Slave, princess, killer: why we underestimate Cinderella at our peril

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Once upon a time, there was an unhappy girl. Her unhappiness was caused by her cruel and selfish stepmother and stepsister, who put her in rags and forced her to do all the household chores. When the stepmother and stepsister were invited to a grand party, the girl was obliged to remain at home. But that night, a magical intercession changed her fortune, and, wearing a dazzling new gown, she went to the party and gained a royal husband – despite the loss of one her golden slippers.

And Ye Xian gave thanks to the haunted fishbones that had brought her to this happy state – and wasn’t too bothered to learn that her stepmother and stepsister had been crushed in a rockfall brought on by one of their horrible arguments about whose turn it was to clean the house.

The story we know as Cinderella has deep roots. They’ve been blossoming since the 9th century, when this version was published in Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang, a serving of Tang Dynasty titbits by the poet Duan Chengshi. They flower again this month, when the Royal Opera House stages a new production of Cinderella, the much-loved ballet with music by Sergei Prokofiev and choreography set down in 1948 by Frederick Ashton. And on Broadway, where Linedy Genao is about to open in the title role of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Bad Cinderella. They’ve just enlivened the catwalk at London Fashion Week, where the British designer Patrick McDowell put his models in Swarovski-jewelled boots to tell a Cinderella story about women’s football. They are visible, too, when a case of child cruelty is reported in the papers – or when we debate clinical priorities in the NHS. Our mental health provision – the mechanism for treating unhappy girls – is often said to be the “Cinderella service”.

What should we conclude from this? That Cinderella is one of our most vigorous myths, and, unlike some of her fairy-tale peers, its heroine remains unowned by Walt Disney. Or anybody else, for that matter. Not by Rogers and Hammerstein, whose 1957 musical version has been produced for stage and screen without achieving a grip on the cultural memory. Not by the Sherman brothers, whose The Slipper and the Rose (1976) was a museum piece even as it premiered. Not by sharper and wittier enterprises such as Sondheim’s Into the Woods (1987) or the Anne Hathaway movie Ella Enchanted (2004), self-consciously alternative takes on a canonical version that seems not quite to be there.

Most modern versions of the story have their origins in Charles Perrault’s Stories or Tales from Past Times (1697), a collection of folk tales drawn from the oral tradition but rendered less grotesque and gruesome for easy consumption at the French court. Perrault’s Cendrillon, or the 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 writers of the 1950 Disney movie. (The Brothers Grimm version, 1812’s Aschenputtel, retains some of the gore: the ugly sisters are not forgiven at the end, they are blinded.)

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The Perrault treatment gives us a heroine who is virtuous, beautiful and passive. Cendrillon cries as she watches her stepmother and siblings rattle off to the ball in a fancy coach – then in comes the fairy godmother to fix her problems with a pumpkin and some transmogrified animals. These qualities did not please all the story’s adaptors. Maurice Rapf, Disney screenwriter and card-carrying member of the American Communist Party, was frustrated by Cinderella’s lack of agency. (“You can’t be delivered it on a platter,” he insisted, as he tackled the story in the late 1940s. “You’ve got to earn it.”) He wrote a scene in which Cinderella rebels against her family by pelting them with household objects. But it was dropped, and so was he. (Rapf left Disney under a political cloud, and only a sudden attack of the mumps saved him from an appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee.)

The Disney Cinderella (1950) was made when the studio was staggering under $4 million of debt incurred by the wartime loss of its European markets. A success as big as the 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was needed to save it from bankruptcy. The wish was answered. Cinderella carried enough box office magic to take the firm out of the red and build the income that allowed it to expand into television and theme parks. The movie was a critical success, too – except in one regard. Cinderella herself, who was, said Variety, in agreement with Maurice Rapf, “on the colorless, doll-faced side”.

If we go back further than Perrault, though, the doll vanishes and the colour floods back in. According to Gessica Sakamoto Martini, an anthropologist well-versed in the 600-odd variants of the Cinderella story, older tellings rarely fit the pattern of “a passive girl who waits weeping for something to appear to save her without doing anything to change her situation, until all her misfortunes are suddenly erased with her marriage to the prince”.

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In Basile’s La Gatta Cenerentola (1634), for instance, the heroine kills her stepmother and persuades her father to marry her governess. In some Greek versions of the tale, 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 transforms them into gold, diamonds, and the beautiful dress she wears when 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 using an animal-skin disguise to escape the threat of incest in the family home or communicating her real identity to the prince by dropping a jewelled ring into his soup. “What makes the Cinderella story special,” 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, its freedom is limited. The choreography – some of a satire on the conventions of the 1940s Bolshoi – cannot be altered. The new production at the Royal Opera House, by the Royal Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada, will find other ways to make its mark on the story – not least through the work of the video designer Finn Ross, whose digital images will generate the environment through which the dancers will move. “You’ve got to be careful with it,” he says. “People have lived with this choreography for 75 years. You’ve got quite a precious jewel in your hands that you can’t mess up too much.”

Ashton, though, was generous. He made ballet itself the object of Cinderella’s desires. When we meet the heroine, she is dancing with her broom, and dreaming of being a ballerina. Instead of glass slippers, the Fairy Godmother issues her with a dazzling pair of pointe shoes. Dance is the new life into which Cinderella dreams of escaping. Ross won’t be drawn on how he’ll shape the space to accommodate those desires, but he will say that the magical realist images of the photographer Tim Walker have been on his mood-board. (Walker shot Tilda Swinton as a pale mystic with horns of teased hair, and the Sudanese-Australian model Duckie Thot as an angular, non-blonde Alice in Wonderland.)

“In those images, the debate is whether this is the world that you see in the person’s head, or is this person inhabiting that image as reality? You could argue that in Cinderella, none of it happens in reality at all. It’s her escaping into an alternative universe to cope with the misery she’s forced to exist in? It’s like American Psycho. Does any of it really happen?” (This isn’t an example plucked from the air: Ross designed the American Psycho musical starring Matt Smith.) And the nature of her misery is clear to him. “The sisters know exactly what they’re doing. They’re engaged in an act of modern slavery.”

In the end, it’s always about the unhappy girl. The girl who labours, unrewarded. The degraded and mistreated girl. The girl who is forbidden to leave the house and uses magic to get what she wants. Walt Disney couldn’t capture Cinderella, because the story of Cinderella is about escaping capture. It’s about a slave who finds her freedom as well as her prince. That’s a story that might do much more than entertain us for an evening at the ballet or furnish material for a bedtime story. It might overturn the world.


The Royal Ballet’s Cinderella is in rep at the Royal Opera House, London WC2, from March 27-May 3. Tickets: 020 7304 4000; roh.org.uk