Why the Story of Cinderella Still Enchants

The truths told by fairy tales and why they matter

Posted Mar 17, 2015

Wikipedia Creative Commons. Glamhag
Source: Wikipedia Creative Commons. Glamhag

Like lonely and unloved children everywhere, I hoarded stories as a girl; they populated my much-too-small and often hurtful world with those I knew and loved: Jo March, Eloise, Laura Ingalls, and, of course, Snow White and Cinderella. The latter two were among my favorite fairy tales, as they are for little girls the world over, perhaps because they end with true love and happiness. It’s easy to get snarky about the endings: one glass coffin or one glass slipper, one kiss or a dance, and you not only snag a handsome prince but you get to be a princess too! How about a reality check, kid, and getting a degree instead? But snarky misses the point. What is the point? Fairy tales allow children to think about the scary, the malevolent, and everything else no one wants to talk about.

I was raised on Walt Disney’s Snow White—oh, the evil of that white face framed in black, that slash of a crimson mouth reflected in the mirror—but in the version my Dutch grandfather told, the jealous protagonist was Snow White’s mother. I tried correcting my Opa but he stuck to his story. Now, the irony doesn’t escape me—he was my mother’s father, after all—but the truth is that Opa was right: the version he told was the one the Grimm Brothers originally published until, in fit of piety or mother pity, they switched to the societally more palatable stepmother instead. Given my history, I much preferred my grandfather’s tale to Walt’s because it was, paradoxically, the only true “story” I knew.

While rightly discredited for his wrong-headed, highly destructive and misogynistic rants on blaming mothers for their children’s autism, Bruno Bettelheim was nonetheless a visionary when it came to children and fairy tales. He understood the way in which the unreality of these stories offered both a layer of protection for children and, at the same time, permitted a child to think about the truths contained in them. These truths—about how the world might work, how people might act—were those rarely discussed and often hidden away by the adults who run a child’s world and who govern the interpretation of its events. Through the fairy tale, Bettelheim argued, a child could wrestle with and confront the most unpleasant and most terrifying of truths in a productive way.

These fairy tales were part of a much older oral tradition and, before the Grimm Brothers took them on, could be decidedly grimmer. In the Grimms’ hands, poor Hansel and Gretel are shunted off into the woods to face doom by their reluctant father and their dreadful and manipulative stepmother.  In the original, it’s their biological parents who send the siblings off to starve! There’s a very unpleasant truth mirrored in that story, as there is in the first version of Snow White. In an important way, fairy tales give children a safe framework—it’s only a story, after all—to process what scares them most.

Even if Disney-fied, bowdlerized, or otherwise editorialized, that’s what the bare bones of the story of Cinderella do on so many levels. At the start, it addresses mother loss, perhaps the primal fear of all children, and reversal of fortune in the starkest terms. The outsized jealousy and cruelty of the stepmother and her daughters and their treatment of Cinderella can be a way of thinking about the wounds, small and large, children experience when they are slighted, ignored, or dismissed; when they experience differential or unfair treatment at the hands of their parents or other adults; or when they feel like outsiders in their own family and that they somehow don’t belong. Cinderella provides a vocabulary for a child to think about unfairness and even meanness and cruelty, as well as unexpected kindness. Then, of course, there’s magic which stands for possibility and connection—that things will not always be the way they are today, that you will not always be a child powerless to change what needs changing, and every other good thought that brings a smile to an unhappy child’s face.  Today, for a child in a blended family or one that has experienced divorce, Cinderella may contain other insights and truths.

And while my feminist self still bristles at the prince part—yes, what Colette Dowling called The Cinderella Complex in her bestseller many years ago is still alive and well—perhaps I am guilty of paying too much attention to the ending. Perhaps it’s the idea of rescue, not the rescuer, that really matters. See, the story says, things will not always be as they are today, your parents won’t be yelling, your sister/brother won’t be making fun of you, and that sinking feeling in your tummy isn’t always going to be there. There is an “after” you can believe in.

All of that helps to make Cinderella in all its iterations ever enchanting and perhaps even important to children here and everywhere. And, if as a parent, there are aspects of the tale as told you don’t like—I railed against The Little Mermaid in Disney’s version when my daughter was small—feel free to speak up and talk about it.

As for me, I still have a single glass slipper in my closet. Ever hopeful, I’m still waiting for the other shoe to arrive and fit.

Copyright © Peg Streep 2015

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READ;MEAN MOTHERS http://www.amazon.com/Mean-Mothers-Overcoming-Legacy-Hurt/dp/0061651362

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairytales.  New York: Random House, 1976.

Warner, Marina. From Beast to Blonde. New York. Farrar,Straus & Giroux, 1995.

Dowling, Colette. The Cinderella Complex: Women’s Hidden Fear of Independence. New York: Pocket books, 1981.