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Cinderella’s Social Transformation: What Fairytale Retellings Teach us About the World

This is a paper I wrote in college (freshman year) that started my love for fairytale retellings. It's not brilliant, but it's a fun piece studying books and movies. Fairytales aren't so much about the past but the presnt in each time its retold.

This is a paper I wrote in college (freshman year) that started my love for fairytale retellings. It's not brilliant, but it's a fun piece studying books and movies. Fairytales aren't so much about the past but the present in each time its retold.

" 'Fairytales' are about pleasing a new culture to help the tale survive through the generations."


Once upon a time, fairytales were told in every household. These tales have stayed with us and evolved with our western culture. They started as tales told to children and to remind adults of their childhood. Now they’ve become multi-million industries such as “Barbie Princesses” and “Disney Princesses”. Many little girls spend their days dreaming of being a fairytale princess.

But why? How have they evolved from the original darker traditional fairytales of the Brothers Grimm to the modern retellings that rake in millions? The tales of generations before and the tales of today are very different. I argue that these changes haven’t come because they are trying to have a good or bad influence on their audiences, but the changes are about pleasing a new culture to help the tale survive through the generations.


These changes in the fairytales happen over generations. For this argument, I am focusing on the retelling of the classic tale of Cinderella. I will mostly be using the translation of the Grimm Brothers’ “Ashputtle”, Walt Disney’s animated “Cinderella” released in 1950, and Disney’s live-action “Cinderella” from 2015. I choose these examples because Cinderella is one of the most recognized fairytales today, and Disney’s rendition of them the most recognized retelling of the current culture. If these fairytales have positive or negative consequences on society is not something this paper discusses. This paper focuses on how fairytales change to adapt to a new generation, and therefore can be seen as positive or negative by different cultures.

A modern retelling is different than the traditional fairytales written back in the seventh-century. Examples of traditional fairytales are those recorded by The Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson. The modern retellings are more of the retranslations given in the nineteenth-century and films made on those tales from the early nineteen-hundreds to today. A part of the fairytale is being a morality tale, or a story that is meant to teach a message about how one should behave.

Ashputtle Upholds Social Statuses

Fairytales are mirrors to the society that made it. Much of what we know about medieval European culture is largely based on fairytales. These tales, by their very nature, must reflect the moral standards of their times. They were morality tales from the beginning. Each time the tale is retold, it is changed or rephrased differently to reflect the values of the current time period.

Fairytales could not exist if they did not change to mirror the culture it came from. If they didn’t, they would cease to be fairytales. Justyna Deszcz, a scholar of fairytale history, explains it this way, “the existence of the genre is contingent on the culture industry: the fairytale becomes another mass-mediated commodity” (113). Fairytales cannot function as fairytales unless they appeal to the young audience. Fairytales rely on the ‘happily ever after’ idea. Fairytales, by their very nature, give people hope of a better life in society. But what a culture sees as ‘happily ever after’ changes. Because fairytales need to reflect the values of the time it’s being told in, it changes with each retelling and becomes another product of its time.

The best example is one of the oldest version of the fairytale we have today: the tale of Ashputtle. In this version of the tale, the hero is not named Cinderella, but she is called Ashputtle for the ashes on her face. (Which is the same way Cinderella got her name in more modern retelling.) The basic elements of the fairytale that are familiar to us today are still presents, but there are several important key differences.

First of all, the ball lasts three nights in a row. Each night she runs from the prince and hides herself. The prince follows her to her house, but Ashputtle hides in different objects where she is able to change out of her fancy clothes and slip away from the prince.

This is significant because Cinderella, in all her retellings, is supposed to be the example of a strong woman. How does running away show Ashputtle she’s a strong woman? It is about controlling her passions. Ashputtle didn’t run away from the prince because she disliked him. She ran away because she was not of the same standing as the prince. Ashputtle is shown to be a strong woman because she bridled her passions. Instead, she denied what she wanted for three days to stand up for the proper order. Because of this, she was blessed with what she desired and married the prince in the end.

A second example is the classic slipper that the prince uses to find the right bride. In the tale of Ashputtle, the slipper is made of gold not glass. Why is this important? James M. Taggart, a scholar in medieval times, thinks of fairytales less as cautionary tales and more like historical artifacts, He states, “European fairytale are often cultural artifacts that incorporate symbols from the world of nature” (88). These artifacts tell us how this culture sees the world. The symbols used in original fairytales are different than modern retellings. Gold doesn’t symbolize the same purity to a modern mind as it did to the people of those days. The slipper change to connect with a new generation the power of Cinderella’s purity.

But why did it change? The answer is simple, society changed.

The symbols aren’t the only things that changed; the types of characters used also morphed. For example, many villains of the traditional fairytales were not the wicked-step-mothers society recognizes today. The first villains were more often fathers trying to exploit either their own children or stepchildren. Alice Neikrik, a literary scholar, explains:

“This dynamic of a father attempting to exploit a vulnerable child was largely replaced by the stepmother character that resents the beauty (perhaps also the perceived latent sexuality) of her stepchild and thus exploits her in one way or another” (38).

But why did it change? Isn’t a domineering father just as terrifying as an evil stepmother? The answer is simple, society changed. These stepmother villains gave a different feel to the kind of villains these fairytales formally portrayed. These step-mothers were more manipulative and wicked from the shadows. They were not women who fit into the social order and were often jealous of the hero’s or heroin’s proper moral standing. Society's opinion on what is a proper moral standing, however, is constantly changing.

Cinderella’s Magical Transformation

Fairytales changing with the culture is essential. In 1950, Walt Disney made an animated feature film of the tale of Cinderella. Then in 2015 Disney made a live action retelling of the story. The rhetoric of each film is vastly different, despite being made by the same company only sixty-five years apart. What does this tell us about those cultures?

The Cinderella from Disney’s animated feature fell in love with the prince after going to the ball and was happy to accept his proposal. What does this tell us about the culture of the Ashputtle tale versus the Disney Animated? The 1950’s Cinderella was confidant and felt able to use marriage to rise above her status and be more. In the days of the Brothers Grimm, marrying outside of your class was ‘not done’. Though Ashputtle won in the end, she only got the prince because of her humility and desire to follow those social norms. The 1950’s Cinderella also wins and by following the social norms of her time, but the norms were different. The 1950’s norm was a woman could become what she wanted by finding the right man and doing her duty faithfully.

Doing your duty faithfully is a theme throughout most Cinderella retellings, but what that duty is has changed as the cultures have changed. Disney’s animated Cinderella was released just after World War II. The war took many men away from their homes and as a result more women were able to get more independent work. This change the culture of what a ‘strong’ woman should be. The 1950’s Cinderella expressed these traits. Ilene Woods, the actress who voiced this Cinderella, explains how she felt this Cinderella was a strong woman:

“She always knew, I think deep down inside and this was the way I always played her, there was always a chance. There was always something wonderful going to happen and that's what kept her spirit up. And that's what young women loved about her so much because in the face of all that tragedy she was a happy, spirited girl” (n.p).

To the culture of the 1950’s, a strong woman was hard working but hopeful in the midst of hard times, like the hard times of World War II. Though times were tough, she never gave up hope or stopped working. She held out hope and kept dreaming that “the dreams that you wish would come true.” Just as the women only a few years before had to keep hoping and dreaming that soon the war would be over and their ‘princes’ would come home and their dreams would come true,  unlike the traditional character of Ashputtle who left it to the prince to decide her fate.

Walt Disney, the founder of Disney and director of the 1950’s Cinderella, tried to make sure Cinderella wasn’t a weak character. He responded to some critics ,who believed Cinderella was not a good strong character this way. "She believed in dreams, all right, but she also believed in doing something about them. When Prince Charming didn't come along, she went over to the palace and got him” (n.p).

This was the 1950’s culture saw as strong woman to be. One who didn’t let the man make all the decides but made them for herself.

Walt Disney wanted to express Cinderella’s strong character. Women shouldn’t be weak and do nothing. Instead, they were to be proactive in making good things come. When a man didn’t live up to the social expectations, it was the woman’s role ‘go and get him’. This was the 1950’s culture saw as strong woman to be. One who didn’t let the man make all the decides but made them for herself.

Have Courage and Be Kind

The Cinderella of Disney’s 2015 Cinderella is different even more from Ashputtle and her 1950 predecessor. The traditional Ashputtle did her duty to find happiness, the 1950’s Cinderella did the same, but the 2015 Cinderella showed strength by not working to find happiness but finding happiness in the work.

All of these Cinderella’s were meant to show a strong woman of her time. Kenneth Branagh, director of the 2015 Cinderella, wanted to be sure Cinderella did not come off as a weak woman. On the contrary, they wanted to be sure she was a strong woman. However, this type of strong woman is different than that of the 1950s. A strong woman in the 1950s was seen as a weak woman in the 2015 society. So for Cinderella to be a strong woman, she had to adapt to the 2015 social norms. Branagh explained how he wanted to show Cinderella’s strength to a new generation:

“Making her at peace with who she was happy with who she was as contrary as it might seem who wasn’t just going to wait for a man or chasing riches or something that chases something that isn’t there. To be an example of someone who lives their lives to the happiest extent it can be” (n.a).

Though times were relatively prosperous in 2015, people in general were not as happy. Unlike the unhappiness caused by World War II, this sadness saw no magic fix to wait for to make happiness come. Therefore, women of this time were strong by being happy despite that hard time, and Branagh wanted to be sure the fairytale kept its fairytale quality by showing a strong heroine to express the powerful women of 2015. Cinderella was going to be happy no matter what life threw at her. “This Cinderella is not a pushover. She sticks up for herself but with compassion and intelligence” (Kenneth Branagh n.p.). This Cinderella never fought back with violence or harsh words, as the culture of her time often said a strong person should. Instead, she fought back with love and kindness. When her stepsisters shouted at her, she returned with a kind word as best she could.

This Cinderella never fought back with violence or harsh words, as the culture of her time often said a strong person should. Instead, she fought back with love and kindness.

Understanding the Tales is All About Culture

Cinderella has always been a powerful character, but a reader can read her story and make her whatever they want her to be. How so? We’ve seen how each Cinderella met with the expectations of her time to be a strong woman. How could anyone read her story and see otherwise? If a man from the eighteen-hundreds watch the 1950’s Cinderella or the 2015 Cinderella, he wouldn’t find these Cinderella’s powerful characters. He would likely believe she was a slave to her passions. Yet, to the cultures these Cinderella’s were presented to, she was a powerful role model. Remember, fairytales are all about teaching social values and norms. Therefore, when a reader or viewer of the fairytale observes the tail, they will see it with their society’s eyes. The message they expect to see will be the one they see. If they expect the tale to demean women, they’ll see it as such. If they expect it to support a woman’s independence, it will.

In Deszcz’s paper, “Salman Rushdie’s Attempt at a Feminist Reconfiguration in Shame”, she noticed something interesting. Two of her fellow scholars had read the same fairytale and got two very different ideas. “Whereas Lire stressed that the genre featured powerful women figures who influenced feminist practice, Lieberman argues that it was actually only the most popular and canonical stories that shaped children’s psyche” (28). As Deszcz observes, even these two people, scholars from the same social background, disagree over what the same fairytale is trying to teach. Though they come from the same social background, they have different cultures and views of the world. Therefore, they see the same tale very differently. In the same way, different societies will see the same fairytale very differently.

When the reader is looking for something wrong with the story, they will find it. Pauline Greenhill, a feminist scholar, noted this about feminist’s reading of fairytales. “Feminists deliberately read outside and beyond what Andersen may have expected his contemporaries to take from his story.” She claims these people are looking for reasons these fairytales teach anti-feminists messages. She believes if you are looking for those messages in the tales, you are sure to find them.

On the other hand, if the reader is looking for positive messages in the fairytales, they will find them. Greenhill interviewed Danishka Esterhazy, the director of “Snow Queen: The Ice Throne”. In the interview, Esterhazy explains how for her, the Ice Queen inspired her to be independent. “I’m often really inspired by things that I think I misinterpreted as a kid” (35). Even as a person grows up, their social values and ideas change. The fairytale can say the same words and tell the same story, but the message the audience gets from it depends on their social background.

Opposing Viewpoint

Social background is key to how anyone understands a fairytale. Many believe that fairytales are only mortality tales meant to force children to believe the same values as their parents or the writers of the tale. Many of these voices are arguing that fairytales are meant to indoctrinate young girls into submitting to the will of her male counter parts. Alice Neikirk says fairytales teach, “Attractiveness is the most important attribute that a woman can possess, and is often an indicator of chances of future happiness.” (n.p.)  However, though the traditional fairytales may have carried these messages, that was what a strong woman was in their time. Even if that were not the case, in the time this tale was told, these tales were not even used as children’s tales. Neikrik herself explains fairytales “Originally targeted students of folklore rather than children.” Therefore, even though these themes are seen, they aren’t meant to teach young girls those habits.

However, though the traditional fairytales may have carried these messages, that was what a strong woman was in their time. Even if that were not the case,


Fairytales have many effects on us today. Using Cinderella, we have seen how these fairytales mirror or society instead of changing them. Now we understand the full story. Once upon a time, there were fairytales. They started out as tales for students of folklore, but then morphed into tales beloved by their cultures. As the cultures changed the fairytales changed to match these social norms. To give the culture a hope of happily ever after, Cinderella changed again and again to inspire the new generation. Fairytales have always been tales of empowerment. They have had to change over the years to continue to share this message of hope, but no matter what these tales will do whatever it takes to give that message of hope. With all this in mind, what kind of fairytales are we making and what hope will they give us?


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