Monday, 27 May 2013

Don't Go Full Cinders

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! 

See, easy.

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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Michael Di Gesu said...

Excellent points Mood.... I have always appreciated a strong woman who can fend for herself, even in the darkest of times. I think of my grandmother during the depression here in the US... She was only 28 widowed and raising a two-year-old alone. She was raised with a silver spoon in her mouth, but all was lost. She ended up in the sweatshops as a seamstress and supported herself, my mom, and her father.

An amazing feat for a woman back in the early 30's.... So as much as I appreciate the classic Cinderella, which I do, I do enjoy reading about a girl/woman who uses her mind and talents to MAKE her fairy tale ending....

Al Diaz said...

You reminded me of "I'm just a poor boy and nobody loves me..." I don't like Cinderella type of character for the same reasons you've specified here. I think characters that work their way to success are more appealing than those who obtain their goals for free.

Jo said...

Are we talking books or life here? In real life I would be perfectly happy with a lottery win, thanks very much. Mind you we don't buy tickets any more and at our ages are never likely to earn vast sums so I guess we need a prince to rescue both of us, Hubby and I.


Tammy Theriault said...

we love a fairy tale ending i guess...although i'm down for a winning lottery ticket anyday just to take that leap to bella/katniss status of a fairy tale ending!

Lexa Cain said...

Yeah, Deus ex Machina and Insta-love can be very annoying in a novel. But that downtrodden, unjustly-treated mc is incredibly appealing. I think we all feel like that sometimes.
I love reading your articles. Keep it up! :-)

mooderino said...

@Michael - I agree there's something appealing about the classic Cinderella story, but I think there are better and more rewarding stories to write, your grandmother's being one of them.

@Al Diaz - the problem is that those wish fulfillment stories are very popular and hits a chord with many female readers. I expect it's the same part of the brain that wants to know which celebrities are getting fat.

@Jo - i think that's got a lot to do with it, getting to a point in life when you know the lottery win (or Prince Charming) is probably your best bet.

@Tammy - although lottery winners never seem to live happily ever after.

@Lexa - thanks!

Julie Luek said...

I agree the classic is not very modern, but there is something appealing about "goodness" wins. That's really the heart of Cinderella-- not that the Prince inexplicably falls in love with her or the Fairy Godmother helps her for no apparent reason and, damn, isn't that just the luck. Her patience, perseverance, and goodness prevail, and while the evil, self-centered characters appear to have the upper hand initially, they ultimately lose. And that's the theme that still appeals today even if the MC takes on different characteristics to be more modern.

Gina Gao said...

These are great points! I never thought of that before.

mooderino said...

@Julie - I think my issue is that goodness wins without having to put in much (or any) effort and while that is appealing to the part of our brains that would like to be rewarded without earning it, it isn't very admirable. It's just a convenient way to carry on doing nothing and kidding yourself one day your prince will come.

@Gina - cheers.

Michael Offutt, "Johnny on the Spot" said...

Oh the Cinderella story is one of my favorites.

Melissa Sugar said...

Great post. I agree. Cinderella does just sit around waiting & gets help much too easily without setting out to conquer the villain, herself.

mooderino said...

@Mike - who wouldn't want a fairy godmother?

@Melissa - and that Prince Charming was a bit of a stalker, if you ask me.

Mary Gottschalk said...

A terrific analysis, not just of Cinderella but of so much of what is written today, especially in the memoir genre. Such stories can pack an emotional punch, but they are ultimately not very interesting. Cinderella is a very short story, with a lots of pictures. I can't imagine reading it as a 200 page novel.

Elise Fallson said...

Oh how I dislike the classic Cnderella story. And then there's Snow White . . .

mooderino said...

@Mary - thanks!

@Elise - sometimes I think those evil stepmothers had a point.

Charmaine Clancy said...

You make a great feminist Moody, welcome to the fold :)

I've never liked Cinderella, even as a child. Sooo many reasons, including the ones you've stated, but also because the underlying message is being pretty means you are sweet and lovely and worthy of a prince, being unnattractive means you must be mean and ugly on the inside like the step sisters. And don't get me started on 'Charming' - why the heck was he such a win anyway? He was so in love with Cinderella, he couldn't possibly recognise her again and sends a footman off to find her with a slipper. Great effort.

LOVED this post Moody!

Editors At Work said...

So with you Mooderino. Who wants to get something for nothing? It's always better to get something you work for, otherwise it will go away for nothing as well!


Rachna Chhabria said...

Excellent points Moody, sometimes we writers take the easy way out by making things effortless for our protagonist. Its always the tough protagonists who fights his/her way out of every situation, they are the ones who win the reader's approval.

mooderino said...

@Charmaine - although judging by the British royal family they got Prince C about the right level of clueless.

@Nas - a little effort goes a long way.

@Rachna - we all probably have a desire to be rich and lazy but it's not something we should be celebrating, I feel.

Elise Fallson said...

Maybe the stepmothers had a point, but I always found it interesting (maybe not the exact word I'm looking for) that the evil characters in these classic stories were often represented by women with power. . .

mooderino said...

@Elise - I wonder if there's a fairy tale about women helping other women... can't think of one.

Lydia Kang said...

I think Cinderella works as a good metaphor (beautiful-hearted heroine gets her chance to let the world know how great she is) but the actual, literal story is annoying. She's just a pretty object that gets buffed.

mooderino said...

@Lydia - it's the longevity and place in the culture the story claims that perplexes me. Where are the new fairy tales?

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