Earlier this week I watched a BBC News article about author Jeanette Winterson helping primary school children rewrite the Cinderella story for a new generation. Of course, all stories – including fairy tales – evolve as they are passed from one generation to the next, but this “new version” of Cinderella left me feeling rather sad. Although Jeanette Winterson raised some very good and valid points about the choices females should have, what I object to is the not-so- subtle criticism that there is something inherently wrong with Cinderella and her story, implying that she is not a suitable role model for young children. I feel that to scapegoat Cinderella as an example of weakness and passivity misses the point of the story.
I should say from the outset that I passionately favour and encourage female empowerment and equality. I am an independent, self-reliant and strong woman. I definitely want girls to feel in control of their own lives, to always feel accepted for who they are, and to know that they can achieve anything. And there is nothing wrong with the “new version” concocted by Jeanette Winterson and the children (watch here): if girls want to wear a suit jacket, trousers and trainers over a ball gown and glass slippers then good for them! Turning down a marriage proposal in favour of being a world-famous explorer rather than a princess is just as valid and commendable a life choice.
Girls should know that they can be, and do, whatever makes them happy.
But, I still refute the claims that the princess stories – and Cinderella in particular – are stories to be shunned and forgotten about in the name of female empowerment and enlightenment. On the contrary, I believe there is a lot to be learned about female empowerment in those stories. After all, they are rooted in ancient folklore and tradition, and connect us to the internal journeys and struggles that girls and women make as they grow and blossom.
But, it must be remembered that they are stories – they aren’t a step-by-step guide to life. They are tales steeped and layered in symbols, metaphor and allegory. They are stories written not in the rational language of the mind, but of the deeper language of the soul and heart. And I think it is a tad patronising to children to assume that they will be “messed up” later in life because their personal story doesn’t turn out to be a scene-for-scene copy of Cinderella’s.
Perhaps I am defensive because I loved Cinderella as a child, and I still find that it nourishes my heart. When I feel down or have found something emotionally trying, Cinderella never fails to pick me up and turn my point of view around.
I think those who critique Cinderella (and the other princess stories) as disempowering and anti-feminist are only taking those stories at face value. They focus on the ball, the gown and the prince as if that is all the Cinderella story is about, and claim her message is that girls should look beautiful and wait for a man to rescue them from their lives. But the Cinderella story is so much deeper than that.
I would argue that Cinderella is actually one of the strongest princess heroines of them all! Cinderella’s heart is always brimming with love and kindness, despite the cruelty she suffers and the heart break she endures. Amidst the harsh treatment, her heart never hardens. To me, that speaks of an extraordinary resilience and strength.
Through circumstance she is a prisoner within her own life; and yes, marrying the prince is her ticket out of her slavery, but that doesn’t make her weak. She yearned to attend the ball out of a desire for fun and escapism, not as a gold-digger scheming for a wealthy husband (she was quite content with a few hours of escapism being a princess). Her beauty at the ball may initially catch the prince’s eye, but it is her character and morality that makes her a perfect choice to be Queen. (As a side note, I think the 2015 movie Cinderella did a great job in making it clear that the prince falls in love with her, just as she is; the extra focus put on that is to be applauded. But, in the end, Cinderella is always chosen for who she is, not what she looks like or the richness of her clothing. Despite the slipper fitting, the prince could easily have rejected her upon finding out she was a penniless orphan “commoner” should he have been so inclined – and as would’ve been expected back then – yet he marries her anyway).
Cinderella is externally transformed into the most beautiful girl at the ball as a reflection of the internal beauty of her soul. She loves nature and all creatures, so it is nature and animals that help her out. The fairy godmother is the Universe showing her an immense sign of love when her hitherto unceasing faith starts to waiver.
Cinderella is unfalteringly guided by love at all times, and this despite the cruel treatment she is subjected to by the people in her life and the politics of her day. That’s something we should all be inspired by, and it is definitely a wisdom that I believe all children should learn.
There is SO much more to Cinderella than looking pretty and bagging a prince.
The beauty about stories is that they speak to each of us individually, and so our interpretations can differ. I respect that, but I hope that all women will consider the Cinderella story with the depth it deserves.
There are some who argue that allowing young girls to obsess over Disney princesses teaches them to be weak; vacuous; and passive, with unrealistic expectations about life. Yet, I – and many of my friends – loved the Disney princess stories and I can safely say that we are none of those things. I am a dreamer and an idealist, yes; but I am also strong and independent. I don’t believe those stories did me a disservice; rather, I felt that they nourished my young mind. They made me feel that girls were important, and they taught me that strength comes in many forms.
Even now, the story of Cinderella reminds me to have hope, faith and positivity even in the most difficult of times. Is she really that bad of a role model? I think not. And furthermore, I don’t think the answer to ridding the world of female inequality is to replace one story with another, but rather to give girls the choice of a wide range of stories to relate to – stories about princesses and explorers, and everything in between. After all, there are many faces of female power.
Header image (and below image) from the promotional poster of Cinderella (2015).