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Fairy Tales 101: Cinderella


Fairy Tales 101 articles discuss a hidden aspect of apparently innocent tales with happy endings. The stories tackled in this series were part of countless childhoods and helped to shape the personalities and lives of kids around the world. Due to the huge influence of these tales, these 101 series of articles aims to delve deeper into the beginning of Fairy tales, track the original manuscripts of some of the most popular fictions, and analyze the changes made throughout the decades. The articles will also look at these fairy tales through a psychoanalytical lens, to try to decipher the implicit symbols and meanings.

Fairy Tales 101 is mainly divided into 6 articles, as follows:

Midnight Mystery: Cinderella

• Cursed to Slumber: Sleeping Beauty

• The Ultimate Sacrifice: The Little Mermaid

• The 21st Century Fairytale: A modern twist on traditional works.

Midnight Mystery: Cinderella

Figure 1: Alexander Zick’s illustration of Aschenputtel (1900)

Fairytales are known to have numerous retellings and reinventions accumulated over the years and cultures. Cinderella is no exception to that rule, as it is a transcultural classic tale that survived the test of time. It has evolved and changed, but has preserved its main iconic features, like the pumpkin carriage, the midnight escape and the renowned glass slipper. The story has caught the attention of scholars and writers from around the world, who have analyzed it from a psychological, moral, and more recently, a feminist point of view. According to Stewart (2000), “folklorists have identified over 700 variants of Cinderella”. This article will attempt to track the origins of the tale and the changes that it underwent over time in order to adapt to the different norms of the developing societies.

Based in oral traditions, Cinderella is a folktale passed down from one generation to the next. It is widely believed that writers such as the Brothers’ Grimm and Wilhelm heard these tales roaming the streets and accumulated them. According to Baum (2000), “What they brought back they then edited, like the good ethical binary German men they were: anything that didn’t suit their “Christian” standards simply disappeared”. Fairytales were meant to teach children, especially young girls, obedience and good social conduct, thus, their content should fit the standards. The first recorded manuscript of Cinderella is a translation of Perrault’s Cendrillonou la petite pantoufle de verre, published in 1697.The Brothers’ Grimm’s version Aschenputtelwas only released about 100 years later, in the 19th century, which included dark and disturbing scenes. In their adaptation of the tale, one of the ugly step-sisters cuts offher heel and toes in order to fit the glass slipper. De la Rochère (2016) argues:

“ Once child readers became the target audience for collections of fairy tales or of illustrated editions of individual tales such as Cinderella, translators adapted the texts to prevailing expectations of child behavior and experience, perceived needs and competences often with a didactic, moral and religious intent”.

Figure 2:Oliver Herford’s illustration of Cinderella (1909)

The protagonist of Cinderella is the perfect model of a housewife, a damsel in distress whose only goal is to find a wealthy husband to care for. From the beginning of the story, she attends to her cruel step-mother and her two evil step-sisters. Her conditionis mostly based on the absence of a father figure to protect her from that horrific fate. Feminists often discuss the veiled misogynistic aspects of fairytales and its consequent effects on children’s mentality. Ezell (1994) argues in TheCinderella Syndrome that “there is a connection between the features of fairy-tale, where girls wait for godmothers and princes to come to their rescue, and women's fear of independence in their adult lives”. It is significant to mention that although Cinderella is a female-dominated story; it is still confined within a toxic patriarchal atmosphere. The evil step-mother oppresses, silences and harasses Cinderella, treating her as a servant. She forbids her to go to the prince’s ball so that her beauty doesn’t overshadow her step-sisters. The concept of beauty in the fairytale is pejorative yet needed in order to reach the “happily ever after”.

The most recognizable feature in Cinderella is the protagonist’s glass slipper. She goes through the painful and excruciating experience of walking in heels for an entire night as Baum (2000) explains in his article: “she must dance in an unforgiving shoe which at any moment threatens to break, replace her barefoot, bloody, and utterly helpless”. Baum (2000) argues further that this is due to a translation error; from the French version mentioning a “velours” or velvet shoe to a “verre” or glass one. Consequently, a velvet shoe could very easily fall off, whereas a glass one would have shattered the minute it hit the floor. Another interesting moment of the story is the fact that,while at midnight everything else returns to its original form, such as the magical dress and the pumpkin carriage, the glass slipper remains intact.

Figure 3: Hans Printz’s Poster of Cinderella (1905)

Clothing and physical appearance are given a tremendous importance in the famous fairytale. Cinderella is hated and envied for her physical beauty. Her fairy godmother gives her a make-over and a ball gown in order to win the prince over. She is presented with a carriage and butlers to appear wealthy and accepted into the castle. This prioritizes social status and finances over personality and morals, thus setting a bad example for the younger influential generations. The Prince supposedly falls in love with Cinderella, without knowing her name or even recognizing her face among the residents of the kingdom. The story reflects a shallow and close-minded, yet common, attitude. Baum (2000) explains:

“Having had no time to know Cinderella as a woman apart from her unpleasant family, we have certainly failed to meet the Prince, and know nothing of this man except that he is extraordinarily superficial, a late bloomer, and wholly dependent upon his parents”.

Therefore, the story fails to set an adequate role model, not only to young girls, but to boys as well, who are taught to judge women by their looks.

Figure 4: Disney Walt Studios’ Cinderella Midnight Clock Tower (1950)

Furthermore, Cinderella is instructed by her fairy God-mother to return home by midnight, before the magic dissipates. This showcases how women were forbidden to go out alone at night, for fear of what might happen to them. It displays the oppression and limitations that women faced, whereas men were never dictated or even advised in any way. Cinderella, being an exemplary lady, returns just on time, following the direct orders given to her.

To sum up, Cinderella is a tale of submission, superficiality and obedience that ends up, unsurprisingly, with the pure, innocent protagonist marrying the handsome and rich prince. The story includes representations of unopposed slavery, family feuds and toxic patriarchy. It has lost some of its gruesome features over time, leaving behind the conventional "happy ever after" romance. The fairytale is not one to be adopted in the modern, progressive and, most importantly, feminist 21st century.


Baum, R. (2000). After the Ball is Over: Bringing after the Ball is Over. Cultural Analysis, 1, 69-83.

De la Rochère, M. H. D. (2016). Cinderella acrosscultures: New directions and interdisciplinary perspectives. Wayne State University Press.

Ezell, L. (1994). The Cinderella Syndrome: Discovering God's Plan When Your Dreams Don't Come True. Vine Books.

Stewart, M. P. (2000). How Can This Be Cinderella if There is No Glass Slipper? Native American “Fairy Tales”. Studies in American Indian Literatures, 3-19.

Picture References

Figure 1. Alexander Zick (1900) Aschenputtel [Painting], Märchen, Grot'scher Verlag. Figure 2. Oliver Herford (1909) Cinderella [Painting], Childhood's Favorites and Fairy Stories.

Figure 3.Hans Printz (1905) Cinderella [Educational Poster], Turku Museum Center.

Figure 4. Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, and Clyde Geronimi, Producer Walt Disney (1950) Cinderella Midnight Clock Tower [Still Animation], Disney Walt Studios.

1 Comment

Very illustrative. Cinderella was a good story once, but it is 2022... It is time to stop creating princesses whose ultimate aim is to find Prince Charming and live happily ever after.

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Elsa Abdallah

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