Most (if not all) of us are familiar with a fairytale focused on the transformation of a girl in rags, oppressed by her stepmother and sisters, who’s then rescued by a glittery wing flapping godmother, and transported into a wonderland of opulence by a pumpkin and mice. Only to have the façade shattered at midnight and suffer the anguish of losing one of her favourite shoes. Ah…. the imaginative and whimsical story of Cinderella. It’s another fairy tale modified through the ages with various authors claiming the story as their own.
There have been many versions of the fairytale, most with a key theme. Abuse of power in a family dynamic. Some historians claim the story was first told in China where a young girl was treated cruelly by her stepmother and two stepsisters. Rather than a fairy godmother, it was a fish who posthumously granted the girl’s requests. Apparently, the stepmother was envious of the friendship between the girl and fish, making a request for the fish to be filleted, steamed, covered in sauce, and served for dinner. The girl’s wish was to attend a ball in a fabulous gown and matching heels. However, upon returning home she had lost a shoe. A local tribesman found the shoe and took it to his king so he could appreciate its beauty (and the tribesman earn favour). This set-in motion the King’s request for his servants to find the girl who’d fit the shoe. And as we know, the King fell in love with the girl, married her and they lived happily ever after.
Giambattista Basile’s version in the 1600s depicts Cinderella as a young girl easily manipulated by her governess. Like any good, overacted daytime soap, a grieving husband remarries, whilst his daughter’s governess fancies him from afar and wins the affections of his daughter and uses her to murder the stepmother so she can take her place. The daughter believes her governess to be a woman of pure heart and willingly murders her stepmother by slamming the lid of a chest on her head, only to find her governess turns out to be cruel once she has what she wants – a husband and six children of her own.
In the late 1600’s Charles Perrault’s version of the story evolves a fairy inside a tree (introduced by Basile) to a fairy godmother capable of turning a pumpkin into a coach and mice into horses. The common thread of evil stepmothers and sisters remains, as too the prince searching for the owner of a shoe. It’s in the Brothers Grimm version where the stepsisters must make a sacrifice to squeeze their feet in to the dainty shoe at the behest of their mother. One must cut off a toe, the other take a slice out of her heel. In this version we’re confronted by the truth – where evil truly lies. The stepmother’s scheming, social ladder climbing ways come undone and again we know how the story ends.
What is it we can learn from Cinderella?
We can argue the story of Cinderella paints two extreme pictures of women – helpless, demure, servants, needing to be rescued at one end of the spectrum: wicked, scheming, self-serving and tyrannical at the other. The “good girl” will win out in the end, with the “evil” getting her comeuppance. Oppressing others never results in a satisfactory outcome for the oppressor. Karma!
Perhaps the fairy godmother is in the middle, straddling good and evil – willing to help but with caveats. Reminding us that not everything is as it appears or will truly last! She’s likely a reminder that in life we need guidance and support to achieve our dreams, we can’t do it all alone and we need a good mentor to help us see the good, the bad and the ugly. However, was marrying a handsome prince really Cinderella’s dream or did she just stumble upon her happy ending during her journey to escape oppression or to have a happy family life?
Let’s not discuss the portrayal of Prince Charming too much; perhaps he’s merely a lusty fella focused on external beauty and finding a trophy wife with a wardrobe full of great footwear.