For centuries, Cinderella has offered audiences a dream-like escape from reality. Perhaps you enjoyed Walt Disney’s animated classic from 1950. I certainly did. With its catchy bibbity-bobbity-boo and adorable mice, Disney’s version draws heavily from French writer Charles Perrault’s story of Cendrillon in his collection, Tales of Mother Goose or Contes de ma mère l’Oye (1687). Perrault’s fairy tale features all the characters we know and love: the beautiful, worthy heroine, her wicked stepsisters, and generous fairy godmother. Perrault’s Cinderella not only marries the Prince; she even pardons her stepsisters and generously arranges for them to marry noblemen.

Happily ever after, right?

Well … not exactly.

This forgiveness is noticeably absent from Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s German Aschenputtel (1812). In this folktale, one stepsister chops off her toe and the other amputates her heel to fit the glass slipper. The brothers’ 1819 version is even grimmer: pigeons peck out the sisters’ eyes, blinding the women for life. This bloody comeuppance warns against the destructive nature of envy. The sisters’ plight also highlights how competition for available bachelors pitted women against each other for economic survival.

So, Cinderella is an early version of “reality television”?

Kind of.

Historically, Perrault’s and Grimm’s versions are relatively recent additions to the Cinderella tradition. The ancient Greek historian Strabo’s story of a slave girl, Rhodopis, contains the first mention of the missing shoe motif. In the Chinese tale of Yeh Shen from 850 C.E., magical fish bones help Yeh Shen marry the greedy king while her selfish stepfamily perishes. The Canadian Micmac tribe’s story of Little Burnt Face tells of a girl whose elder sister burns her face with hot coals.

Ouch! That doesn’t sound like Cinderella!

You’re right.

These older, darker versions of Cinderella are at odds with the delightful whirlwind of ball gowns and songs in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical. In 1957, Julie Andrews thrilled audiences in the original black-and-white telecast. Eight years later, a colorized version featured Leslie Ann Warren in the title role. In 1997, producers responded to calls for greater diversity, casting Whitney Houston, Brandy Norwood, and Whoopi Goldberg in starring roles. In a country still grappling with racism, Norwood’s Cinderella reminded viewers that Black girls deserve happy endings too.

In 2013, writer Douglas Carter Beane and director Mark Brokaw updated the musical again, adding a socially conscious message for its Broadway debut. In this version, Ella’s friend Jean-Michel protests the oppressive government. Ella helps Prince Topher respond to the plight of the poor. The curtain closes with a vision of harmony and happiness as Ella marries Topher and justice reigns.

The good girl gets the prince, right?

Not quite.

As we return from this frothy, blissful escape, let’s think about Perrault’s ending. Because fairy tales impart lessons, Perrault concludes each story with a moral. First, Perrault extols his heroine’s wit, courage and common sense.  But then, he flips the script and gently mocks these traits. Instead, Perrault playfully suggests that resourceful godparents alone can guarantee bright futures and good marriages.

But I don’t have a godmother!

Neither do I.

Well, now what?

I don’t think Perrault means for us to discard Cinderella’s kindness or perseverance. Our divided, fractious world needs her compassion more than ever. Since fairy godmothers are in short supply, Perrault invites us to work our own magic in the real world. A good story — the kind we remember — takes us away from reality in order to bring us closer to it. The best stories help us change that reality. That’s what Cinderella has the power to do.

Sarah K. Cantrell, Ph.D.

Dept. of English

The University of Alabama

(Centre Class of 1999)

Sarah Cantrell is an instructor in the Dept. of English at The University of Alabama, where she teaches writing and world literature. She has also held positions at Shorter University and Emory & Henry College. She graduated from Centre College in 1999 with a B.A. in French and elementary education (Valedictorian, Summa Cum Laude). She earned her M. A. in French at Vanderbilt University and her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her articles have appeared in Children’s Literature in Education, Children’s Literature, Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, and The Lion and the Unicorn. Despite her perambulations throughout the Southeast, her heart remains in the rolling blue hills of Kentucky.

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