Dissing Cinders

Why get annoyed about a fairy tale? It's not as if they haven't been thoroughly decoded, retold and reinterpreted by the likes of Angela Carter and Marina Warner. Surely I can't be annoyed by some old story, tried and tested and shining with Disneyfication?

Well, I can. And this is because I am an Actual Feminist. The story that is irritating me is Cinderella. It's not the only contender, of course. Pre-decoding, a lot of fairy stories presented Bad Role Models for Girls. In Sleeping Beauty, all you have to do is lie down in a scented heap and wait for the handsome prince to come and kiss you awake. (But not that awake - into a pleasant somnolence, I assume.) In Rumpelstiltskin, it's fine to marry a bullying control freak as long as he is the King. And in Snow White, youth and prettiness equate to niceness and goodness, while the ageing Queen represents evil and malevolence (and transforms herself into an ugly witch when she wants to do her worst).

Part of the problem is that everything has been prettied up. Earlier versions of fairy tales, collected by Perrault and the brothers Grimm, are harsher and more unforgiving than the sanitised and bowdlerized versions that we read today. And there are some archetypes which present a slightly less passive version of womanhood - the poor but clever girl who can talk her way out of trouble appears in several stories.

So why Cinderella? And why now? Firstly, obviously, because Looks Aren't Everything. This story is the archetype of many others which suggest that beauty is a fail safe route to love, happiness and good fortune. This is not only sexist, it is infantilizing.  Teenage girls are hyper-aware of their looks and of external appearance in general. But in my view, this limiting view of ourselves as women is something that we grow out of. My role models are Christine Legarde and Aretha Franklin, not Victoria Beckham and Beyonce.

Affluence and consumerism have exacerbated this, so that now we try and buy youth and permanent beauty. Plastic surgery is becoming 'normal', botox is freezing the faces of younger and younger women and extreme make-overs litter TV schedules.

Which brings me to my second point. Cinderella is the grandmother of the makeover. What we are now - you and I - me typing, you reading - is inadequate, according to this mantra. We can and should improve on this. Although we could take exercise or eat less - perfectly sensible approaches to self improvement - this takes time. And Instant Transformation is central to the Cinderella myth.

As there are no fairy godmothers to hand, this can take the form of Extreme Detox, which usually involves spending a lot of money on packets of weird powder as well as No Dairy; or Extreme Dieting, which is basically a short cut to eating disorders, or Surgery, which  promises to fix not only our faces but everything else as well. The fairy godmother will suck the fat out of us, and liposuction will magic away all those years of self indulgence.

Why does this irritate me? Because the Cinderella myth fosters passive compliance. And passive compliance makes you unhappy. At the heart of this story is the idea of rescue. Someone will come and fix it for you. Someone will wave the wand. Someone will conjure the fairy coach. Someone will pick up the glass slipper and find you and marry you and you will live happily ever after, based on the searching courtship of dancing till midnight. Call me a killjoy, but this is a crap model for life. Tell me it's a harmless fantasy and I will point you in the direction of some rather worrying facets of the modern world.

1. The Bridezilla.

Bridezilla is so obsessed with her wedding that she falls out with everyone and almost doesn't marry the fuddled groom, who almost has a lucky escape. Soon after the wedding is over, Bridezilla is horrified to discover that she is married and living on a small housing estate and No One is Looking At Her. Divorce follows soon after, with the promise of another wedding on the horizon. Cinders factor: 10 out of 10 - obsessing about Your Big Day and forgetting about real life.

2. The Shopaholic

The Shopaholic is now slightly out of date due to the Global Financial Crisis, but this isn't going to stop her. She is seeking a transformation via the medium of shopping bags. She shops till she drops, she flexes the plastic, she is a girl on a mission. She never wears anything twice. (Or, ideally, once.) Perfection is a dress folded in tissue; imperfection is putting it on. Cinders factor - Nine out of ten. Confusing a Barclaycard with a Fairy Godmother.

3. The Daily Mail victim

The Daily Mail is a newspaper devoted to the subjugation of women. It does this in a number of devious ways, but the main tactic is Bikinis. Women must be 'bikini ready' for the beach, and those who are on the beach must be 'camera ready' for the prying lenses of the paparazzi. If your make over isn't sufficiently rigorous - and you are a famous woman - they will find you and they will punish you. The Mail usually has at least 10 photos of celebrity cellulite on any given day. (Cellulite only happens to women, apparently.) Cinders factor - Nine out of ten - the Daily Mail is a 21st century Ugly Sister.

Coming soon: The Daughters of Cinders: books and films inspired by the Cinderella story.


  1. I'm glad someone else is pissed off with Cinderella. It's always been a pet peeve of mine. It translates to the way children of "my generation" were raised... if you go to the right school, get the right grades, do this, do that, your life will turn out just the way you want it to. Bollocks to that. No, it won't. Not for those reasons, anyway.

  2. I agree - it is fine to try to fulfil your potential and set yourself goals, but the pursuit of perfection is destructive and can only end in disappointment. And in our culture, we want instant perfection, it seems. Drop a dress size in a week, get a facelift in your lunch hour, get your thighs sucked out or whatever liposuction is all about. And the same is true of writing - if you want to produce something good, it will take a long time, and the path is uncertain.


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