Cinderella; a Beautiful Girlhood

Cinderella; a Beautiful Girlhood January 28, 2015
Image by Nora Woodhouse used with permission
Image by Nora Woodhouse used with permission

by Nora Woodhouse cross posted from her blog A Heart Like Mine

I started my excursion into fairy tale princesses, and romance stories with a post about why those things still resonated with me. I want to continue with other aspects of those stories that are relevant and real for me as a woman in our culture but specifically the culture I was brought up in with its very heavy influences of patriarchy, gender ideals, and fundamentalist beliefs. Cinderella captures all the classic elements of a fairy tale princess romance and because there is context and parallels between it and my own story I will be using it for illustration and discussion.

Fairy tales resonate with me as a woman traversing feminine culture; I would like to escape the constant battles that come with being of female sex and identity. I dream of acceptance, respect and stability for myself and other women in the world. I explained in my previous post that Prince Charming when deconstructed relates to those desires for love, acceptance, respect, stability and not just a romantic relationship (though that can still play a part).
The stories also resonate with me as someone who grew up in a Christian home full of hidden fundamentalist values and beliefs.
The fairy tale dream as told from the Christian perspective offers love, respect, escape and stability. But you can only have these things if you are a good girl, if you maintain a pure and beautiful girlhood.

Cinderella and the path of beautiful girlhood with a fairy tale ending:
I admit to never finishing the book A Beautiful Girlhood because after coming across the portion that instructed you to not let your thoughts wander down the primrose path to things that were not maidenly I realized I already let myself wonder about that dark evil “sex”. Trying to continue reading A Beautiful Girlhood after that just filled me with guilt and self judgement. The book felt like a reprimand. But still throughout my growing up the message and focus of having a beautiful girlhood was still there.
The message of a beautiful girlhood was also a message about having a fairy tale life. Happy ever after was a promise of good things for a life dedicated to being a Godly young woman, much in the way that heaven is a promise for living a Godly life. A fairy tale in a Christian culture it is also something that can become a pressure to adhere to the values and expectations of your family and church. Veer from the path or throw it away and you have lost the chance of ever being respected or held in high esteem as a woman of wisdom and value. You lose your value as someone of innocence and beauty. You can of course come back to the path, but not without some self flagellation, public scrutiny, and judgement. You would have to dedicate yourself to penance and pursue the path of beautiful girlhood or womanhood with a renewed vigor as if hell hounds are nipping at your heels.

The struggles for acceptance, respect and stability are the same as for every woman and girl in our culture, but within the Christian and especially fundamentalist Christian culture women and girls seem to lose more ground.

At first it can seem as if by nature of being a Godly woman you will be held in high esteem. Christians and churches do make this a focus point in an effort to respect the women in their lives. However the actual actions and everyday beliefs within Christianity make the focus and intent threadbare. As a woman you are second to your husband and are to obey and and defer to his judgement. Even in really progressive Christian households were spouses are teammates, the man will still be seen as the household head. Men are also the head of the church, and while women may or may not be allowed to have leadership roles they are secondary and in the majority of Christian denominations women are not allowed to be elders, and especially not a pastor. Women are still second class citizens in this religion. Saying Godly women will be respected, honored and held in high esteem is just dressing up a really crappy prize, and is only applicable if you do what is expected of you as a woman based on traditional gender roles.

As a young girl growing up in this type of religious culture you are also told that you will be held in high esteem for following the path of a beautiful Christian girlhood. Meekness and kindness of heart are highly encouraged. And all these things you are supposed to be are expressed to you as something that will create an inner freedom and spiritual enlightenment, and that girls who stray from the path are enslaved prisoners of sin. When in reality adhering to the path of beautiful girlhood can make one just as much a prisoner.

Cinderella is a good example of this. Here she is essentially an indentured servant in her former home, but we are told and shown in various ways that this is okay because she is following the path of beautiful girlhood. She is a reflection of that idealized Christian young woman who is soft spoken, compassionate and above all cheerful no matter what. Keeping a smile on your face and never showing a bad attitude (or else you grieve God and others) is a part of Christian culture and specifically fundamentalist culture. A seemingly bad attitude or outburst would likely be seen as a sign of disrespect and disobedience. In the film Ever After the Baroness gives Danielle a sound lashing for her reaction to her step sisters biting remark. Danielle punched Marguerite, but the other reasons the Baronesses punishes her is for making a scene, stepping out of her place, and for not being dutiful and obedient.

Cinderella encompasses a lot of the ideals and values of Christianity. She is cheerful, a service to others, and she continually turns the other cheek even in a fairly abusive situation. The way I was raised with those ideals and values seemed to create this normality of any abusive behaviors, and the expectation that you turn the other cheek and forgive whether or not the other party changed their behavior. In a lot of ways you were supposed to follow the ideal of Jesus; suffering at the hands of others made you a martyr of sorts and forgiving them no matter what put you at a higher level of spirituality and grace. You were not supposed to have boundaries, you were supposed to understand others imperfections and endure. And truly bad behavior was not always seen as such (from experience), it was diminished into being minor character flaws at best and eventually discounted. It was especially discounted if the bad behavior came from a parent, and christian parents were especially discounted. People believed there was no way they could ever really be that bad.

In Ever After we see the Baroness try and make her bad behavior out to be some sort of motherly concern and that she is only doing the best she can to make Danielle into something of value.

I found that trying to be like Cinderella or on the path of a beautiful girlhood could often be little better than being a doormat. A doormat that stays put. You were not supposed to leave or cut ties with your family. Family is everything, and you are supposed to honor that and stay connected no matter what. You would not have had permission or acceptance of your desire or choice to leave. The only time this changes is if some Prince Charming swoops in and “rescues” you. Then you have a reasonable reason to leave. But unless that happened it was family first and forever, and you had to turn the other cheek and keep your head up.

I think I loved fairy tales growing up because even though it could reinforce traditional patriarchal and religious values- underneath it all I think I connected with the bones of the stories. The story resonated because through the act of describing traditional beliefs in a fairy tale, it also described the plight of the girl, woman or princess within that belief system. It described my plight and struggles and even if the metaphor was embodied by Prince Charming those stories still offered the dream of escape. A dream of love, acceptance, respect, stability.

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Nora is a member of the SASBN

More about Nora:

I am a former country girl and abuse survivor. I enjoy blogging because I find it personally therapeutic. It also allows me to share my experiences with others, and bring to light issues of abuse. I am a stay at home writer with a husband and house full of furry critters. I write under a pseudonym for my personal safety as well as to negate any potential legal trouble over sharing my story.

She blogs at A Heart Like Mine

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  • JeanPing

    Fairy and folk tales are nuggets of story that have been passed down and polished by time and generations of experience. They ought to resonate! 🙂 I think maybe what you call the bones of the story …really are the bones of the story, what was always there. Once those stories have been through the Disney sausage mill they are fun, but no longer the same, and they don’t carry the same weight or raw violence– and truth.

    A good half of the old stories are about adventurous girls who have the victory; it’s not always boys who conquer and girls who are rescued. We’ve sort of cherry-picked in favor of the princely rescue, but just imagine you really are a peasant, in their world–marrying a prince and never going hungry again would sound pretty good. They lived a little closer to the bone than we do, and it’s reflected in the stories, which are extremely violent, often bawdy (and I mean wow), and where rewards come in terms of material comforts.

    Fairy tales are awesome. For some reason we’ve decided they’re for tiny children, but mostly they really aren’t, and weren’t. When I started reading to my own daughters, it was a while before they were ready for Wanda Gag’s wonderful version for small people, “Tales from Grimm.” Kids who are reading well on their own–past the Magic Tree House stage–do well with the picture books and collections of stories from the 398 section of your friendly neighborhood public library (folk tales are kept in the non-fiction section). Those are still sort of cleaned up for modern sensibilities; Snow White’s mother dances herself to death in red-hot iron shoes, but Sleeping Beauty wakes up with a kiss, not with twins. Adults might like to tackle Jack Zipes’ translation of Grimms’, which is the current standard. Because they’re for everyone. (And obviously not just Grimms’, mine the world for story by all means.)

  • Yes, the bones really are that skeletal structure that was always there 🙂 Looking for the bones is part of Clarissa Pinkola Estes writings on finding “the wild woman” as well as the core elements of fairy tales; like you mentioned things that are pre-Disney sausage mill and even older than that!

    “A good half of the old stories are about adventurous girls who have the victory; it’s not always boys who conquer and girls who are rescued. We’ve sort of cherry-picked in favor of the princely rescue, but just imagine you really are a peasant, in their world–marrying a prince and never going hungry again would sound pretty good. They lived a little closer to the bone than we do, and it’s reflected in the stories, which are extremely violent, often bawdy (and I mean wow), and where rewards come in terms of material comforts.”

    Yes true! I like Into the Woods for that reason, it’s reflective of that former closer to the bone type story telling.

    I agree fairy tales are awesome, and I don’t know why we have decided they are only for children. I enjoy various re-tellings of Fairy Tales, Tangled is actually a favorite. I have always liked it, but for Disney it actually kept a lot of it’s archetypal qualities. I also love cross referencing it with some of the Fairy Tales in Estes book; Women Who Run With The Wolves. I have not heard to the Jack Zipes translation, I will have to look that up.

  • Astrin Ymris

    I’ve noticed that ‘Tangled’ comes in for particular ire from CPM commenters. Maybe the story of a girl escaping from a childhood of extreme isolation under a passive-aggressive parent figure who turns out to have been lying from day one is a little to close to home?

  • Well that being the reason I love it and it resonates with me lol- It’s possible their strong reaction comes from seeing themselves mirrored in it- as you said a little to close to home!