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Postmodern Retellings 101: Olga Broumas’s "Cinderella"


By the second half of the 20th century, modern retellings of fairy tales had spread over the globe for various reasons such as the development of literary criticism or postmodernist ideas. The former had received critical acclaim in the academic field to such an extent that it promoted a reaction against the established social conventions. Therefore, many cultural products and perspectives were revised. All postmodern authors presented in this series take classic (fairy) tales as the foundation for their works and rewrite them. Each transforms the classic tale into a modern creation by presenting them from a postmodern perspective. The poststructuralist philosopher Jacques Derrida claims that it is necessary to revise all the misconceptions derived from modernity since they do not represent the substance of reality. This process of discovery is named "deconstruction". Therefore, the authors appropriate classical forms and assimilate them in terms of 1970s postmodernism, which addresses different themes, from feminism and sexuality to psychoanalysis. The purpose of this series is to show how modern retellings differ from the original fairy tales, that is, what elements the authors have changed in their stories to "make them postmodern".

This series will be divided as follows:

6. Postmodern Retellings 101: Olga Broumas’s Cinderella

Postmodern Retellings 101: Olga Broumas's "Cinderella"

Olga Broumas’s Beginning with O (1977) is one of the most important collections of re-tellings from the late 20th century in terms of the exploration of Freudian relationships and the analysis of women’s sexuality (Carruthers, 1983). In this work, Broumas disassembles the gender roles implicit in fairy tales and, thus, questions their role in conditioning children and teenagers (Dettmar, 2016). Broumas belongs to a generation of female poets immediately after Plath and Sexton and, therefore, she is considered the paradigm of the social and psychic transformation of women in poetry along with other poets such as Judy Grahn or Adrienne Rich (Carruthers, 1983).

According to Carruthers (1983), the power of these writers lies in focusing on the transformative power of women—i.e., their ability to reform and change a traditional society bound by inflexible standards. In this way, Broumas’s writing is optimistic in contrast with Sexton’s Transformations (1971) which shows the ability of fairy tales to mold fragile female characters. Broumas's re-tellings reflect the mental capacity of women to break patriarchal conventions and, thus, achieve spiritual and vital fulfillment. Sexton’s re-writings always depict the impossibility for women to shatter social conventions and it is the reader who must wonder what could have happened if the expected happy ending had not taken place (Zapico Lamela, 2015).

Figure 1: "Cinderella" (Millais, 1881).

In this case, Sexton would be for Broumas what could be considered a muse. Gilbert and Gubar (2000) establish a model for mother-daughter writers that wish to reaffirm themselves in the literary canon. According to this model, the newcomer, who, in this case, is Broumas, would carefully follow the steps of her muse only to end up adopting her own tone, style and subject matter. Broumas applies Sexton’s method of using the fable in ordinary or real-life contexts, but she utilizes it in an autobiographical manner. Thus, both authors are guided by the same goal which seeks to change the conventional society although they used different literary devices. In Broumas’s poems, heterosexuality is often explicitly questioned in addition to defending a woman-centered society instead of a patriarchal one whereas, in Sexton’s poetry, women seem unable to overcome the obstacles that society throws at them. Nevertheless, both question the role of fairy tales in forming children and have been greatly influenced by gender studies. These authors counter-write fairy tales rather than consuming them (Tavares Rodrigues, 2005).

In this case, Cinderella has been one of the most widely reviewed and re-written fairy tales of all time by authors, such as Tanith Lee or John Gardner, in order to highlight the absurdities of gender expectations (Tavares Rodrigues, 2005). For example, Cinderella as a character has been reinvented multiple times to rehabilitate the passive princess perpetuated by media and by authors such as Charles Perrault or the Grimms (Crowley & Pennington, 2010). Thus, Broumas intends to return Cinderella her lost free will and agency by centering the re-telling on her. Her poem consists of an inner monologue of Cinderella who reflects upon her new circumstances married to the prince and living in his household. According to Bettelheim (1976), re-tellings usually explore the feelings of one of the characters from the original tale, that is, the action is left behind and the author focuses on developing a complex character.

Figure 2: "Cinderella" (Prinsep, 1880).

In the poem, Cinderella feels that she has utterly failed her life goal because her expected happy ending has not been such. At the beginning of the poem, she clearly manifests her loneliness when she says that she is “Apart from my sisters, estranged / from my mother” (Broumas, 1977, p. 57). She is only “a woman alone / in a house of men” and, therefore, she feels completely isolated and entrapped (Broumas, 1977, p. 57). In this way, Broumas subverts one of the most important characteristics of fairy tales: the expected happy ending (Joosen, 2011). In addition, Broumas reverses one of the most relevant and iconic animosities of the tale, that is, Cinderella’s relationship with her stepsisters and stepmother. Traditionally, Cinderella is either manipulated or forced by her evil stepmother to take care of the household chores in addition to being constantly mistreated. Finally, the prince is the only one able to save Cinderella from her cruel destiny thanks to the lost glass slipper (Crowley & Pennington, 2010). Therefore, Broumas, rather than maintaining Cinderella’s stepfamily as her enemy, decides to subvert the dichotomy of victim-villain that confronts women (Williams, 2010). As a result, it is the prince and his surroundings which are hostile to Cinderella who feels invisible, that is, “under cover of dark” (Broumas, 1977, p. 57). Consequently, not only does Broumas subvert the expected happy-ever-after, but she also reclaims the lost female sorority from the original fairy tale.

Cinderella is accepted in the patriarchal space as a conciliator figure since she is the only one “allowed in / to the royal chambers” thanks to her “small foot conveniently” filling “the slipper of glass.” (Broumas, 1977, p. 57). Thus, Cinderella represents a privileged female figure since she has miraculously been admitted to the area reserved for men (Zapico Lamela, 2015). Nevertheless, she is still perceived as the other: “I am a woman in a state of siege” (Broumas, 1977, p. 57). Those men who have accepted and that constantly flatter her are the ones that implicitly disregard her and openly mistreat the ones of her kind (Zapico Lamela, 2015). When complimenting her, the princes, who seem “eager to praise” her, end up flattering her “nimble tongue” (Broumas, 1977, p. 57). Therefore, Cinderella as the narrator openly highlights the hypocrisy and irony of the compliments that could refer either to her intelligence and witty nature or to her sexual capacities. She underlines that, even when the patriarchal society considers her to be above her kind, she is still characterized as a sexual object above anything else. According to Joosen (2005), princesses in fairy tales are merely chosen by their youth and beauty and, consequently, the prince is utterly biased since he has not really known the object of his desires.

Figure 3: Cinderella about to try on the Glass Slipper (Redgrave, 1842).

Female beauty in tales is used for two essential aspects: on the one hand, it functions indirectly as a medium to control women in terms of their future or expectations. Therefore, they would rather spend much time improving their appearance than enhancing their real status within the social standards (Baker-Sperry & Grauerholz, 2003). In addition, the focus on beauty would end up promoting competitiveness among women. On the other hand, the relevance of female appearance serves as a driving force for male superiority since it is the prince who chooses the princess for “her overwhelming beauty and then defines her life” (Rettl, 2001, p. 194). Chivalrous romances are based on the idea that love-at-first-sight is the ultimate goal for the princess and, thus, fairy tales usually focus on the brief courtship of the couple that always leads to the conventional happy ending. Fairy tales usually end after the long-sought marriage because that is the moment when the woman completely blends with her husband and his surroundings, that is, her character disappears, and her status derives from that of her husband (Lieberman, 1989).

Cinderella realises that her entrance into the realm of men had to do with her competitiveness and final victory over her “kind, as each / other sister was judged inadequate, bitchy, incompetent, / jealous, too thin, too fat” (Broumas, 1977, p. 57). She concludes her monologue ironically by stating that those women previously “favored” by men were chosen by their “joyful heart” (Broumas, 1977, p. 58). Thus, not only does Broumas as the author challenge the myth of the prince charming, but Cinderella as the narrator also disregards this fantasy that ultimately ends up being a fallacy. As above stated, Broumas defends a woman-centered society where Cinderella could enjoy herself and the company of her sisters/stepsisters and, thus, in the author’s male-dominated vision, women cannot succeed or be recognised as anything else than sexual objects (Tavares Rodrigues, 2005). Broumas speaks about those who cannot manage to adapt and makes a brief reference to the sudden death of two of her predecessors: Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath (Zapico Lamela, 2015). Cinderella states that she will “die young” like those who cannot find their place away from the patriarchal society (Broumas, 1977, p. 58).

Figure 4: "Angel of Death" (De Morgan, 1880).

In conclusion, Broumas counter-writes the classic Cinderella tale to highlight the fallacy that the expected happy-ever-after turned out to be for the main character. By subverting the traditional ending, the author empowers Cinderella who becomes an intelligent and reflexive character. The author’s in-depth analysis of the character empties the poem of any outward action and, thus, it acquires an introspective tone. Broumas does indeed apply the fable to real life as Sexton previously did, but her vision results in a monologue about the mental strength of Cinderella to fight against her enclosure and, thus, achieve spiritual fulfillment. The poem’s Cinderella does not rejoice in the disingenuous compliments of men, but rather manifests her profound discomfort with her misery.

Bibliographical References

Baker-Sperry, & Grauerholz, L. (2003). The Pervasiveness and Persistence of the Feminine Beauty Ideal in Children’s Fairy Tales. Gender & Society, 17(5), 711–726.

Bettelheim, B. (1976). The uses of enchantment: the meaning and importance of fairy tales. New York: Random House.

Broumas, O. (1977). Beginning With O. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Carruthers, M. J. (1983). The Re-Vision of the Muse: Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Judy Grahn, Olga Broumas. The Hudson Review, 36(2), 293-322.

Crowley, & Pennington, J. (2010). Feminist Frauds on the Fairies? Didacticism and Liberation in Recent Retellings of “Cinderella.” Marvels & Tales, 24(2), 297–313.

Gilbert, S. M., & Gubar, S. (2000). The madwoman in the attic: The woman writer and the nineteenth-century literary imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Joosen, V. (2005). Fairy Tale Retellings between Art and Pedagogy. Children’s Literature in Education, 36(2), 129–139.

Joosen, V. (2011). Critical and Creative Perspectives on Fairy Tales: An Intertextual Dialogue between Fairy-Tale Scholarship and Postmodern Retellings. (1st ed.). Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Lieberman, M. K. (1989). “Some Day My Prince Will Come”: Female Acculturation through the Fairy Tale. In Jack Zipes (ed.), Don't Bet on the Prince (pp. 185-200). New York: Routledge.

Zapico Lamela, E. (2015). “¿Colorín, colorado?”: Las reescrituras contemporáneas de los cuentos tradicionales en la literatura hispánica. (Doctoral dissertation, Universidad de Salamanca, Salamanca).

Williams, C. (2010). Who’s Wicked Now? The Stepmother as Fairy-Tale Heroine. Marvels & Tales, 24(2), 255–271.

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Én kommentar

Jonathon Barratt
Jonathon Barratt
27. aug. 2022

Excellent article! Congratulations on a wonderful 101 series.

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Ana Isabel Bugeda Díaz

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