege, and is always rewarded (712-715).

In Disney's Cinderella, the step-sisters are described as "ugly." And it is because of their ugliness that the step-mother tries to keep Cinderella from going to the ball. Unlike the earlier Grimm version where the mother was threatened by Cinderella's superior birth, it is Cinderella's superior beauty in the Disney version that poses a threat to her ugly daughters. Therefore, ugliness is the cause of the sisters' and mother's cruel behavior toward Cinderella. In this version, beauty is a commodity because it, rather than birth, is the new currency that earns Cinderella the Prince's romantic attachment and allows her to gain acceptance into the highest tiers of society.

If Grimm's Cinderella served to reinforce patriarchal gender values and cultural hegemony, then what purpose would promoting the feminine beauty ideal in Disney's Cinderella serve? Baker-Sperry and Guearholz assert that their findings suggest, "that both men and women are being increasingly manipulated by media messages concerning attractiveness, a trend that is undoubtedly linked to efforts to boost consumerism. The fact that women's beauty is particularly salient in tales in the latter part of the twentieth century suggests that normative social controls (such as internalization of a feminine beauty ideal) may have become increasingly important over the course of the twentieth century as external constraints on women's lives diminished…the feminine beauty ideal may operate indirectly as a means of social control insofar as women's concern with physical appearance (beauty) absorbs resources (money, energy, time) that could otherwise be spent enhancing their social status. Women may "voluntarily" withdraw from or never pursue activities or occupations they fear will make them appear 'unattractive'" (723). It should be noted that although there are several adaptations of Cinderella, Disney has produced the most popular version of the tale. Disney's version of Cinderella is what most people are familiar with and have access to.

In 2002, Disney released Cinderella II: Dreams Come True, which picks up where the 1950 version left off; and, not surprisingly, continues to reproduce the feminine beauty ideal. Because Cinderella is beautiful, she is also kind (unlike her stepsisters who are wicked because they are ugly) and has forgiven them and invited them and their mother to live in her castle. This differs from Grimm's Cinderella, where her magical birds find the evil step-sisters and, "peck out one eye from each of them…Thus they were punished with blindness for the rest of their lives due to their wickedness and malice" (Grimm 92). Again, her only attribute in that tale was her superior bloodline. It did not matter much that Cinderella was neither beautiful nor kind. Today's audiences, however, have been conditioned to expect both beauty and kindness in their heroines. Also, Cinderella in the 2002 version of the tale is the strong hero. Prince Charming and his father go away on business and leave Cinderella in charge. As a result, Cinderella becomes the prime mover of the story. She not only decides what happens to her step-sisters and step-mother, but she runs the castle—and the country in her husband's absence.

In Cinderella II we see a strong heroine emerge to replace the meek "angel" of the former versions of the tale, and a step-mother who transforms from "monster" to contrite step-mother. Although mother and daughter are able to transcend the angel/monster binary, all women in the tale and in the tale's audience are left with the very disturbing feminine beauty ideal that continues to be reproduced and leaves women facing a new binary: beauty and ugliness. This can be seen in the romantic subplot that involves the ugly step-sister, Anastasia, who falls in love with and marries the unattractive town baker. Although Anastasia's mother and sister oppose the marriage because they don't like the idea of Anastasia marrying beneath her status, Anastasia goes through with the marriage anyway. On one hand, the tale has come a long way in overcoming classism, but on the other hand, it is sending a message to young children that even though Anastasia is the step-sister of the future queen, her inferior beauty can only earn her the love of an equally unattractive man who is in a lower social sphere. Whereas Cinderella's beauty will make her a queen, Anastasia's lack of beauty will make her a laborer's wife.

In her article, "Seeing White: Children of Color and the Disney Fairy Tale Princess," Dorothy Hurley states, "if we are to make any impact on altering the domination and control of the culture industry, the industry that promotes and reinforces patriarchy and racism, and maintains the status quo, the best chance we have is through its 'Achilles heel' (p. 128). According to Zipes, the 'Achilles' heel of the capitalist system,' which by the way supports the culture industry of which Disney is a part, 'is located in the acculturation process" (229). Although Disney has done a lot to make its characters more culturally and racially diverse—since 1992 it made movies featuring Middle Eastern, Asian, Native American, and African American princesses—it still upholds the feminine beauty ideal.


There is a wide range of cultures represented in Disney's fairy tales; however, none of the women are unattractive. What would happen if homely fairy tale princesses were held up as the ideal? If women were taught to be happy with themselves and not strive for fairy tale perfection, would all of the industries that thrive on women's insecurities collapse? Would the market that depends on promoting dissatisfaction to drive consumerism plummet? We will probably never know the answer.

The dynamic nature of fairy tales allow them to shift and change with time, being shaped by cultural, political, and social events, and shaping those events in turn. Their messages impart lessons to people and "serve as a means of normative social control," (Zipes 33) helping to create national identity in one age, aid imperialism in another, and subordinate women throughout the ages. The fairy tale has been a powerful weapon, disguised in a sweet sugar coating of magic, talking animals, beautiful women, and song. Perhaps, some day, in kinder hands, it will shift again to impart lessons of love, kindness and acceptance.

Works Cited

Bacchilega, Cristina. "An Introduction to the 'Innocent Persecuted Heroine' Fairy Tale," Western Folklore, Vol. 52, No. 1, pp. 1-12.

Baker-Sperry, Lori and Grauerholz, Liz. "The Pervasiveness and Persistence of the Feminine Beauty Ideal in Children's Fairy Tales," Gender and Society, Vol. 17, No. 5 (Oct., 2003), pp. 711-726.

Disney, Walt, Cinderella, New York: Random House, 1974

Fisher, Jerilyn and Ellen S. Silber. "Good and Bad Beyond Belief: Teaching Gender Lessons through Fairy Tales and Feminist Theory," Women's Studies Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. ¾, pp. 121-136.

Gilbert, Sandra and Gubar Susan. "the Madwoman in the Attic." Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Rivkin, Julie and Ryan, Michael. New York: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. Pp. 812-825.

Grimm, Jacob and Grimm, Wilhelm. The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, Trans. Jack Zipes. New York: Bantam, 1987.

Hurley, Dorothy L. "Seeing White: Children of Color and the Disney Fairy Tale Princess," The Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 74, No. 3 (Summer, 2005), pp. 221-232

James, Clarese A. "Folklore and Fairy Tales," Folklore, Vol. 56, No. 4 (Dec., 1945), pp. 336-341

Marshall, Elizabeth, "The Daughter's Disenchantment: Incest as Pedagogy in Fairy Tales and Kathryn Harrison's 'The Kiss,'" College English, Vol. 66, No. 4 (Mar., 2004), pp. 403-426

Panttaja, Elisabeth, "Going up in the World: Class in 'Cinderella,'" Western Folklore, Vol. 52, No. 1, Perspectives on the Innocent Persecuted Heroine in Fairy Tales (Jan., 1993), pp. 85-104

Parker, Robert. How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Stoeltje, Beverly J., "Introduction: Feminist Revisions," Journal of Folklore Research, Vol. 25, No. 3, (Sep. - Dec., 1988), pp. 141-153

Zipes, Jack. "Breaking the Magic Spell: Politics and the Fairy Tale," New German Critique, No. 6 (Autumn, 1975), pp. 116-135

1 comment:

  1. This paper really helped me out with one of my assignments. Thanks for posting it.