Thursday, February 5, 2015

Let's have a little chat about what "Cinderella" really means ...

This past month, in two of my three classes, we have been studying the "original" versions of different fairy tales (I say "original" with my tongue firmly in my cheek; anyone who studies fairy tales knows that they are constantly evolving and changing based on the culture that is telling them). Anyhow, I asked my students to write about the tales before they came into class to discuss them, and I was once again struck, as I am every time I do this exercise, by how much students want to stick to the messages they have learned to associate with these stories, even when the words that are directly in front of them on the page contradict what they recall.

Let's take "Cinderella," for example. I had them read Charles Perrault's version of the tale after an extensive discussion the class prior about several different versions of "Little Red Riding Hood" and how the messages purveyed by each specific tale related directly to the culture out of which that particular version had evolved. Still, I got lots of papers that asserted that "Cinderella" is a real "rags to riches" story in which the family's lowly housemaid "pulls herself up by her bootstraps" in order to become a princess; that the "charm" that Cinderella has is that she's such a kind person and that's why she ascends in her social position by the end.

Riiiiiiight.

Arthur Rackham Cinderella
Arthur Rackham's Cinderella

Let's stick with the Perrault version that was in our particular text and examine it (the tale even varies translation to translation, depending on what the translator focuses on). First of all, in this version (as in many others), Cinderella is not just a lowly housemaid. She is an aristocratic young girl, the daughter of a gentleman, who has been knocked out of her rightful place in the social order by a stepmother who seems a little nervous about her and her biological daughters place in the household. The tale has a lot to do with how blood will win out, how you can't try to rearrange the social order. She may look like the housemaid, but she's not.

Second, she doesn't "pull herself up by her bootstraps." Her fairy godmother gives her all kinds of cool stuff to make her more desirable, i.e. "charming." The fact that the Prince is supposedly so in love with her he would die without her, but he can't even remember what she looks like is most telling. I mean, shouldn't he remember her face? Why does it all come down to whether a shoe fits or not?

My point here is that part of becoming a responsible citizen, a thinking person, is to question the world around you (I've been thinking a lot about this since it came up in a really thoughtful faculty coffee I attended the other day). To turn over the stones and look underneath them at the things squirming around underneath. What my students wanted to stick to was an American Cinderella, a girl whose tale reflects the American Dream. Not the girl they were actually reading about on the page. They didn't really want to contend with the real messages squiggling around in that glass slipper. A/J


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