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The slippery genius of the Cinderella story

Cinderella has endured for hundreds of years. That’s because it gives us a way to talk about families.

Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.
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The fairy tale of Cinderella has a rep for being a bit retrograde. It’s a story about a girl whose passivity and meekness in the face of abuse is rewarded by a fairy godmother who hands her over to a man, goes the usual criticism. It’s the story of a girl who can’t even make it to a party without magical help.

But like all fairy tales, Cinderella doesn’t actually have an inherent value system or morality. It’s an obliging story that’s been told and retold so often that it doesn’t really have a stable moral anymore. Instead, it can have any moral.

In medieval Europe, Cinderella tended to triumph because she was clever and lucky. In the 19th century, the brothers Grimm, who recorded the version of the story that Americans are most likely to think of as canonical, centered Cinderella’s triumph on her kindness and her beauty. And as the story was told and retold, Cinderella moved back and forth between being the active author of her own fate and a passive, voiceless doll.

Over the past few decades, Cinderella has been repackaged over and over again as a feminist icon. Just this year, Rebecca Solnit, the feminist writer who coined the term “mansplaining,” published a children’s picture book titled Cinderella Liberator. It ends with Cinderella opening her own bakery and forming a lasting platonic friendship with the prince, who gives up his title to become a farmer.

Courtesy of Haymarket Books

The morality of Cinderella may not be consistent over the centuries, but the basic plot is: In every Cinderella, the heroine is a daughter who is betrayed and abused by her mother or stepmother, and she triumphs at the end because of her innate virtue. The virtue in question changes depending on who is telling the story.

That’s because what gives Cinderella its power isn’t its morality. It’s the way the story thinks about families.

Cinderella parses fundamental family questions. How do we combine two families? And how do family structures survive when children stop being children?

Early Cinderellas were tricksters

Early Cinderellas tended to be wily trickster characters who schemed their way to the top, says Jack Zipes, a professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota and one of the foremost scholars of fairy tales in the world. Zipes traces Cinderella back to ancient Egypt and China, but he says one of the earliest European versions of the story came from Giambattista Basile. Basile called his 1634 version “The Cat Cinderella” (“Cenerentola” in Italian, but it translates to Cat Cinderella in English), because his Cinderella was clever like a cat.

Cat Cinderella murders her first wicked stepmother after she gets tired of the abuse, and she repeatedly pokes her father with a pin until he agrees to marry her governess next. The governess eventually proves to be just as wicked as the first stepmother, and the rest of the story continues along familiar lines — except that Cinderella triumphs because she is smart enough to outwit her wicked stepsisters and scam her way to the ball, and because she is lucky enough to have fairy allies. Basile’s moral at the end, “You must be mad to oppose the stars,” nods to the importance of fate in his story.

But the central conflict here is the same one that we know and recognize in modern Cinderellas: Cat Cinderella’s mother is dead, and her father has married a new wife. (Two new wives, actually.) What happens to their family now?

Finette Cendron and her fairy godmother.
Finette Cendron and her fairy godmother. Illustration by John Gilbert, 1856.
Wikimedia Commons / Mudbringer

In Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy’s 1697 version, “Finette Cendron,” our heroine is pointedly the cleverest of three daughters. Her sisters are named Fleur d’Amour (Flower of Love) and Belle-de-Nuit (Beauty of the Night), but the Cinderella figure is named Fine-Oreille (Shrewd Listener) and nicknamed Finette, or Little Clever Girl. Finette’s adventures unspool in a story that reads like a Cinderella/Hansel and Gretel hybrid, and when she eventually triumphs over her wicked mother, her wicked sisters, and the passel of ogres who want to eat her, it’s through her exceptional cleverness.

Finette is also exceptionally kind, but the narrator of “Finette Cendron” hastens to assure us that being virtuous doesn’t make her special. Instead, Finette’s kindness is important because being kind to bad people makes those bad people hilariously angry. “Do favors for the undeserving until they weep,” the narrator advises the reader in the rhyming moral lesson. “Each benefit inflicts a wound most deep, cutting the haughty bosom to the core.” Finette, in other words, was the original troll of the pre-internet world.

Finette’s story isn’t quite the same as the Cinderella we’re most familiar with now. Her wicked mother is her biological mother, her beautiful sisters are her biological sisters, and the mother is targeting all three of the daughters because she believes the family doesn’t have enough food to feed both parents and children. But the bones of the conflict between them is one that we see repeated over and over in fairy tales, including the Cinderella we know best today: What happens when a daughter reaches puberty? How does a mother handle a daughter who might be a sexual threat?

But although the conflict in these early Cinderellas is familiar and universal, the virtues that allow Cinderella her victory aren’t. In these stories, Cinderella may or may not be kind, and she’s usually at least pretty enough to clean up well in a ball gown, but that’s not why she wins in the end. She wins because she’s smart, and because she’s lucky. The moral system in these stories is one of chaos and happenstance, where the best thing you can do is forge powerful allies and be as clever as possible.

Charles Perrault’s 1697 “Cinderella” is the one that seems to have influenced the Grimms’ version most strongly — and it was the first to make Cinderella’s fateful shoe a glass slipper. In Perrault’s version, Cinderella is a little more passive than Cat Cinderella or Finette were (at no point does she murder anyone or poke anyone with a pin), but she actively collaborates with her fairy godmother to come up with her scheme, and she takes pleasure in deceiving her wicked stepsisters. In the end, the narrator informs us that Cinderella is victorious because of her beauty and her kindness — and because of her courage, common sense, and good fortune in having a fairy godmother.

Illustration of the Charles Perrault’s 1697 “Cinderella.”
Corbis via Getty Images

It was with all those literary versions of Cinderella already recorded, and plenty of folklore variations floating through the oral tradition, that Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published their Cinderella in 1812 in their first edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. And then revised their stories to publish them again in 1819. And then again and again, revising more and more, until by 1864 they’d published 17 editions of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

Over time, the old trickster Cinderella loses her voice

Scholars don’t agree on why, exactly, the Grimms kept revising their stories. There’s a general consensus on the Grimms’ tendency to turn wicked mothers into wicked stepmothers, as they did over time for “Snow White” and “Hansel and Gretel”: It seems to be a gentle bowdlerization, an attempt to keep the biological mothers in their stories models of virtue. For the Grimms, says Zipes, mothers were meant to be “nice.” (Cinderella’s wicked stepmother, though, is always a stepmother for the Grimms, and the story goes through few structural changes from one edition to the next.)

But the Grimms continued to fiddle with their stories in other ways as they republished, and the possible explanations for some of those changes are controversial.

Zipes argues strongly that most of the changes the Grimms made to their stories as they revised were in the pursuit of accuracy to the oral tradition, and that they were just editing as they found more versions of Cinderella floating through folklore. But Ruth Bottigheimer, a folklorist at Stony Brook University SUNY, has a different idea.

Bottigheimer argues that the Grimms were necessarily influenced by their position as bourgeois 19th-century Germans when they wrote down the fairy tales they had collected, and that consciously or unconsciously, they edited the stories to correspond to their own moral values. “Who tells the tales?” she asks in her 1997 book Grimms’ Bad Girls and Bold Boys. “That is, whose voice do we actually hear?”

In Grimms’ Bad Girls and Bold Boys, Bottigheimer tracks the speech across the Grimms’ editions of “Cinderella,” looking at which characters get to talk out loud (direct speech) and which characters have their sentences summarized instead (indirect speech). What she finds is a consistent pattern: “Direct speech has tended to be transferred from women to men,” she writes, “and from good to bad girls and women.” In other words, as the Grimms continue to edit the story, the “good” women — Cinderella and her dead mother — start talking less and less. The men and the “bad” women start talking more.

In the Grimms’ 1812 version of the story, Cinderella has 12 lines of direct speech, her stepmother four, and the prince four. But by 1857, Cinderella is down to six lines of direct speech. Where she protests her poor treatment in 1812, she obeys unquestioningly in 1864; where she lies to her stepmother in 1812, she is silent in 1864. Her stepmother, meanwhile, is up to 12 lines of direct speech in 1864, and the prince to 11.

Bottigheimer argues that for the Grimms, silence is both gendered and moral: Good women illustrate their virtue through their silence and passivity. Bad women show their badness by talking, which is unwomanly and hence wicked. Men, who are strong and active, should speak at will.

The Grimms may or may not have erased Cinderella’s direct speech with the intention of making her more passive, but it certainly does seem to have vanished over time. And as the Grimms’ version of the story spread, the trickster Cinderella from 200 years earlier vanished entirely. Now Cinderella wins because of her moral virtue, and part of the way we can see she’s virtuous is that she is silent.

An engraved woodcut of Cinderella by Jonnard from 1894.
PHAS/UIG via Getty Images

But while the Grimms may have altered Cinderella’s personality over time, they kept her family problems fundamentally stable — and they’re the same problems that show up in the Disney version, too. Cinderella’s mother is dead, and her father’s new wife is targeting Cinderella. How can the family survive?

Cinderella endures because it helps us think about our families

Zipes has a theory about why Cinderella has lasted as long as it has, no matter how often it’s edited or rewritten to express new moral lessons. He thinks it’s helping us think about a fundamental problem.

“In our brains, there’s a place that we retain stories or narratives or things that are important to the survival of the human species,” he says, “and these stories enable us to deal with conflicts that come up time and time again that have never been resolved.”

In Cinderella, Zipes says, the conflict is: “How do you mix families?”

Since the 17th century, Cinderella stories have consistently focused on a heroine whose mother has died, and whose father’s new wife favors her biological children over her. Zipes calls the story type “The Revenge and Reward of Neglected Daughters”: The heroine loses status after the death of her mother, but in the end she rises up more powerful than she ever was before. Traditionally, the thing that makes Cinderella win — her beauty or her kindness or her cleverness — is the thing that the narrator points to as important for us to emulate in the moral of the story. But that attribute can be practically anything, and it won’t change the shape of the family story.

Zipes argues that this family story has always been enormously important. The question of how to mix families successfully was a major problem in pre-20th-century Europe, when it was common for women to die in childbirth — and it also became a giant question in a different way starting in the 20th century, he argues, because “there are so many divorces that the Cinderella story is something that we rely on in our brains.”

Cinderella is also a family story on a more universal level. It’s one of a group of fairy tales — “Look at Snow White!” says Zipes — in which the heroine reaches sexual maturity and promptly becomes the object of intense sexual jealousy from her mother figure. The father figure in these tales is either utterly ineffectual in the face of the mother’s abuse or, in a story like the Perrault fairy tale Donkeyskin — a story in the Cinderella vein, which sees its heroine fleeing from her father after he proposes marriage to her — becomes a sexual threat to his daughter.

Depending on how you look at that repeated fairy tale narrative of jealousy and danger, Cinderella is either the classic Freudian family fable or it’s the story of women competing for male attention under a patriarchal system where they know they’ll need that attention to survive. Either way, it is an extremely durable story. We’ve been telling it over and over again for centuries.

We’ve told it with a multiplicity of Cinderellas: with a silent Cinderella and the scheming Cat Cinderella and tricky Finette, with Disney’s pretty and passive Cinderella, with Solnit’s kind and rebellious Cinderella Liberator. They’re all there, and they’re all waiting to talk to us about our families. That’s what Cinderella is for.

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