Changing Cinderella

Our class on Tuesday, January 24 centered on one of the most celebrated fairy tales of all time, Cinderella. This class session featured a film presentation, a two-part lecture, and a brief quiz. During our time together, we covered the origins and morphology of the classic tale now known as Cinderella, revisited items from last week’s lecture, learned about the devices of parody and pastiche, and discussed contrasting incarnations of the Cinderella story and the shifting morals behind the tale as it appears in various special and temporal settings. I walked away from the day’s session with a deeper perspective on the classic story and a better understanding of its enduring resonance across cultures and history.

This meeting opened with a film presentation given by students Courtney Koenig and Lindsey Simpson. The first part of their presentation focused on the historical background behind the story of the famous 1950 Walt Disney animated musical, Cinderella, imaginably the most familiar iteration of the fairy tale to the average American student. They covered the many regions in which Cinderella-type fairy tales can be found. While versions of this story have been told and re-told all over the world, the oldest version of the tale sprung from China, the iconic name has Italian Renaissance origins, and the first incarnation of the widespread modern story originated in France. While setting, characters, names, and large details of the plot all vary in these tales across time and space, certain characteristics define them in common: they feature a “persecuted heroine” (and in some cases where a young boy is the main character, persecuted hero) type of protagonist whose familial oppression and subjugation is ended when the hero/ine achieves an unanticipated “triumphant reward or fortune” and escapes their former destitution. The two main types of Cinderella stories can be divided by the main antagonistic force the story features, which is either a wicked stepmother or an incestuous father. The Disney film that we probably all know was based on Charles Perrault’s Cendrillion, featuring the wicked stepmother model. It followed the popular animation aesthetics of the time and was created for the post-WWII American society, upholding the optimism of the capitalist American Dream. Koenig and Simpson demonstrated the parallels between the Disney telling of the story with the very different Cinderella-type story also by Charles Perrault, Donkeyskin, which falls into the incestuous father category. Then they highlighted the numerous differences between the two stories.

After Koenig and Simpson’s presentation, Soudabeh mentioned the results of our class survey from the first week. She was pleased that many of us demonstrated an actual interest in Children’s Literature outside of a course requirement, and that we had some familiarity with the texts. She wants us to be able to give our unique opinions and discuss the texts in depth by the end of the class. She also encouraged the class to pursue learning new things without fear of supposed difficulty, like she did when she learned Sanskrit recently. Then she redistributed the notes we took as partners from last week on Folklore and Literature.

The lecture began with an introduction to the concept of “fairy tale logic”. Each children’s story has a defining “logic” and sequence of events that distinguish the world of the story, a child’s world, from the adult world. “Fairy tale logic” extends to all aspects of the book; not only does it shape the story itself, it also permeates the illustrations, the diction choices, the narrative style, etc. This is an important aspect of fairy tales and Children’s Literature because it makes the genre accessible to children. When a story has elements of familiarity that the “fairy tale logic” can create, it becomes acceptable and tangible to the child. When it does not, it isolates and disinterests them.

We then learned about the concepts of parody and pastiche. Soudabeh illustrated this with a copy of Goodnight Bush, a parody of Goodnight Moon. Because of the original book’s cultural significance and identifiable unique style, the parody has meaning and weight. The parody can only exist with the original; while it uses satire to send a message of its own, it draws it power from the beloved original book. It is this recognizable reference that enables the parody’s commentary to have relevance with the audience. Linda Hutcheon says that parody is all we have, but Fredric Jameson defines a postmodern parody form called pastiche which creates something new out of alluding to something that has already existed. For example, Pulp Fiction uses pastiche in its frequent references to classic cinema.

Next, the class took a 2-question quiz over the assigned Cinderella readings.

After the quiz, we resumed our lecture. Classmates shared their perceptions of the Cinderella story, character, and different versions. The disparities in time, place, and culture between the various stories we read all produced distinct stories that reflect different values. One must be cautious when imposing from the outside values upon a past time. For example, the Donkeyskin story depicted the heroine escaping the proposal of her father, indicating that to the tale’s intended audience, a father’s desire for his daughter is wicked and to be avoided even at great personal cost and risk. Just because today we never depict such a thing in children’s stories because it is too repugnant to be included at all, does not mean we can fully understand the cultural implications behind its inclusion in Donkeyskin, as times are always changing! The class had an in-depth look at the Yeh-hsien and Donkeyskin tales from the text and their differing story elements. The two versions communicate different morals by their conclusion, which demonstrates the shifting meaning of an old story originally about child abuse. What new iterations of this beloved, dynamic story may pop up as our values and culture evolves? What will future generations perceive about us from our favorite Cinderellas?

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