What Cinderella has to say about women and society

For the heroine to be worthy of a man's love, she must undergo a change

Ideas: Fairy Tale Lessons

July 25, 2004|By Tess Russell | Tess Russell,SUN STAFF

Hollywood has never been shy about retelling ancient tales. The latest take on one old standby is A Cinderella Story, which opened earlier this month and stars Hilary Duff. Its "kingdom" is an American high school, its ruler (naturally) a studly quarterback - but the heroine's success is as sweet as ever.

The 2001 sleeper hit The Princess Diaries seemed to kick off the latest spate of "Princess" movies: What a Girl Wants, The Prince in Me, and Ella Enchanted followed closely in its footsteps, each offering a new twist on the same old story. Sure, the girl gets the prince, but is that really what keeps us coming back to watch these excesses of drama and chiffon?

"The popularity of the Cinderella story reflects a sort of escapism that we all feel, this desire to believe that our dreams can come true," says Towson psychologist Steven Sobelman. "It's really the same reason that people buy lottery tickets or pore over the lives of celebrities: our fascination with a lifestyle that eludes most of us."

Indeed, the Cinderella legend has existed for centuries in many different parts of the world. Most Americans are familiar with the somewhat saccharine Disney interpretation, which is most closely based on an account written by Charles and Pierre Perrault and published in Paris in 1697, but other early versions were decidedly darker, according to The Classic Fairy Tales (Oxford, 1974), a seminal work by Peter and Iona Opie.

The Grimm brothers' version, for example, included Cinderella's wedding, at which pigeons pecked out the eyes of her unfortunate, if not entirely undeserving, stepsisters. An Italian variation detailed the protagonist's (successful) scheming with her governess to kill her father's new wife.

Gruesome twists aside, these early versions have much in common with the more PG-rated tale as told in A Cinderella Story.

The fairy godmother always appears in some incarnation (in the oldest known Cinderella story, one from the Chinese tradition that dates back to about A.D. 850, a mysterious "man from the sky" shows the young girl how to acquire fine clothes), and the Cinderella character always conveniently leaves something behind so her identity can be revealed later.

Scholars have devoted considerable thought to Cinderella's universal appeal. On a superficial level, the fable works because of its feel-good ending: in almost every account, Prince Charming accepts his bride after she has reverted back to a lowly housemaid. But as one local expert points out, the deeper meaning of the tale may be more problematic.

The prince (or king) accepts Cinderella only when she has assumed the trappings of wealth and sophistication, says professor Ellen Handler Spitz of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"This has deep psychological implications when we think of women and the relationships between women and men in our culture," she says. "One thing that my students and I always find interesting about Cinderella is that she has to undergo some sort of transformation to be worthy of the king's love."

The story resonates regardless of your frame of reference, Spitz adds. "Aristotle's Poetics teaches us that plot is more important than character development - and in Cinderella, the central structural element of the plot is the reversal of fortune."

Freudian scholars view Cinderella as a tale about a woman who's been abandoned as a child and desperately needs to be loved and considered beautiful by men. But feminists would say the story's significance is that Cinderella is inadequate until something is added to her. "Why should that be necessary?" Spitz asks. "The king doesn't need anything added to him."

Of course, thoughtful critique was probably the last thing on the minds of the producers of A Cinderella Story, who probably are merely hoping for a box office hit.

"This is such a brutal industry: Every new venture is risky, and nothing, including the participation of a major star, can ensure the success of a multimillion-dollar project," explains Jed Dietz, director of the Maryland Film Festival.

When a film borrows from Cinderella, there is a relative level of ease about how it will perform because, as Dietz says, "the story is so old and so beloved and so universal. It truly appeals to people of all nationalities and socio-economic backgrounds."

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