Our culture loves and hates Cinderella, but mostly we misunderstand her. Either romanticizing or disdaining Cinderella causes us to miss the psychological truth of the story and the chance to reach for its wisdom.
Cinderella is one of the oldest and most universal fairy tales. The Chinese version, Yeh-Shen, was recorded almost 1,200 years ago. There are more than 500 versions of the Cinderella story around the world: African, Native American, Middle Eastern, Jewish, and Asian variants. Surely the story communicates something of great importance.
In today’s popular culture, Cinderella’s stereotyped image of femininity has never been more profitable. Cinderella and other princess dress-up clothes are in huge demand, and Disney Princess (of which Cinderella is a featured member) was the top-selling licensed entertainment character merchandise in 2011, beating out Star Wars and Sesame Street. Princess-themed movies such as 2013’s Frozen are huge financial successes.
On the other hand, feminists have taken issue with Cinderella, resulting in modernist reformations. In The Cinderella Complex: Women’s Hidden Fear of Independence, Collette Dowling used Cinderella as a symbol for women who depend on men because they lack the moxie to change their own lives. Peggy Ornstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter is written from the perspective of a mother of a princess-crazed preschooler. She argues that marketing “girly” values has pernicious effects on the self-esteem of girls. The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch is a children’s picture book that turns the traditional tale on its head: the heroine, wearing only a paper bag, saves the prince from a dragon. When the prince subsequently scorns her shabby attire, this Cinderella tells him to hit the road.
Cinderellas come into therapy with stories that don’t always end “happily ever after.” Accomplished professional women are inconsolable when they discover that their prince failed to embody their purpose in life. Invitations to explore what the love affair asked them to engage in themselves are met with resistance. On the other hand, some women seek therapy because they are lonely—while simultaneously devaluing their longing for an intimate relationship: “Do I really need a man to make me happy?”
These Cinderellas either over-burdened or under-valued any potential prince. What are we to make of these various misunderstandings of the psychological message of Cinderella? Are we passively to hope that “someday my prince will come?” Or should we assert ourselves and tell the prince to get lost? Both these ways of understanding the tale concretize the prince as an external other instead of understanding the tale symbolically.
A Native American version of the tale, The Invisible One and the Rough-Skinned Girl, points the way to the internal space that all Cinderella stories encourage us to discover.
At the far end of village by a lake lived a mighty hunter who was invisible. His sister lived with him, but he would not marry until he found a woman who could see him. Many approached his wigwam and his sister would ask, “Can you see my brother?” Many tried but none succeeded, so the invisible hunter remained unmarried.
In this village lived a widower with three daughters. The two eldest were very cruel to their younger sister. They hacked off her hair with a knife and burned her skin with hot coals, leaving scars that made her known as the Rough-Skinned Girl. One day the two elder sisters decided to try their luck with the Invisible One in hopes of winning him.
“What is his shoulder strap made of?” asked the mighty hunter’s sister.
“A piece of rawhide,” fibbed the first sister.
“Braided grass,” the second sister lied.
The Invisible One and his sister were not deceived, and sent the sisters back to the village. The Rough-Skinned Girl decided that she too wanted to try her luck with the Invisible One. She had no finery to wear, so she made a dress out of birch bark, and the villagers and her sisters laughed. But the Invisible One’s sister welcomed her.
“My brother comes. Do you see him?” she asked. The Rough-Skinned Girl’s eyes lit up with wonder.
“Yes! I see him! But how can there be such a one?” She went on to describe him: “His shoulder strap is a rainbow! His bowstring is the Milky Way!”
The sister smiled. She gently bathed the Rough-Skinned Girl’s wounds, and dressed her in soft deerskin. The Invisible One took the Rough-Skinned Girl’s hand and they were married. Her disfiguring scars were healed, and she became known as the Lovely One.
This story helps us see that the prince is not a person who rescues women from meaninglessness or restricts them to limited roles. The prince is an image of an inner reality and its potential for connection with something greater. This kind of union—an inner marriage—is what moves us into an experience of wholeness that is transformative. When we understand the story of Cinderella in this way we see her and her prince without sexist or feminist distortions and can welcome union with the truest of princes as a profound experience that is well worth the quest.