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Fairytale Friday: The Rise and Fall of the Cinder Maid

November 23rd, 2012

Rook di goo, rook di goo!
There’s blood in the shoe.
The shoe is too tight,
This bride is not right!
(The doves)

In the 8th 
century a Chinese scribe; Ch’eng Shis, wrote down an old folk tale about a young girl: Yeh-Shien. Yeh-Shien ‘s mother and father died and she was raised by her mother’s co-wife. This co-wife had daughters of her own and mistreated Yeh-Shien, who’s only comfort was a magical goldfish in the pond. This goldfish held the spirit of Yeh-Shien’s dead mother. When the co-wife found out she killed the fish, but Yeh-Shien  kept the bones, which still had her mother’s magic in them. The fish/mother saw to Yeh-Shien’s every need, and on festival day, it brought her a beautiful cloak and a pair of golden shoes. At the festival Yeh-Shien met a great warlord – and lost one of her golden shoes. The warlord, besotted by her beauty, sought after the girl who fit the shoe. Eventually he found Yeh-Shieh, who became his wife. The co-wife and her daughters were stoned to death. On their grave it was built a shrine, and the place became known as: “The Tomb of the Distressed Women”.

Yeh-Shien is the first known of hundreds of  Cinderellas all over the globe. The stories have local variations but are basically the same: Young girl born into a respectable family of means is humiliated and forced to work as a servant by her step-mother. There’s some magic and a celebration and she catches the prince/warlord/king’s attention. She is forced to flee; leaving behind a shoe… we all know the rest of the story.

Cinderella first appeared in writing in Europe in 1634, when the story was penned down by Giambattista Basile in Naples. The story was then called “Cat Cinderella”. In this first European version Cinderella is aided, not by a fish, but “the faeries of Sardinia”, and a magical date-tree, which holds the soul of her dead mother.  Perrault followed up in 1697, and wrote the French version of the tale – it is he who is to blame for the mice, fairy godmother and pumpkin patch. The glass shoe however, had been in circulation for a while.
Finally the Brothers Grimm wrote down their Aschenputtel in 1812. In their version the dead mother is still a tree – hazel this time – and the step-sisters are throughoutly punished for their wicked ways when the doves peck out their eyes on Cinderella’s wedding day. Today, it is Disney’s Cinderella movie from 1949 most of us know (and love). The Disney version is based on Perrault’s Cinderella, and has lost quite a bit of Yeh-Shien on the way: The magic of the dead for one. The dead mother’s aid is crucial in most of the other Cinderella stories: she comes back as animal, a fish or a tree; in Grimm’s version a hazel planted on the mother’s grave and watered with Cinderella’s tears. From the branches or fruits of the tree Cinderella reaps riches and gowns. In Grimm’s version Cinderella specifically asks for the first thing that falls down on her father’s nose when he is going to town. This thing, of course, is the sapling that becomes her special tree. It is as if she knows that this “thing” will have magic to it. She also knows how to ask the tree for favors:

“Shiver and quiver little tree,
Silver and gold throw down over me” 

To me, that smells like spell. She has that special thing with animals too; especially birds: she outwits her step-mother by letting her bird friends pick the lentils from the ashes, or separate lentils from peas. Dead mother’s spirit, spells and animal familiars… maybe our Cinderella has a little explored witchy side to her?

Spells and spirits aside, Cinderella is all about shoes! And feet. And if the shoe fit the foot. Taken that the story’s origins are in China, the foot fetish is not so strange: for centuries they subjected their well-bred girls to foot-binding – crippling and painful. The point was to make the foot as small as possible. It should also resemble a lily:

Cinderella’s first shoe could have looked something like this:

Not exactly running shoes – a perfect way to know where you have your wives and daughters at all times. Not that the glass slipper is much better: it can’t be useful for much else but to sit on a throne.

And then there’s the fitting: in some versions of Cinderella the shoe is magical and knows who it belongs to, in other versions no such explanation is given: Cinderella is simply the only girl in all the land who has feet small enough to be queen.  In Grimm’s version the step-sisters go as far as to cut off a toe and a piece of the heel (respectively) to make their (probably ugly) feet fit in the glass slipper. Unfortunately (for them) they are outed by Cinderella’s doves on their way to the chapel and returned to their father’s house. “The bloody feet” is just one of the many reasons why Grimm’s tale is preferable to Disney/Perrault’s.

The shoe is traditionally seen as a symbol of the vagina,
which makes the picture above interesting in a whole new way.
(Disney’s Cinderella, 1949) 

Disney’s (and Perrault’s) version of the story, and our intrerpretation of it, is problematic. The term “Cinderella story” doesn’t really mean what we think it means. While we often use it to describe someone’s ascent from poor to rich, Cinderella was already rich. The story does nothing but restore her to her rightful place within the social structure (and the shoes that belong to her by birth). If anything, a “Cinderella story” could be a story about doing nothing! While Cinderella pre-Perrault was crafty and cunning and did what it took to better her situation, our time’s Cinderella doesn’t do anything but to show up and be pretty. That’s a problem. First of all it’s a problem because the story is no longer a fairy tale. A fairy tale puts the protagonist to the test: he or she must use whatever resources he or she have or can get to succeed on his/her quest and be rewarded. Disney’s Cinderella takes her abuse without blinking; she’s even excited for her step-sisters and helps them get ready for the ball. In an essay published in Children’s Literature in Education (1977), Jane Yolen writes about the picture book (Golden Press) following the film release in 1949: (Disney’s Cinderella) “set the new pattern for America’s Cinderella. The book’s text is coy and condescending. (Sample: ‘And her best friends of all were — guess who — the mice!’) The illustrations are poor cartoons. And Cinderella herself is a disaster. She cowers as her sisters rip her homemade ballgown to shreds. (Not even homemade by Cinderella, but by the mice and birds.) She answers her stepmother with whines and pleadings. She is a sorry excuse for a heroine, pitiable and useless. She cannot perform even a simple action to save herself, though she is warned by her friends, the mice. She does not hear them because she is ‘off in a world of dreams.’ Cinderella begs, she whimpers, and at last has to be rescued by — guess who — the mice!”  The Cinderella of our time is a poster girl for self-help gurus: sit put and dream enough, and all the world’s riches (with an added bonus of  True Love) will suddenly land on your doorstep.

Heroic mice
(Disney’s Cinderella, 1949) 

Cinderella, like many of the other fairytale heroines, seems to have lost her bite over the years.  One thing is to be kind, quite another thing to be daft. Obedience and passivity (Cinderella) is rewarded, while the active and ambitious step-sisters are punished. Cinderella wins because she is who she is (by birth), not because of what she does to better her situation.

And yet: the shoe still fits.

Modern day fetsih shoes, designed by Christian Louboutin 



Picture of Cinderella in the Pumpkin Patch: Edmund Dulac
The Chinese feet: Chinese Footbinding: The history of a Curious Erotic Custom by Howard S. Levy

Cinderella by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
Cinderella: Ashes, Blood and the Slipper of Glass by Terri Windling
This is Not Your Mother’s Cinderella: The Romance Novel as Feminist Fairy Tale by Jenny Crusie


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