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A Girl, A Shoe, A Prince: The Endlessly Evolving Cinderella

Cinderella and her fairy godmother in the 1950 Disney cartoon. Courtesy of Disney Princess hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Disney Princess

Cinderella and her fairy godmother in the 1950 Disney cartoon.

Courtesy of Disney Princess

"Woman gives birth to a gourd."

This is the opening to the description of an Italian variant of the Cinderella folk tale — or, really, a relative of one of its relatives — taken from a book called Cinderella; three hundred and forty-five variants of Cinderella, Catskin, and Cap o'Rushes, abstracted and tabulated, with a discussion of mediaeval analogues, and notes, written by Marian Roalfe Cox and published in 1893. In this version of the story, the heroine is born inside a gourd and accidentally abandoned in the forest — understandable, given that her mother has just brought forth a squash from within her person, and the last thought she's entertaining is probably, "Hey, I'll take that with me."

Our heroine is discovered by a prince, who finds the talking gourd and takes it home. If nothing else, perhaps it has a future in show business. At some point, she presumably emerges from it — the details offered in the book about this particular folk tale are limited — and she becomes a servant. The prince keeps her at the palace but mistreats her terribly, even beating her and kicking her to prevent her from attending his ball, but she gets there anyway without his knowing it's her (which is one reason it seems certain she's out of the squash by now). They meet and he gives her gifts and so on. Later, when she prepares his breakfast in the guise of his once-ensquashed servant, she slips into the breakfast the gifts he gave her at the ball when they danced. When he finds jewelry in his food, he realizes she is his beloved, and they get married. Ah, the classic "boy meets gourd."

What is the name of this young lady who was born inside a vegetable? Her name, of course, is Zucchettina. (It could be worse to our modern ears: One of the Cinderella variant entries is called "Little Saddleslut.")

In 1812, the Brothers Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, published Children and Household Tales, a collection German fairy tales. This illustration accompanied the tale "Cinderella" and shows Cinderella being left by her stepsisters to do the housework. This image is from Grimms Eventyr (Grimm's Fairy Tales) by Carl Ewald, published in 1922. Ivy Close Images/Landov hide caption

toggle caption Ivy Close Images/Landov

In 1812, the Brothers Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, published Children and Household Tales, a collection German fairy tales. This illustration accompanied the tale "Cinderella" and shows Cinderella being left by her stepsisters to do the housework. This image is from Grimms Eventyr (Grimm's Fairy Tales) by Carl Ewald, published in 1922.

Ivy Close Images/Landov

This version is an obvious relative of Cinderella but not quite Cinderella; it's presented as one of the variants of Catskin, a related tale that also has a hard-working girl who meets a prince at a ball while in disguise and is then recognized and rescued.

That's not the strangest variant in the book, and it is certainly not the darkest. One begins with Cinderella, her two older sisters and their mother agreeing to a whimsical bet: First one to drop her spinning spool will be eaten by the others. When Mom proves clumsy, the sisters indeed eat her. (A deal's a deal?) Cinderella decides not to eat her mother, but to wait until the killing and eating is over, then bury her mother's bones. You know, out of respect. Fortunately, her mother's bones turn into coins and beautiful magic dresses. It's no fairy godmother, but you don't look your mother's gift bones in the ... mouth, I suppose.

There's a Vietnamese variant called Kajong And Haloek in which the evil foster mother of the Cinderella figure, Kajong, is tricked into eating the flesh of her own dead daughter (who boiled herself alive trying to be as beautiful as Kajong) — punishment for them both.

And here is a direct quote from Cox's book, summarizing a variant called Gold-dice: "King goes to war, leaving three daughters in mound with victuals for seven years. Father slain; princesses forgotten. Dog and cat eaten; elder sisters die. Heroine eats mouse; digs way out."

Kind of makes you think having your eyes pecked out is getting off easy, right?

Lily James is Cinderella in Disney's live-action version of the classic fairy tale, which it helped make famous in a 1950 cartoon. Jonathan Olley/Disney hide caption

toggle caption Jonathan Olley/Disney

Lily James is Cinderella in Disney's live-action version of the classic fairy tale, which it helped make famous in a 1950 cartoon.

Jonathan Olley/Disney

As Disney releases another Cinderella adaptation — this one live-action, directed by Kenneth Branagh, starring Lily James as Cinderella and Cate Blanchett as her evil stepmother — we see again how perplexingly durable this story is, particularly for something so slight. The film that's coming out this weekend may be bent and polished, stripped of some of its themes and relieved of its bone-burying — and Cinderella may now be an established part of the Disney princess racket — but this is still recognizably a story of which 345 versions could already be found almost 125 years ago.

What Is Cinderella, Exactly?

To try to figure out what exactly that story is and why we still have it, we have to separate out the folk tale that is Cinderella, though, from the turn of phrase that is "Cinderella story." Americans will call almost anything a Cinderella story that involves a good thing happening to someone nice. We slap that title on movies and books, but also on basketball games won by tiny schools full of scrawny nerds, small businesses that thrive and even political ascendancies that upend established powers.

The actual Cinderella tale, while a nebulous thing that can be hard to pin down with precision, is more than that. There's very little that's common to every variant of the story, but in general, you have a mistreated young woman, forced to do menial work, either cast out or unloved by her family. She has an opportunity to marry well and escape her situation, but she gets that chance only after being mistaken for a higher-status person, so she has to get the man who may marry her to recognize her in her low-status form, which often happens either via a shoe that fits or some kind of food that she prepares.

It's partly a fantasy about simplifying the relationships between social standing and coupling — one that makes the most sense in a world in which class differences are an accepted barrier to a good man choosing to marry a woman. If the prince is a man who believes from the outset that love conquers all, the story doesn't really make any sense. It would be hard to set Cinderella on a properly functioning egalitarian collective.

The idea that animates the classic Cinderella is that the prince would not be free to consider Cinderella a desirable mate if he first saw her as she is, but he can meet her under false pretenses and fall in love with her. And, most importantly, once achieved, that love will be durable enough to survive her reversion to her real identity. Getting him to literally recognize her — getting him to look at a woman in rags and realize she's the woman he wants to marry — seems to function as sort of a stand-in for him proving that he can overlook her low status and choose her as a partner. Whether that's more a fantasy of romantic love or a fantasy of economic security, power and rescue from a lifetime of washing floors may depend on who's telling it and who's hearing it and when.

The story means different things at different times — trying to nail down a single origin for Cinderella is somewhat beside the point, since folk tales are narrative mashups done and redone, assembled from existing pieces and experimented upon. The tales Catskin and Cap O'Rushes, mentioned in Cox's title, for instance, are close relatives to what we know as Cinderella, but with characteristics that make their own offshoots easy to group together. (There's actually an entire multi-volume index for folk tales, called the Aarne-Thompson system, which groups tales of similar types together. Cinderella is type 510A. It's under "persecuted heroine." Pull that out at a princess party; amaze your children's friends.)

Disney, Hilary Duff And Other Spins Are Spun

The Cinderella familiar to United States popular culture, though, is most easily traceable, and most commonly traced, to the one published in 1697 by the French writer Charles Perrault, whose version, called Cendrillon, brings together many of the elements popularized by the 1950 Disney cartoon: the fairy godmother, the transformed pumpkin, the glass slipper, the midnight spell.

In lots of other versions, there is no fairy godmother; there is simply Cinderella praying for help, often to her dead mother (as she does in the Brothers Grimm version, written more than 100 years after Perrault's, that resembles Cinderella's story in Stephen Sondheim's musical Into The Woods). There is often a shoe that proves her identity and her suitability for marriage, but it's not always a glass slipper. In fact, the Cinderella story is sometimes traced all the way back to the Egyptian tale of Rhodopis, a girl who winds up marrying a king after a bird steals her red shoe and dumps it in the king's lap, leaving him to search for her.

Brandy Norwood and Whitney Houston pose with the coach from their version of Cinderella. Reuters /Landov hide caption

toggle caption Reuters /Landov

Brandy Norwood and Whitney Houston pose with the coach from their version of Cinderella.

Reuters /Landov

But once it's wormed its way into the culture, like any folk tale, Cinderella bends in delightful and vulgar ways to suit the purposes of the high and the low, the noble and the crass.

In 1957, CBS aired a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical — written for the TV broadcast rather than adapted from the stage — in which Cinderella continued the 1950 theme of limitless dreaming as a fundamental piece of the story. In the cartoon, she had sung "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes," and in the TV musical, she sings "In My Own Little Corner," which finds her happy only when she's alone and dreaming of adventure. While the story is still quite similar to Perrault's, her fantasy has evolved a little; rather than simply wanting out, she wants excitement. Whereas the cartoon Cinderella engaged in the rather circular wishing logic that her greatest wish was ... for her dreams to come true, the musical Cinderella started to fantasize about going on safaris and having her own squad of silkworms.

Julie Andrews, then just 21, seven years away from her feature film debut in Mary Poppins and appearing before a staggering reported audience of more than 100 million people, gave Cinderella more personality than she'd had as a cartoon and played up her status as a plucky dreamer. This Cinderella longed for connection ("on the wings of my fancy, I can fly anywhere / and the world will open its arms to me") rather than existing as simply a miserable, put-upon, featureless doormat — a vision that would eventually become a fundamental part of the pop-culture Cinderella as well as heroine princesses in general. In this one, the pumpkin carriage and the mice as horses are her idea, and she's the one who persuades her fairy godmother to do it. There were no bright colors and sumptuous visuals to carry it, either — most people saw it in black and white.

Hilary Duff and Chad Michael Murray in Warner Bros. Pictures' romantic comedy, A Cinderella Story. Ron Batzdorff/AP hide caption

toggle caption Ron Batzdorff/AP

Hilary Duff and Chad Michael Murray in Warner Bros. Pictures' romantic comedy, A Cinderella Story.

Ron Batzdorff/AP

That production was followed by two more television versions, including a charming one from 1997, in which Brandy Norwood played Cinderella and Whitney Houston played her fairy godmother — one of only a few times the American pop-culture Cinderella has not been white, despite her global ubiquity. In some cases, that's continued to the stage: One incarnation of the show's recent Broadway production, with a new book, featured Keke Palmer as Cinderella. (In the category Trivia That May Or May Not Mean Anything, chew on this: Both Jon Cypher, who played the Prince in 1957, and Stuart Damon, who played the Prince in the 1965 version of the musical opposite Lesley Ann Warren, later became prominent soap opera actors.)

In 1998, Ever After: A Cinderella Story very specifically staged an assault on some of the story's gendered elements, casting Drew Barrymore as a more self-possessed heroine (actually named Danielle, but taunted with the nickname "Cinderella") whose prince came to admire her for her intelligence and independence, rather than simply dancing with her and marrying her because she fit into a shoe (much as the oldest Brady Buncher, Greg, was once hired to assume the identity of singer Johnny Bravo because he fit the suit).

In a sense, the classic tale often treated like our quintessential cultural romance had to be substantially adapted to allow for the existence of romantic love as we imagine it now, which does not occur in the complete absence of communication. If a pure fantasy of economic security and social uplift achieved by magic might have sufficed in the 1600s, romance by the 1990s required conversation and affection and the promise of a partnership, so the rhythms of the love story in Ever After don't come from centuries-old folk tales, but from 20th-century romantic comedy crossed with misty melodrama. (The musical had presaged some of this confusion with the eyebrow-raising song that literally asks, "Do I love you because you're beautiful / or are you beautiful because I love you?" In other words, "Me: Shallow or not?" Great question, that.)

Then there are the others. So many others.

For instance, in 2004, the same basic frame that gave us Zucchettina and the girls who ate their mother was used to cast Hilary Duff as Sam, a high school student working in a diner, opposite Chad Michael Murray as a football player in A Cinderella Story — which is genuinely one of the worst films I have ever seen. (Sticking each of them inside a gourd the entire time would have been a vast improvement, and the film certainly wouldn't have gotten any less romantic chemistry from two well-chosen acorn squash nicely arranged on a platter.) In this one, instead of losing her shoe, she loses her phone. It is dire, my friends. Dire. It is a film as a result of which someone will one day be stopped at the pearly gates and told, "Look, I'm going to let you in, but," and then given a stink-eye the likes of which heaven has never previously known. Nevertheless, good or not, this, too, is a part of Cinderella's long and complicated story.

On and on she goes: Even the new Netflix comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has a Cinderella homage. All it takes is a girl and a dress and a shoe; people get it. There are countless versions. No matter how many I list here, other people would list others, on and on, forever. That's not a casual use of the word "countless."

Bare simplicity is both the story's strength and its weakness. One of the things that makes Perrault's Cinderella story an unlikely classic is that stripped to its basics — as it is in the 1950 cartoon, for instance — there's barely enough to it to sustain more than a paragraph. Sad girl gets magic dress, goes to dance, loses shoe, is found. The film is only an hour and 15 minutes long, and much of that is stuffed not with Cinderella's story, but with Tom and Jerry-style animal hooliganism involving the mice, the birds, the cat and the dog. Helper animals are common in the folk tale variants, though: That movie comes by those mice and birds honestly, from hundreds of years of history.

The reed-thin story is why usually things are added — all the things that tell you what kind of Cinderella this is and whom it's made for. Cinderella becomes a kind of cultural tofu that takes on the flavor of whatever you're mixing with it. In Ever After, what's added is an actual courtship between the prince and Danielle that's not reliant on a single dance. In A Cinderella Story, it's recycled high-school plotting lifted from other, better movies: the nerdy male BFF, the mean popular girls and an entire side investigation of the tragic ways teenagers had to try to flirt online 10 years ago, when texting the letter "S" meant hitting the "7" key on your flip phone four times.

And, not to find too much sociology in my Hilary Duff vehicles, but it's interesting that this one draws the stepsisters as awkward dorks and therefore has to invent another group of beautiful and popular girls to serve as Cinderella's more aggressive tormentors; it's as if Hilary Duff being presented as conventionally appealing in every way and in possession of a cute white convertible means that no dork could believably make her feel anything she didn't care to feel. Thus we get literal stepsisters who are goats from the beginning and figurative stepsisters — the ubiquitous "mean girls" — who represent an actual threat and can only be bested when the prince doesn't choose them. Tacky and awkward girls to emphasize that Cinderella is beautiful and pleasing; mean girls to show that she's good. (Just about the only justification we are given for Sam's pitifully low status at school, despite her seeming like the kind of girl who would do well socially in high school, is that she has a job, and is therefore scorned by her peers.)

You Should See The Other Guy

This poor girl, this Cinderella. Over and over, in century after century, she has to scrub the floors and slop the pigs and perhaps dig around in the fireplace for lentils. (A development I call: Yet Another Situation In Which We'd All Be Better Off Without Lentils.) Her entire life is defined by her dreams of a marriage that will improve her standing — making her not so different from her stepsisters and stepmother — and in some versions, she has no personality except a vague affinity for animals and perhaps the tiniest hint of impatience with cleaning. But you know who fares even worse? The prince.

In the 1950 cartoon, the prince is, in film terms, a MacGuffin. He is not a person but an object of pursuit, like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. Or maybe he's the prize, like the trophy at the end of The Karate Kid. Either way, he is not human. (In the musical, he has the great — and utterly earnestly delivered — line, "Whatever your name is, I love you.") If you were putting on a stage play based on that cartoon and you were short of actors, my very first suggestion would be that you obtain a large bag of flour and a toupee, allowing you to dispense with casting anyone at all as the prince. Princes in other versions get a little more to do — though part of the point of Cinderella's Into The Woods story is that fleshing out who a prince really is may not turn out as you hope. "I was raised to be charming, not sincere," he says.

The Stepmother And Stepsisters And The Treachery Of Women

One of the reasons the leading man fades is that Cinderella is, in the American/Disney/Perrault version, a story of treachery among women. There are versions, including the Brothers Grimm telling, in which Cinderella's father is alive and simply indifferent to her suffering at the hands of his wife. (In fact, there are variants of Catskin where the heroine's widowed father wants to marry her, forcing her to flee her own home.) But Disney's Cinderella — and, more broadly, the American pop-culture Cinderella — traditionally features a dead father who leaves her in a household of women only. Women who are entirely untrustworthy and vicious. In modern pop-culture thinking, and with apologies for non-fairy-tale terminology, the very core of this story is that if one man sentences you to live among bitches, only another man can save you.

There are a lot of variations on this story in which the central character — sometimes called Cinderella, sometimes not (she's sometimes called fun things like "Finette, The Swineherd") — plays a role herself in all this treachery. There is, as previously mentioned, that variant in which she ultimately schemes to trick her stepmother into consuming her own dead child's flesh. There are also some in which the prince does the dispatching with equal flair: one of Cox's summaries ends, "The prince sends for his two sisters-in-law, with his own hand, he hews them in pieces, and lives with his wife happily ever after." But the one we tend to get is one where Cinderella and the prince rise above: They live happily ever after even without cutting anybody up in little pieces. You cannot simply defeat your tormentors; you must do it kindly and gently. It is not enough to be victorious; you must also be good, even to those who are not good to you.

In Ever After, which spends most of its running time trying to complicate the way women operate in this story, they change things up so that there is one nasty stepsister and one kind one — the latter is played by the wonderful actress Melanie Lynskey, then only 20 or so, as a sweet girl treated only moderately better than Cinderella (and berated about her weight, an interesting little 20th-century touch on a story about girls made to feel bad about themselves). It makes for an interestingly different dynamic, where Danielle's courage benefits more than just herself, and the horrible behavior she confronts doesn't seem endemic to womanhood outside herself.

Of course, the Disney version (per the Perrault version) also adds the fairy godmother, a kind of stand-in for the mother Cinderella doesn't have — the figure her stepmother could have been. In a lot of Cinderella stories, you cannot have your dead mother, but you can have her magic bones — or in this case, her magic stand-in. The supernatural woman becomes effectively an answer to the shortcomings of all the flesh-and-blood women in her life. Ever After spends a little time with this idea that Danielle genuinely wishes her awful stepmother could have loved her, as well as with the suggestion that her stepmother — played by Anjelica Huston — truly loved Danielle's father and could perhaps have turned out differently had she not been stuck in grief.

Both of these things are more nuanced ways of thinking about that relationship than most versions of the story allow, and both notably take place in the absence of a fairy godmother who comes in to nurture and aid Danielle. Instead, she meets Leonardo da Vinci (really!), who's just passing through France and helps out with the dress and some good advice. The cheeky way the film literally replaces a magical character with one of the great men of science and invention is among its more charming, assertively modern touches, and one of the ones that most emphatically announces its mission to renounce magic pumpkins and tell a story about a girl who works hard, defends the less fortunate, protects her parents' memories, reads important literature, can hold her own in unexpected woodland battles with bands of gypsies, and thus gets to marry a prince who is lucky to have her.

What exactly motivates all the mistreatment of Cinderella shifts, though jealousy is a common theme, particularly in the ones we see in the United States. In lots of forms of the story, the stepsisters aren't ugly; in some, they're specified to be quite lovely — they're just really mean. But our versions tend to make them ugly and tacky, grasping social climbers who can't hope to compete with Cinderella's physical beauty, as if to better distinguish them as undeserving compared to their sister who, after all, wants largely the same thing they do: to meet a prince. In the Disney cartoon, they have protruding noses and funny expressions, contrasted with Cinderella's meticulously indistinct face — the face that would adorn a store-brand box labeled "Girl." Her stepmother's prominent nose and pointed chin, of course, are reminiscent of Disney witches across time.

Disney's Post-Frozen, Post-Tangled Cinderella

As for the new live-action Cinderella from Disney, it retains debts to the cartoon, and it keeps Cinderella on brand: blonde, wide-eyed, corseted to an unsettling degree. It keeps the magic: the pumpkin, the fairy godmother (played in a delightfully breezy performance by Helena Bonham Carter), and that pretty glass shoe (here a heel almost impossibly high).

But while this is still Disney's version of this story, and while it is and will remain a story of a girl saved by marriage from a team of mean harpies, there are signs that this is post-Frozen and post-Tangled Disney storytelling, this time in live action. And there are, quite honestly, beats that seem awfully similar to the markedly feminist Ever After. Again, Blanchett's take on the stepmother, while not robbed of any of her wickedness, is informed by a couple of moments that suggest she does have feelings and is as much a scarred stepmother as an evil one.

Cinderella again meets the prince outside the palace before there is any ball. Tather than the sparky rom-com business of Ever After, this is a purer, simpler romantic swoon, and it's pretty effective for what it is. The film protects her from being after a change in status by ensuring that she doesn't know he's a prince when she goes to the ball hoping to see him. These are little touches, but they make her easier to relate to and less stuck in a world in which all she dreams of is brushing up against royalty.

The transformations of pumpkin and mice alike are great fun, and the ball is scrumptious to watch. Making a proper Cinderella ballgown — one that can still impress in an age in which that character has everything including a waffle iron branded with her likeness — is tough, but this one is such a liquid swirl that it's independently pretty to watch how it behaves in a dance.

It's a film that's exactly what it has to be. It's still Disney, it's still extremely safe, it's still about being rescued and married off to gain higher status, it's still another princess movie. Its updated elements are interesting but measured; it has white leads across the board, but Cinderella lives in an intriguingly diverse kingdom. But it's executed so well that in the end, it's probably as good as it was at all reasonable to expect it might be. Branagh knows his scenic lushscapes, and why would you have anyone else as the stepmother if you could get Cate Blanchett?

The frustrations are contained in the ways in which it's traditional, the things they didn't modernize. The frustrations grow from parts of the story that, while they could certainly be altered — there are 345 variants already, after all — have been around for hundreds of years.

In Conclusion: Is Captain America A Cinderella Story?

Drawing precise conclusions about who the cultural Cinderella is right now is so hard, because in a sense, everything has a taste of Cinderella. Despite the fact that My Fair Lady has specific origins in George Bernard Shaw and goes back to Ovid, Time recently pointed out that in one interview, Julie Andrews, who you'll remember had actually played Cinderella, called My Fair Lady "the best Cinderella story, really."

If it's just a rescue of a deserving underdog from an ordinary life and delivery to an extraordinary one, then The Little Mermaid is Cinderella, and Pretty Woman is Cinderella, and — to be honest? — Captain America is Cinderella. Lots of our current stories are. What is a fairy godmother, after all, that isn't also present in the idea of being bitten by a spider and gaining the ability to climb buildings? What is that pumpkin coach but ... the Batmobile? And not to return to the tone of cannibalism and murder, but what consideration of unloved pop-culture girls whose evil mothers won't let them to go dances is complete without Carrie?

Too far afield? Sure. But this is folklore, and it doesn't end, it just takes new forms. It isn't as if folklore goes up to 1900 and then stops, and everything after that is "pop culture." The production is different and the financing is different, but the appeal of stories that overlap and wind together, and the appeal of stories told and retold in different forms in different voices and variations, is not only a function of greed. It's also a function of instincts to tell and share and revisit stories you've heard before, not because they're new, but because they're not.

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