The Cinderella story is an archetypal narrative structure that can be found in many books, both by established and aspiring writers.
A put upon person, treated unfairly and cruelly through no fault of their own, overcomes their unjust circumstances to win great rewards and happiness.
It’s an appealing format because it creates a sympathetic underdog who triumphs against adversity; the kind of struggle we’d all like to think we could battle and win.
But there are two problems with the Cinderella story that make her an awkward fit for the modern world.
First, she receives aid from a fairy godmother who chooses to help Cinders for no apparent reason. Having someone else come in and give you everything you need is great, but it makes things kind of easy for the protagonist.
And secondly, when you think of the story (in whichever version) you’ll probably think of things like the stepsisters, the pumpkin carriage, the lost slipper... but can you tell me what made the Prince fall so quickly and completely for our heroine?
She appears at the ball in disguise and the Prince is immediately smitten. Why? What qualities does she have that are so loveable?
So, not only does Cinderella receive supernatural help for free and with no caveats, after the ball her role is to she waits at home for the Prince to come find her. She doesn’t actually do anything herself to realise her dreams.
There are elements to the story that are universal and primordial to the human experience; but there are also elements that are very much of their time. Hundreds of years ago, when the story was first created, a woman had limited options and the fantasy of feeling hard done by and being rescued by a perfect man probably fit the age in which it was written.
I don’t think you can blame the story for that.
But the same story structure is still being used today, and often with the same ‘someone rescue me’ type of self-pitying, I’m just a poor girl who relies on the kindness of strangers kind of vibe.
Go to the ball in the nicest dress and snag yourself the richest guy there is, of course, still a valid career choice, but it doesn’t merit the same kind of appreciation it once did. What was once a poor girl made good is now seen more as a golddigger.
The reason these sorts of stories are still so appealing is fairly obvious. We’d all like to win the lottery and live in the lap of luxury without having earned it.
Does the guy who works hard and builds his fortune with his own hands feel more satisfied and fulfilled by his huge pile of cash? Probably.
Given the choice of working hard for 30 years to become incredibly wealthy, or spending five seconds scratching the foil off a scratchcard, which do you think most people would choose?
Even though the money is of equal value no matter how you get hold of it, the level of respect and admiration the money gets you is very different depending on the source.
When it comes to fiction it’s an easy task to win the lottery.
Dave looked at the number on the ticket and then at the number on the television. He couldn’t believe it. They were the same!
Tempting as it can be to make your character blameless and unjustly treated, and then to give them the perfect man to inexplicably fall in love with them, or a fairy to grant them their heart’s desire, what that says about a woman in the modern world is that she can’t do things for herself. She has to rely on charity and random chance.
It’s why a character like Bella Swan is both very appealing to some and at the same time derided by others. She’s a lottery winner.
However, a character like Katniss Everdeen is treated very differently. She too comes from a very Cinderella-style background, but she uses her skills to survive and puts herself forward to help others. She acts, she doesn’t wait for others to do things for her.
There will probably always be stories that offer the hope of the rich, handsome man that will sweep the ordinary girl odd her feet (because love is random and inexplicable, right?), but the modern Cinderella would do better to ask her fairy godmother to nix the pumpkin carriage and dress sewn by mice, and instead use those magical powers to conjure up an application for the local community college.
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