Folklore, modern media, and historical events within the western world have shown us time and time again that women are meant to be the fairer and weaker of the two sexes; while reiterating the idea that men are strong, valiant, and ultimately the saviors of all women. This notion has been used to fortify the difference between the two genders, asserting the claim that women cannot save themselves or each other, and can only find their “happily ever after” with the help of a man.
Perrault’s “Cinderella: or The Glass Slipper,” is the story of a mistreated, but kindhearted, girl who eventually marries a prince and goes on to live happily ever after. Within Perrault’s “Cinderella,” women are illustrated as powerful, and are the sole characters that drive the plot. While the male characters within the story remain flat and generally unimportant, therefore challenging the gender dichotomy that has depicted women as demure, and men as being critical in the lives of women.
Perrault’s “Cinderella” is essentially a story about women. The women are given identifiers that allow the readers to foresee their actions, while the men in the story are flat and nearly unidentifiable, showing an absence of importance amongst the male characters. “Cinderella” begins by characterizing the women in the story, describing Cinderella’s new stepfamily as the “haughtiest and proudest” (449) and renders Cinderella and her late mother as “gentle, “good,” and the “best in the world” (450). What stands out the most amongst these descriptions is the lack of characterization of Cinderella’s father, who is only described as being “totally under the control of his wife” (450).
It is presumed that without Cinderella’s father being so feeble under the rule of his new wife, he would better protect Cinderella from being mistreated by her new stepfamily. In society, men are often portrayed as the safeguards of women, especially in the case of female relatives, but we are shown the opposite in the case of Cinderella. Her father’s lack of refuge is what allows Cinderella’s lifestyle to be impacted so greatly by the presence of a stepmother.
If he were fulfilling the role that society set for him, he would be controlling the interactions between his daughters, and the behavior of his wife. One of the only other men mentioned in the story is the prince. Although the prince is the ultimate goal by all of the young women in the story, and is who ultimately shifts Cinderella’s unfortunate circumstances, he is not the valiant stock character that most would expect. The prince is the male equivalent to a trophy-wife, nameless and nondescript. Since he has no identifiable traits within the story, other than him being a prince, readers are lead to believe that the many women who attended the ball were only interested in his wealth and becoming a part of a royal family. Many would argue that his status is what makes him powerful, but his status alone does not fulfill the “prince charming” stock character that most expect. He is not described as brave, kind, or even handsome he is simply there as a means for Cinderella to escape her lifestyle. Since neither his personality nor his looks seem to be important within the scheme of the story, ultimately it is safe to assume that he is replaceable with any other man of status. Throughout the entire story, women are the catalysts of action.
The entire plot begins with unmentioned death of Cinderella’s mother, which allows Cinderella’s new stepmother and stepsisters to come into her life. Once Cinderella’s father has remarried, it is her stepmother who decides her fate. An illustration of the stepmother’s matriarchal power is provided within the text saying, “She could not abide by the young girl, whose good qualities made her daughter’s appear all the more detestable. So she ordered her to do all the most demeaning tasks in the house” (450). If Cinderella were not obligated to live the life of a servant, the typical Cinderella narrative would be completely different. Therefore, the stepmother sets the ground for the story to even take place. This shows that the stepmother has the ultimate power within her own family, which is the antithesis of the patriarchal power dynamic which claims that the adult male within the family has the final say-so in all family matters. It also gives evidence to the claim that the stepmother is malicious “evil,” which also greatly differs from your typical motherly character.
She uses her power within her family to reduce Cinderella’s quality of life, rather than taking Cinderella in as her own which is the expectation when marrying into a family. She rejects the role of a kind a caring mother for her own villainous narrative, one that is not often portrayed by women outside of typical Cinderella story. The other major catalysts of action are all women, nearly excluding men from the story. Although it is thought that the prince is who saves Cinderella from a life of adversity, it is really the actions of her godmother that allow her to progress within the story. Cinderella’s godmother is yet another matriarchal character that determines Cinderella’s fate. She questions as to whether or not Cinderella wishes to attend the ball, and then conclusively is the one who allows Cinderella to go. She tells Cinderella, “Well if you are a god girl, I shall enable you to go” (451). Then continues to use supernatural powers to provide Cinderella with a proper outfit and extravagant means of transportation (451).
Primarily, Her connection to the supernatural is what arguably makes her one of the most powerful characters within the story, she is not confined to the rules of average life, and can provide Cinderella with things that no one else within the story are willing or able to provide her with. One could speculate that her powers go far beyond that of just turning pumpkins into carriages, which puts her in a powerful matriarchal position, putting her in a similar category as the stepmother, but contrarily using her powers for Cinderella’s well-being. In typical fairytale stories the stock “prince charming” character comes in and sweeps his damsel in distress off of her feet with her having little to no say in the matter, whilst she blindly enjoys her new courtship. Perrault’s Cinderella is not set up in this way.
Conclusively, Cinderella becomes her own advocate. To the dismay of her stepfamily, she requests that she be able to try on the glass slipper that was left behind at the ball, rather than waiting for the prince to call upon her, making her the final deciding factor within her own fate (453). Cinderella’s marriage is often viewed as the grand finale to Perrault’s Cinderella story, but Cinderella is who, in the end assists her stepsisters in marrying noblemen (453). Which again, shows how another women assists or controls the fate of another. The importance of female characters within the story is a strong message that differs from many fairytales.
Although, Perrault’s “Cinderella” still portrays marriage as the ultimate means to any women’s “happily ever after” it is told from the perspective of women, and shows how important their roles are in the lives of other women and themselves. By not placing the attention on male characters, we are able to see how important women are to the story. It is not simply a story about a girl being saved by a valiant prince, but how women are complex and different characters, and how they all work in conjunction with each other to create a new narrative where they are not lacking in substance or weak under the powers of men.