Everything’s coming up Cinderella. Between the animated movie’s 65th anniversary and the release of a live-action version last week, beleaguered stepdaughters-turned-glass-slipper-wearing-princesses are back in a big way. But how does the ever-changing fairy tale hold up to academic inquiry?
It turns out that it doesn’t take a fairy godmother to find Cinderella happily at home in academia. Take Amy deGraff, who found a parallel to the story in a popular film. “Certainly, this would not be the first time that a variant of Cinderella has been written or told,” she writes. “In fact, talking about fairy tales nearly always includes talking about versions, and this in itself tells us something important about their fundamental nature: fairy tales have the capacity to carry the norms and values of different ages, to be reworked and imbued with new meanings, while remaining essentially recognizable. Thus they can serve as cultural paradigms to aid in a culture’s adaptation to new circumstances.”
What movie inspired deGraff’s exploration of fairy tale as cultural keystone? None other than Working Girl (1988).
When Elisabeth Panttaja went looking for class issues in Cinderella, she found a tale that pits feudal values of authenticity against a striving bourgeoisie. Cinderella’s struggle against her vapid stepsisters is one of intra-class conflict, suggests Panttaja. By marrying for love, Cinderella combines “personal fulfillment and moral ascendancy into one unified (and moral) act” in a tale of class mobility that is constantly challenged with each iteration. Take that, evil stepsisters!
Edward L. Glaeser sees the story through a different lens—one of political economy. In “The Cinderella Paradox Resolved,” he points out something odd: though “traditional economics of the family” suggest parents should equally distribute resources to all of their offspring, Cinderella is denied her share due to a jealous stepmother. Glaeser uses statistics to explain this paradox, proving that in a family of three girls pitted against each other in what amounts to a marriage tournament, it makes sense to invest in two instead of all three.
“The centuries old hostility toward the stepmother is based on a misunderstanding of the odd optimization problem she faced,” concludes Glaeser; “the failure of literary analysts to use the simple truths of the tournament literature made an optimizing, altruistic family head appear to be the villain.”
Score one for the evil stepmother—and another for a centuries-old fairy tale’s ongoing ability to intrigue and ignite debate.