The next day, the prandsom hince went all over the coreign fountry looking for the geautiful birl who had slopped her dripper. Finally he came to Rindercella’s house. He tried it on Rendercella’s mugly other … and it fidn’t dit. Then he tried it on her two sigly usters … and it fidn’t dit. Then he tried it on Rindercella … and it fid dit. It was exactly the sight rize!

–as inspired by Ronnie Barker

Spoonerisms, the reversal of beginning letters, often leads to some surprising discoveries. And while Barker pushed the envelope with his version, calling the stepsisters “forrible huckers” for his comedic effect, the principle remains. Reversals illuminate.

Consider the recent Cinderella musical put on by Royal Oak High School. The cast, many of whom are seniors in my classes, might be anxious about what I would say of the fable. Nevertheless, as budding structuralists following the teachings of Ferdinand de Saussure, they would well understand what anthropologists have understood for some time: to understand a culture, one must study its semiotics, its structural linkages between signifiers and signifieds.

We know the story. The orphaned beauty adorns herself with material wealth through magic (and animal servants) in order to capture the attention of a sugar daddy prince. She does not think to open her own shoe repair shop (though she is apparently responsible enough to rule a kingdom as the new queen). She does not stand up to or outwit her profoundly stupid stepsisters (though she thinks little of lauding her power over rodents, transforming them in order to satisfy her whimsy). In this way, she is little different from the “evil” of her stepsisters. She is just prettier.

Consider:

Cinderella
Stepsister

The Rogers and Hammerstein version may be seen as apologizing for these by making a few revisions, but see below. What is here is true of the original versions and the Disney film.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seen as “Good”Seen as “Evil”
PoorPoor
BeautifulUgly
No certain evidence of intelligenceStupid
Single and desiring a wealthy husbandSingle and desiring a wealthy husband
Seeks to capture the husband by looksSeeks to capture the husband by looks
Holds power over animalsHolds power over stepsister Cindy who they see as an “animal.”
Commands animals to sew clothes, pull coach, wait on her, etc.Commands Cinderella to sew clothes, clean fireplaces, wait on them, and stay home
Has fairy godmother to help her with magicHas real mother to help them with force of will
Does not learn Prince’s nameDoes not learn Prince’s name
Allows birds to peck out eyes of stepsistersHarms Cinderella emotionally through insults

What is clear from the tale in its various incarnations are a few patterns:

  • Women attain power through beauty—not intelligence, hard work, or even independence
  • Good can be aligned with Beautiful, but it shares no other unique attributes.
  • Men are valueless for any commodity but their wealth, the goal of female power

Surely, we may complain, this is a story of love! But such fancies are simply not in the text. Instead, what is in the text is a set of patterned behavior that any unbiased anthropologist would challenge. Even in the Rogers and Hammerstein version, Cinderella sings to her stepsisters not of love, but of fancy carriage rides and beautiful dresses. Despite some minor changes, the threesome bond over a common goal for women: Find a man to provide for you.

R&H do, as suggested, make apologies for the original tale. The fairy godmother says to Cindy that since she is single-minded enough to get to the ball on her own, the least she can do is provide her what she needs. This supposedly is to persuade the audience that the little cinder girl isn’t a complete fop. But how reasonable can such a claim be when Cindy can barely marshal enough fortitude to do anything in her life but cry at the roots of her momma’s tree?

It’s also true that the musical composers add a fair amount of dialogue between Cindy and the Prince (who is given an ironically long and ridiculous name to make up for all those fairy tales of namelessness—not correcting the problem, but merely underlining it). Here, too, we are to hope that the two are bonding over their loneliness. But this excuse, too, must fall, for they each fail to learn the name of the other, that such a reason for bonding must inevitably fail when they find each other (they no longer have anything in common), and all that remains between the two is . . . physical beauty.

Ah, but the irony is complete when the King makes clear what the story is about. When women are younger, it is not surprising that men fall beneath fairy bewitchments, and that this seduction is not to be longed for. All that is Beautiful (and thus all that is Good) fades from married life; the King’s comedic jokes belie his unease at his circumstance and he is not eager to see his son fall under the same spell.

This is no midnight curfew but a Witching Hour curse which smites our Prince with a laughably obvious lust. And we may be tempted to see him as the victim of female wiles were it not for our reversal.

For in their efforts to be Good, to be Beautiful, the story tells all women to mutilate themselves. It is Stupid, but this attribute belongs, too, to all of the women of the tale. These are the women who dominate each other, her dominate the men and creatures around them, and who do so through the rituals of dismemberment of toes and heels, of the surgery on breasts and noses, of the torturous ordeals with hair and heels, of the tribes of women who distend their lips and necks, of the cultures who crush their women’s feet and starve their musculatures, of women who seek Beauty in all of its pain and sicknesses.

Yes. “Cinderella” is a tale befitting our culture. And its patterns are deep.

= = = = =

Cinderella

The prince leans to the girl in scarlet heels,
Her green eyes slant, hair flaring in a fan
Of silver as the rondo slows; now reels
Begin on tilted violins to span

The whole revolving tall glass palace hall
Where guests slide gliding into light like wine;
Rose candles flicker on the lilac wall
Reflecting in a million flagons’ shine,

And glided couples all in whirling trance
Follow holiday revel begun long since,
Until near twelve the strange girl all at once
Guilt-stricken halts, pales, clings to the prince

As amid the hectic music and cocktail talk
She hears the caustic ticking of the clock.

Sylvia Plath

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