Cinderella

Fairy Tales and the Adolescent Transformation

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After creating the above image, Metamorphosis, recently, I’ve been thinking about the fairy tale as an allegory for puberty and adolescence. The image itself is about the sense of change as one enters that new stage in life. As a child (on the left) we have a solid idea of who we are in the world, but entering adolescence (the figure on the right), our sense of self can be all but annihilated. For a long time it’s a dance between the two. As we pull away from childhood, we have to rebuild ourselves, trying on all sorts of skins; cobbling together influences and ideas until we remake ourselves as adults. We are bone and feather, leaf and twig; a fragile tangle of scavenged treasures.

Fairy tales perfectly explore this mystifying time: Fingers are pricked and blood is drawn; a drawn-out sleep transforms child into adult (and in some cases mother) before she knows what has happened; a path is travelled and foes battled before the previously young and hapless hero or heroine emerges victorious (and usually married).

Adam and Eve

I’d never really thought about the Adam and Eve story in the context of fairy tales before, and when it came to me in that half sleep state last night, I thought myself a momentary genius. Of course this morning I really wasn’t surprised to find that it has been explored widely as myth and allegory. I still think it would make a great fairy tale: Once upon a time, there was a King who planted a beautiful walled garden. He found two orphans, a boy and a girl, and invited them to live in this lush paradise, under one strict condition… See, it’s perfect. There’s the fantastical garden, a command to be disobeyed, temptation, consequence… And of course, the broken barrier between a childhood innocence and adulthood. Adam and Eve are effectively cosseted children, until the forbidden apple awakens their sexual natures and they head out to find their own way in the world.

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Peter Paul Rubens 004” by Peter Paul Rubens

Snow White

Speaking of dangerous apples! Snow White is the perfect allegory for puberty and the breaking away from the influence of one’s parent. The mother is jealous of her daughter’s youth and beauty, and Snow White must find her way to autonomy. I’m not sure shacking up with seven men is the path I’d recommend, but we all need to find our own way I guess…
Snow White suffers several deaths and rebirths, growing a little wiser each time one would hope, finally emerging as a free adult. Well, sort of. She still marries Prince Charming. And speaking of Prince Charming…

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Franz Jüttner Schneewittchen 7” by Franz Jüttner

Cinderella

As above: escape from the overbearing (step)mother, guided path to self discovery and freedom from parental rule, handsome prince, blah blah blah. (Cinderella is not one of my favourite stories).

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Gustave dore cendrillon4“.

The Sleeping Beauty

Bruno Bettelheim says it best in The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales: “The central theme of all versions of ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ is that, despite all attempts on the part of parents to prevent their child’s sexual awakening, it will take place nonetheless.” (P. 230, 1976 edition)

Yep. Sigh. Sleeping Beauty is cursed to prick her finger (blood=menstruation) and fall into the a deep slumber, and despite all her parents best efforts to keep her from this fate, it is inevitable. Bettelheim also talks about the long sleep in relationship to the fog and flurry of adolescence: “During the months before the first menstruation, and often also for some time immediately following it, girls are passive, seem sleepy, and withdraw into themselves… ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ emphasizes the long, quiet concentration on oneself that is needed.” (P. 225)

Sleeping Beauty enters her adolescent sleep as a child, and emerges as a marriageable women. In Giambattista Basile’s version, Sun, Moon and Talia, poor Beauty, or Talia, wakes up a mother of twins(!) after the prince charmingly impregnates her:

“…she seemed so incredibly lovely to him that he could not help desiring her, and he began to grow hot with lust. He gathered her in his arms and carried her to a bed, where he made love to her. Leaving her on the bed, he left the palace and returned to his own city, where pressing business for a long time made him think no more about the incident.”

Well. There’s a lot I have to say about the infuriating passivity of women in fairy tales (and the accepted male entitlement), and Sleeping Beauty, I think, is a fine bloody example. But that’s for another blog post.

Sleeping Beauty painting by Edward Burne-Jones
Sleeping beauty by Edward Burne-Jones

Little Red Riding Hood

In this tale Little Red literally follows a path through her adolescence. She begins in her mother’s home, and leaves to travel through the wild forest, where she encounters the threat of the wolf (ahem, slick-haired, leather jacket wearing, no-gooder) who attempts to lead her from the accepted path. Depending on which version you read, she is eaten by the wolf after getting into her Grandmother’s bed with him (well, really) or escapes the gastronomic fate of her grandmother. Either way, she is rescued by the hunter (swarthy, check-shirt wearing hipster good guy), and I guess learns a lesson and emerges wiser from her wayward teenage ways.

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Arthur Rackham Little Red Riding Hood+” by Arthur Rackham

I could recount similar examples all day, and get into more complicated stories and readings of them, but looking at these well known tales has edged me towards a little more respect for them. It still bugs me that our most famous fairy tales are those with passive girls who become passive women married to handsome princes (it really does make me grumpy), but at least there’s something more to find in them than ‘be kind and good and wait your turn, and you’ll find eternal happiness and fulfilment in marriage to someone rich and handsome’. Reading them as an metaphor for change rather than instructions for living gives me much less of a stomach ache.


Fairy tales are rich in allegory, for that is really what they are, and there are millions of words written on their deeper meanings. Here are a few you might enjoy. What are your favourite books about fairy tales?

The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, Bruno Bettelheim.

From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, Marina Warner

Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale: Marina Warner 

Off with their heads!: fairy tales and the culture of childhood, Maria Tatar

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Reclaim the Night: Castlemaine

On Saturday night, more that 300 women took the streets of our town to Reclaim the Night.

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We were sick of feeling unsafe walking the streets at night. We were tired of having to think up good ‘come backs’ for men who felt that they were entitled to our attention. We were angry that our daughters will one day feel the same fear and exhaustion and anger.
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 And on Saturday night, we were exuberant, joyful, and strong as we walked as one.
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Men were asked not to walk with us: it was a walk we needed to make alone, but we were thankful for their support, their applause, and the soup they had waiting for us when we reached Castlemaine’s Victory Park.
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I wasn’t a part of the organisation of the event: that job was carried out tirelessly by a incredible group of woman, but I was there with my eldest daughter and her friend (and my camera). Mari is nearly 12, and I told her as much as I could about why we were there. How we want to feel safe from violence, both domestic and on the street. That there are people who sometimes make us feel unsafe, or act out in violence against us, and that is not ok. It is never ok.
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It got me thinking how much I didn’t want to tell my daughters. I don’t want them to know the full extant to which women are hurt and abused. I don’t wan’t them to know about the details of rape, or of violent abuse, or even that some find sport in just making us feel uncomfortable. That some people will treat us with less respect, just because we’re the ‘wrong’ sex. That it’s endemic in our culture, and it’s bloody hard to fight something that is so ingrained that in so many cases it has become invisible. They will know soon enough, and I wish with everything I’ve got that their knowledge won’t be first hand.
Even the tiniest bit.
And it got me thinking about the stories we tell them, the stories we have always told our children, about keeping themselves safe. How for thousands of years we have taught them not to venture into the deep dark woods alone, because who knows what might be lurking.
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We tell them about Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, Hansel and Gretel and the witch in the woods, Vasilisa and the Baba Yaga, so they know be wary of walking alone. We tell them about Cinderella, Snow White, The Girl Without Hands, All Kinds of Fur, so they know that know that abuse can happen in the home too. These are stories they can absorb as entertainment; a lesson given with going into the realities of abuse and violence. A warning wrapped up in a fairy tale.
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On that walk, I felt a solidarity with the women around me, and also for the mothers stretching back through time: who for thousands of years have felt the same urge to keep their children safe from harm, who felt just as reluctant to expose their children to the true harshness of the world they were living in, and who used stories to wrap up the terrors of the world.
I wish we didn’t need those stories. I wish we didn’t have to keep fighting for a world in which we are all equal and safe from harm. Ah yes, if wishes were horses…, and so we march, write, protest, and stand up for ourselves and others whenever we can.
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Our girls are our future women, and they deserve a future in which they feel safe and powerful in their own skin.
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How to Destroy a Fairy Tale

images-2You’ve all heard the cry that Disney is destroying ‘true’ fairy tales, one by one. Probably also that contemporary re-writers of fairy tales are twisting them into corrupt and damaged things, particularly those YA authors, with all that sex and death and hormones. It’s a cry that has rung out before; when sentimentality reigned in Victorian times; when tales were first fixed in writing instead of living in the oral tradition. It’s not a rare thing to decry the contemporary moment as the worst and most corrupting time for some beloved part of our culture. It happens with music/art/fashion. Photography meant the death of painting. (It didn’t). The mini skirt was the end of style. (It wasn’t). Rock and roll would corrupt us all. (We seem to be doing ok).

Fairy tales seem to hold a certain sanctity for us – probably because they link firmly back to our childhood. In our minds they are a sacred text. We hold close the Golden Books, anthologies and worn editions of Grimm and Anderson that gave us our safe and predictable Once upon a times and Happily ever afters. It is that sensation, I’m sure, that causes many to lament the contemporary ruination of those ‘original’ fairy tales.

What we often forget though is that there is absolutely no such thing as an original fairy tale. As I’ve written about previously, Cinderella can be traced back to old China. Sleeping Beauty has so many incarnations and variations, and exists in some form or another in so many cultures, that it’s impossible to trace it back to one source. And it’s the same for most of the tales we know and love. There is no original version. Stories pass through cultures and times like roughly spun wool through cloth; changing colour and ply as they go. Sometimes hidden, sometime caught up in a knot, but running unbroken throughout generations.

525e1-knittingThis is what frustrates me about the claim that we’re spoiling them now. We might not agree with how the Disney corporation treats its princesses (I certainly don’t!), but they have as much of a place in the evolution of fairy tales as did the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. In fact I have as much of a bone to pick with Anderson over his portrayal of women as Disney – if not more so.

I recently read someone expressing their anger over writers like Neil Gaiman claiming to ‘fix’ fairy tales by altering gender roles and storylines. And I agree wholeheartedly with her argument that that we can’t let new stories suppress the old ones, but we’ve been ‘fixing’ fairy tales ever since we’ve been telling them. Every generation alters its fairy tales to fit within their own cultural context – stories would soon lose their power and agency if we didn’t. Yes, we need the comfort and lessons of tradition, but we also need to relate. And if that means reading female protagonists who more closely fit our feminist ideals, well then hoorah! About time too. And if YA and Adult Fiction writers are putting sex and death back into fairy tales (there was plenty of it before anthologists like the Brothers Grimm realised that parents were reading their stories to their children), then great! There’s room for all of it.

I argue that the only way to destroy a fairy tale is to freeze it in time; to leave it locked in a glass case, untouched and ‘sacred’. Fairy Tales have always evolved, they are right now, and they will continue to far into the future. And may they live happily ever after.

PS: This blog post has suddenly had an extra 250+ views via Facebook overnight, but I don’t know who or where from. If it was you, thank you! If you are one of those many lovely people who clicked over, I’d love to know who led you here. If you could leave a comment and let me know, I’d be ever thankful.  Lorena.

Those Tiny Slippers

Did you know that the earliest known version of the Cinderella story was recorded in AD 850-60, in China? The story was already well known in the oral tradition, as Marina Warner points out in her book From the Beast to the Blonde [1], and may have been around much, much earlier.

The story centres around Yeh-hsien, a girl who finds herself in servitude to her scheming and envious aunt/stepmother. She is helped by the bones of a fish that was possessed by the spirit of her dead mother, visits a gathering in fine robes, and slips away, leaving behind a single tiny golden slipper. (Sounding familiar?) The king wants to find whoever owns the slipper, the smallest he has ever seen, and… well you know the story. It’s Cinderella, no doubt about it, but a good millennium earlier than the versions we know as the ‘real’ Cinderella. What struck me, and you may have had the same thought too, was how the obsession with the tiny slipper suddenly gains significance when you factor in the cultural context of foot binding.

Foot binding has a long tradition in China, and had horrendous consequences for the girls it was inflicted on. Bones are broken, toes bent under… (Look it up if you dare, but a google image search isn’t for the faint of heart.) The ideal length for a ‘lotus foot’, named for the shape of the bound foot, was 8 centimetres. That’s 3 inches. Women who had their feet bound to dainty points could barely walk, and consequently their freedom was severely restricted. The smaller the foot, the more desirable it was, in part because any wife so crippled by her delicate lotus feet wouldn’t be wandering far.

So, while the tiny glass slipper in contemporary Cinderella stories signifies her delicate beauty in a relatively innocent way, tying it back into its earlier cultural context suddenly brings a much darker significance to the tale. Cinderella wouldn’t have been dancing until midnight on those tiny feet.

1. Page 202, From The Beast to the Blonde, Marina Warner, 1994