Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Remembering Cinderella

by Janis Patterson
I don’t suppose there’s a one of us unfamiliar with the story of Cinderella – the rightful heiress to her papa’s wealth and mistreated stepchild of her father’s second wife and her ugly daughters who ended up marrying the Handsome Prince. It’s a fairy tale that has – in one form or another – enchanted millennia of little girls.

And has also been one of the worst role models for little girls ever written.

I can already hear the outraged cries of those who love Cinderella – and I love her too, but that doesn’t stop me from being honest. Think about it. She is quiet, obedient, unfailingly kind to the step-family that mistreats and abuses her and works unquestioningly like a slavey. She shows no spine or protest or anything – she is a doormat. Her only reaction to this grossly unfair situation is to weep as she sits in the kitchen fireplace trying to keep warm.

But it’s worth it, her fans cry. She ends up marrying the Prince.

Agreed – but through no action of her own. She just allows things to happen to her. In the commonly accepted versions, the mice and birds help her and the Fairy Godmother provides everything else. Dear little Cindi is acted on, but never acting, simply trusting to others to make things right for her. Hardly a good role model for anyone.

Yet the archetype persists – good girls win by doing nothing. Good girls win by being sweet. Good girls win by being passive. Thank goodness this view of womanhood is changing. I do believe in good manners and good behavior (but not to the extent of extreme doormattishness). I applaud some of the strong, self-responsible heroines who get into messes and pretty much get themselves out. I even like some of the kick-ass heroines who belong to the FBI or CIA or fight their way to their goal – to a point. Some are undeniably vulgar and some – to my mind – are downright psychotic. These are as bad in their own way as Cindi is in hers. Extremes are never good.

So what got me started on this rant? I was reading a book, or trying to, and it kept ending up against the wall. Three times. I try to give writers some wiggle room, so I kept trying. I have officially given up.

The heroine is a Mary Sue. She is just too totally perfect. She’s gorgeous, but of course doesn’t realize it. She speaks several languages fluently and knows everything from how to bake a cake from scratch to how to field-strip a 50mm rapid fire gun. She is unfallably kind, thinks of everyone else before herself and holds only the most politically correct ideas. She would never dream of holding a grudge or creating a scene or demanding anything. Everyone she meets loves her, in fact the villain hates her only because she won’t love him back with equal fervor.

In other words, she is a complete bore. I’ve seen paper dolls with more believability than this creature. There is no depth, no touch of real humanity in her. (And guys, this is not a purely feminine thing. There are plenty of books in which the male protagonist is just as revoltingly, boringly perfect.)

There is a place for fairy tales; they are part of the archetypes of our culture, but as a people we must progress beyond such animate homilies into the world of real (albeit fictional) people. If we are to make our characters real, if the people we make are to resonate with readers, they must be human. Perhaps a little prettier, a little smarter, possessed of a wider range of knowledge, but still with recognizably human foibles and flaws. Perfection is boring. 


Danube Adele said...

Perfection is boring! And too many things become scrubbed and clean before they enter society, which is obnoxious. I think Disney is most guilty of this on a grand scale . (-;

Cathy Shouse said...

It's interesting that you chose Cinderella for your topic. A few weeks ago my BFF from high school invited me to see her daughter as the fairy godmother in the Cinderella musical by Rogers and Hammerstein. That book from the dark ages, "The Cinderella Complex," with the themes you mention, was on my mind as I drove there. I had my eyes opened, for two reasons. Well, my friend's daughter turned out to have a Fabulous voice! Plus, the fairy godmother gave Cinderella her life philosophy, about taking control of your own life. I'm told a TV version with Brandy does the same thing. Unfortunately, I didn't see the end, but left very inspired by the new take on the fairy godmother, which changed the entire story. As a writer, I sometimes think that rather than dropping/criticizing a story, we could make a change in perspective, maybe just tweaking something, like the enhancement I saw of a beloved fairy tale. I love the new, revised Cinderella.

Kathleen Kaska said...

Well put, Janis. As a child, I enjoyed the Cinderella story, but never gave the girl's weaknesses much thought. But you are correct. I don't like weak female protagonists, nor do I like those "vulgar" types. I like to write and read about strong woman who, despite their power and ability, struggle with their own imperfections and insecurities.

Kathy Wheeler said...

What if...Cinderella and her sisters found some common ground? Yes, Cinderella allowed the stepmother to press her into the ground for years. However, it was years in the making. I wrote a series based on this very story (The Rodgers & Hammerstein version, although mine was the 1965 w/Leslie Ann Warren). Cinderella is pretty meek---in the first book, but by the second, third, (now a fourth the evil stepmother's story) she is queen, and shows a bit of temper.
So, yeah, she's passive...for a while.

Linda McLaughlin said...

Yes, the original Cinderella was pretty spineless, but she can be springboard for authors to come up with stronger heroines, while keeping the basics of the story more or less intact, but putting a modern twist on it. I did that in my Regency romance. My Cinderella doesn't put up with the abuse; she uses her initiative and runs away in the first chapter.

Fairy tales always make for a fun topic.