why we underestimate Cinderella at our peril


Once upon a time there was an unhappy girl. Her misfortune was caused by her cruel and selfish stepmother and stepsister, who dressed her in rags and forced her to do all the household chores. When the stepmother and stepsister were invited to a big party, the girl had to stay at home. But that night, a magical intercession changed her destiny, and she went to the party in a stunning new dress and won a royal husband – despite losing one of her golden slippers.

And Ye Xian thanked the haunted fishbones for getting her to this happy state – and wasn’t too concerned to learn that her stepmother and stepsister were crushed in a rock fall during one of their terrifying arguments over whose turn it was were cleaning the house.

The story we know as Cinderella has deep roots. They have flourished since the 9th century, when this version was published in Various Bites of Youyang, a Tang Dynasty portion of goodies by poet Duan Chengshi. They’re blooming again this month when the Royal Opera House stages a new production of Cinderella, the popular 1948 ballet set to music by Sergei Prokofiev and choreographed by Frederick Ashton. And on Broadway, where Linedy Genao is set to take on the title role from Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Bad Cinderella. They just enlivened the runway at London Fashion Week, where British designer Patrick McDowell dressed his models in boots embellished with Swarovski jewels to tell a Cinderella story about women’s football. They are also visible when a case of child abuse is reported in the newspapers – or when we discuss clinical priorities in the NHS. Our mental health care – the mechanism by which unfortunate girls are treated – is often referred to as “Cinderella’s ministry”.

What should we conclude from this? This Cinderella is one of our strongest myths, and unlike some of her fairytale counterparts, her heroine does not remain in the possession of Walt Disney. Or anyone else for that matter. Not by Rogers and Hammerstein, whose 1957 musical version was produced for stage and screen without grasping cultural memory. Not by the Sherman brothers, whose The Slipper and the Rose (1976) was a museum piece when it premiered. Unfazed by sharper and wittier ventures like Sondheim’s Into the Woods (1987) or the Anne Hathaway film Ella Enchanted (2004), an alternate version confidently embraces a canon version that doesn’t seem quite there.

Most modern versions of the tale have their origins in Charles Perrault’s Stories or Tales from Past Times (1697), a collection of folk tales derived from oral tradition but made less grotesque and gruesome for easy consumption at the French court. Perrault’s Cendrillon or Little Glass Slipper is the source for Prokofiev and Ashton, for Rossini’s opera La Cenerentola (1817), for the creators of Cinderella pantomimes and the authors of the 1950 Disney film. (The Brothers Grimm’s version, Cinderella of 1812 , keeps some of the blood: the ugly sisters are not forgiven in the end, they are blinded.)



The Perrault treatment gives us a heroine who is virtuous, beautiful, and passive. Cendrillon cries as she watches her stepmother and siblings race to the ball in a fancy carriage – then the fairy godmother arrives to solve their problems with a pumpkin and some transformed animals. Not all story editors liked these qualities. Maurice Rapf, Disney screenwriter and American Communist Party member, was frustrated by Cinderella’s lack of agency. (“You can’t get it on a platter,” he insisted when tackling the story in the late 1940s. “You’ve got to earn it.”) He wrote a scene in which Cinderella rebels against her family she’s with throwing household items. But it was dropped, and so was he. (Rapf left Disney under a political cloud, and only a sudden bout of mumps saved him from appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee.)

The Disney Cinderella (1950) was made when the studio was less than $4 million in debt from losing its European markets in the war. It took a hit as big as 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to save it from bankruptcy. The wish was answered. Cinderella had enough box office magic to get the company out of the red and build the income that enabled it to expand into television and theme parks. The film was also a critical success — except in one respect. Cinderella herself, who, according to Variety, was “on the colorless, doll-faced side,” in agreement with Maurice Rapf.

However, if we go further back than Perrault, the pupa disappears and the color reappears. According to Gessica Sakamoto Martini, an anthropologist familiar with the roughly 600 variants of the Cinderella tale, older tales rarely fit the pattern of “a passive girl who weeps waiting for something to appear that saves her without doing anything.” do to change her situation, until all her unhappiness with her marriage to the prince is suddenly erased”.



For example, in Basile’s La Gatta Cenerentola (1634), the heroine kills her stepmother and persuades her father to marry her governess. In some Greek versions of the story, the sisters murder and eat their mother: the heroine collects her bones and smokes them like kippers for 40 days and 40 nights – an act that turns them into gold, diamonds, and the beautiful dress she wears She meets the prince. A Danish variant obliges the heroine to fight trolls in a forest of copper and gold, accompanied by a magical bull.

Others see Cinderella use an animal skin disguise to avoid the threat of incest in the family home, or reveal her true identity to the prince by dropping a jeweled ring in his soup. “What’s special about the Cinderella story,” says Martini, “is that it shows us that even in a situation of powerlessness, we can actively reclaim our freedom and agency.”

When a ballet company puts on Ashton’s Cinderella, their freedom is limited. The choreography – a kind of satire on the conventions of the Bolshoi of the 1940s – cannot be changed. The new Royal Ballet and National Ballet of Canada production at the Royal Opera House will find other ways to make its mark on the story – not least through the work of video designer Finn Ross, whose digital imagery will generate the environment through which the dancers will move. “You have to be careful there,” he says. “People have been living with this choreography for 75 years. You’ve got a pretty precious jewel on your hands that you mustn’t screw up too much.”

However, Ashton was generous. He made the ballet itself the object of Cinderella’s desires. When we meet the heroine, she is dancing with her broom and dreams of being a ballerina. Instead of glass slippers, the fairy godmother gives her a stunning pair of pointe shoes. Dancing is the new life Cinderella dreams of. Ross isn’t told how he’ll be designing the space to accommodate those desires, but he will say that photographer Tim Walker’s magically realistic imagery was on his mood board. (Walker shot Tilda Swinton as the pale mystic with horns of backcombed hair and Sudanese-Australian model Duckie Thot as the edgy, non-blonde Alice in Wonderland.)

“The issue in these images is whether this is the world you see in the person’s mind or is that person inhabiting that image as reality? One could argue that none of this actually happens in Cinderella. Her escape to an alternate universe to deal with the misery she must live in? It’s like American Psycho. Is any of this really happening?” (This isn’t a made-up example: Ross created the American Psycho-Musical starring Matt Smith.) And the nature of their misery is clear to him. “The sisters know exactly what they are doing. You are engaged in an act of modern slavery.”

In the end, it’s always about the unlucky girl. The girl who works, unrewarded. The humiliated and abused girl. The girl who is forbidden to leave the house and uses magic to get what she wants. Walt Disney failed to capture Cinderella because the story of Cinderella is about escaping capture. It’s about a slave who finds both her freedom and her prince. This is a story that can do much more than entertain us for a night at the ballet or provide material for a bedtime story. It could upset the world.

The Royal Ballet’s Cinderella is at the Royal Opera House, London WC2 from 27 March to 3 May. Cards: 020 7304 4000; raw.org.uk

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