You know Cinderella. Of course you do. She's a part of the cultural ether, one of those characters we get to know by osmosis.
She's a princess. She wears a beautiful dress with a shiny headband, glass shoes, and long white gloves. She overcomes the adversity of her wicked stepmother and stepsisters, who treat her as their maid, so she can meet and dance with a very handsome prince, then hurry home before the clock strikes midnight and her carriage becomes a pumpkin again.
But that's not the real Cinderella. That's the Disney Cinderella, the one from the 1950 animated film and the new remake in theaters right now.
The real Cinderella isn't so easily defined. She is a character who weaves together centuries of storytelling and most human cultures.
And sometimes her forgotten slipper isn't even glass.
The first Cinderella was Greek
There are two faces to Cinderella: there's the European folk tale that evolved into the modern-day story of a girl in a big blue ball gown, and there's the centuries-old plot that has been passed between cultures for millennia.
The story of overcoming oppression and marrying into another social class to be saved from a family that doesn't love or appreciate you is an incredibly powerful one, too powerful to be contained by the story we all know. At the center of most Cinderella stories (whether they use that name for their protagonist or not) is one thing: a persecuted heroine who rises above her social station through marriage.
The first recorded story featuring a Cinderella-like figure dates to Greece in the sixth century BCE. In that ancient story, a Greek courtesan named Rhodopis has one of her shoes stolen by an eagle, who flies it all the way across the Mediterranean and drops it in the lap of an Egyptian king.
Taking the shoe drop as a sign from the heavens (literally and metaphorically), the king goes on a quest to find the owner of the shoe. When he finds Rhodopis, he marries her, lifting her from her lowly status to the throne.
Another one of the earliest known Cinderella stories is the ninth-century Chinese fairy tale Ye Xian, in which a young girl named Ye Xian is granted one wish from some magical fishbones, which she uses to create a gown in the hopes of finding a husband.
Like Rhodopis' tale, a monarch comes in possession of the shoe (this time, the shoes have a gold fish-scale pattern) and goes on a quest to find the woman whose tiny feet will fit the shoe. Ye Xian's beauty convinces the king to marry her, and the mean stepmother is crushed by stones in her cave home.
The European version of the story originated in the 17th century
In total, more than 500 versions of the Cinderella story have been found just in Europe, and the Cinderella we know best comes from there (France, specifically).
The first version of Cinderella that bears a significant similarity to the most famous version emerged in the 17th century, when a story called Cenerentola was published in a collection of Italian short stories. Cenerentola has all the ingredients of the modern-day tale — the wicked stepmother and stepsisters, the magic, and the missing slipper — but it's darker and just a bit more magical.
In the story, a woman named Zezolla escapes the king, who wants to marry her, at two separate celebrations — before he finally catches her at the third one and prevents her from leaving. Instead of a story of requited love, Cenerentola is a story of forced marriage and six very wicked stepsisters.
Sixty years later, the Italian tale got a French twist and became the story we know. In Cendrillon, Charles Perrault — a French writer credited with inventing the fairy tale — cast the form that Cinderella would take for the next 400 years. He introduced the glass slipper, the pumpkin, and the fairy godmother (minus the bibbidi bobbidi boo). This is the version Disney later adapted into its animated classic.
The Brothers Grimm had a, well, grimmer take on the tale
The Brothers Grimm also collected the tale in their famous fairy tale compendium. That story, called Aschenputtel (Cinderella in the English translations), appeared more than 100 years after Perrault's version in the 19th century.
Aschenputtel is a much darker tale. Cinderella's wishes come not from a fairy godmother but from a tree growing on her mother's grave. Her father, instead of being absent as in Perrault's tale, is willfully ignorant of his daughter's suffering.
In the Grimm version, the heroine's slippers are made of gold (not glass), and when the Prince comes to test the stepsisters' feet for size, one of them cuts off her own toes to try and make the shoe fit. In the end, Cinderella marries the prince, her stepsisters serve as her bridesmaids, and doves peck their eyes out during the ceremony. It is, needless to say, a beautiful tale for children.
Did Cinderella invent the Wicked Stepmother trope?
In a word, no.
Many fairy tales that have their roots in the 17th century, including Snow White and Hansel and Gretel, feature evil stepmothers who seek to ruin the protagonist's lives. In all of these stories, the stepmother's main enemy is the stepdaughter — a living, breathing reminder of her husband's first marriage.
But plots don't just emerge out of nowhere. Most are pulled from real-life scenarios or at least real-life feelings. As Dr. Wednesday Martin, author of the book StepMonster, wrote for Psychology Today, "Stepmothers are frequently singled out for very bad treatment indeed by stepchildren who pick up on their mother's anger and resentment and become her proxy in their father's household."
And this is no new problem. Stepmothers, historically, were a very common occurrence not because of divorce and remarriage but because so many women died during childbirth. This meant the new wife (and her children) were in direct competition with the first wife's child not just for love, but also for the inheritance that would decide which station of society they belonged in after the husband's death. Thus, the idea became an overused trope.
This also points to what Cinderella is really about — money.
Cinderella is a story about class warfare
At its core, Cinderella is about how dependent women once were on men to determine their place in the world.
Cinderella begins the story as the daughter of a wealthy man. She is an upper-middle-class girl with good prospects who could potentially marry into an upper-class family with even more prospects. But once her mother dies and her father remarries, her position in the family shifts, and her marriage is no longer the primary focus of the family.
This is common in many other stories that employ this same theory. Consider Pretty in Pink, My Fair Lady, Pride and Prejudice, and Pretty Woman, to name a few stories in which a man's attractiveness is greatly enhanced by having a lot of money. Sometimes, the love affair is between an upper-class woman and a working-class boy. Think Titanic or Aladdin.
The original Cinderella, written by Perrault, is even more blatantly about social class because its true moral is that by being nice and beautiful, a woman can earn herself a better life. Thus, Cinderella as Disney retold it in 1950, is the true embodiment of what that time period thought of as women achieving the American Dream — not through work, but through marriage.
Disney chose to adapt Cinderella, instead of Aschenputtel. The former needed help to get anything done and had very little freedom, while Aschenputtel does many things of her own free will. Or, put another way, Cinderella has to be home at midnight. That's just when Aschenputtel decides to leave.