The Blood of Cinderella
By TEOH SING FEI
Once upon a time, when ‘Cinderella’ joined the Royal household, the impetus to marriage was not romance, sex, or care. It was the purity of Royal blood, a continuation of a certain species, the succession of the kingdom. Thus, monarchical power protected itself from the dirt of foreign breeds through a classist discourse of kinship, virtue, and aesthetics.
Students have been interested in identifying and critiquing a power in the Brothers Grimm’s ‘Cinderella’, 1812, but they have a theoretical conflict in terms of the nature of this power. Beside basic didactic reading of the tale, dominant is ‘gender’ in this debate. As Panttaja (1993: 86) summarises, many “feminist and neo-Marxist critics have tended to view the tales as either patriarchal or bourgeois propaganda, as a socializing tool designed to create good little (modern) boys and girls.” To me, feminist interpretations – which remain salient many years after Panttaja (1993), as we will see later – have, however, ignored a concrete devil wider than gender. I am speaking about a discursive mechanism of power that operates an unequal culture, where les gens of a certain class are born into political domination over the rest. Our critique, therefore, must be to discover the working of this power, and attack it through a manner that is objective, descriptive, and comprehensive.
Didactic reading of ‘Cinderella’ accentuates the difference between ‘moral’ and ‘evil’. One directly perceives the exact, intended meaning from the Brothers Grimm. Before Cinderella’s real mother dies, she reminds the daughter to “be good and be pious, and God will always take care of you.” After her death, Cinderella has to endure the discrimination and humiliation from the stepmother and stepsisters. By virtue of religious piety, Cinderella is rewarded a transformative beauty by God. She becomes more beautiful enough to capture the prince’s attention, secure a Royal marriage, and attain a future of wealth and happiness. On the other hand, one sees the suffering of the evil stepsisters: a toe and a heel cut off as to force their feet into a golden shoe, which turns disastrous; their eyes destroyed by the pigeons from heaven; “And so, they were condemned to go blind for the rest of their days because of their wickedness and falsehood.”
Nonetheless, this moralist understanding has neglected whether morality could really be as powerful as to transform the public recognition of Cinderella. One has, with theoretical danger, ignored the fact that the Royal family is not really troubled by Cinderella’s moral virtue; they care more about her feminine ethics: “she looked so beautiful in her Golden dress.” It seems to me, to be exact, that morality only serves as a basis to an eventual and very specific type of beauty, which every young woman in the story appears to eagerly crave.
Then timely came the feminist critic. Obvious in ‘Cinderella’, indeed, is when the women and men are particularly interested in the idea – or the ‘ideal’ – of feminine beauty. There is continual fuss about who is clean and dirty, beautiful and ugly, decorated and messy, respectable and abominable, gentle and crude: in short, a female’s ‘maturity’. Thus, with such clarity, recent feminist reading of ‘Cinderella’ may not differ radically: from discerning the influence of a patriarchy within the story, to critiquing the instrumentality of patriarchy in the general strategy of social control over girls and women.
Baker-Sperry and Grauerholz (2003: 34), for instance, have plainly argued that “patriarchy in fairy tales has caused that heroines, no matter how capable they are, always need to rely on a man.” They believe Cinderella has been passive to the idea of marrying a powerful prince. These stereotypical materialism and passiveness of a woman, therefore, govern Cinderella’s religious morality and practical awareness towards her personal beauty, while also highlighting a tradition wherein men are always the source of financial and social stability.
Barcíková’s (2015: 723) conclusions seem more nuanced. She relates the common quest for beauty to a power system:
“We do not propose that there is a direct relationship between cultural values concerning feminine beauty and women’s behavior and identities, but the feminine beauty ideal may operate indirectly as a means of social control insofar as women’s concern with physical appearance (beauty) absorbs resources (money, energy, time) that could otherwise be spent enhancing their social status. Women may “voluntarily” withdraw from or never pursue activities or occupations they fear will make them appear “unattractive” (e.g. “hard labor,” competitive sports).”
While I agree with what feminist critics have contended, they seem to have also fallen into a didacticism: the theoretical task, quite consistently, has resorted to blaming the obvious devil, while ignoring a culture beyond patriarchy, wherein patriarchy is only a component. In ‘Cinderella’, the prince never himself calls for a marriage with a “beautiful” woman. That is his father, the King, who has “ordained a festival that should last for three days, and to which all the beautiful young women of that country were bidden, so that the King’s son might choose a bride.” By the same logic of lineage, one can even assume that the King’s father had done the same when the King was ripe to marry. In other words, feminist critics have overlooked that the prince and the King are also only subjects within a wider “deployment” of the Feudal system, in which Cinderella’s story takes place (Panttaja 1993). This “deployment,” as Michel Foucault (1978: 106) describes, is the deployment of alliance: “a system of marriage, of fixation and development of kinship ties, of transmission of names and possessions.”
At this point, I shall clarify our current issue. We need to investigate whether the power at play must necessarily be patriarchal. It seems to me to be something more powerful, more deserving of extensive critique. As Panttaja (1993: 86) lays out: “The extent that they make gender the sole important analytic category, valorize the family as a locus of sexual desire and psycho-sexual indoctrination, and separate the sex-gender system from the socio-political system,” is the “extent do they limit our appreciation of the heroine’s cultural presence and political function.” Thus, we need to question Cinderella’s ‘beauty’, not only in terms of ‘gender’ or ‘patriarchy’, but also in terms of ‘history’ and ‘power’.
Then, we shall ask: why – with so much pleasure, voluntariness, and eagerness – do the three young women (Cinderella and her two stepsisters) want to beautify themselves in the first instance, if patriarchy only subjugates them? Why is self-beautifying suddenly a responsibility of every young woman in the plot? Is there another power: wider and stronger?
We must turn to historical ruptures. After the announcement of the Royal festival, there is a sudden explosion of the discourse of beauty. The stepsisters very immediately order Cinderella to beautify them, while the radical competition of beauty between the three women – one of whom may become a Royal – begins to unfold. The two said to Cinderella: “Comb our hair, brush our shoes, and make our buckles fast.” When Cinderella begs to attend the event, they reply: “In all your dust and dirt, you want to go to the festival! You that have no dress and no shoes!”
From the instant exchange, a discursive scheme, a set of principles, a group of formative rules – by Foucault’s definition, a “discourse” – of beauty emerges: to be beautiful, at that very historical exigency, one must pay careful attention to her hair, hygiene, attire, waistline, and legs. If we reflect constructively, these five schematic criteria work to normalise and homogenise: a singular protocol, at epistemic governance, requiring women’s commitment to the standardisation of their bodies.
Cinderella, in particular, has the hybrid quality of beauty and morality, but her morality works for the discourse of beauty. Truly, compared to the other two, she seems much more moral. She listens to authority, is loyal to God, genuinely cares for her parents, and does not desire material gain. She conforms to her mother’s last words: “be good and pious.” When her stepsisters ask for “fine clothes, pearls, and jewels,” she asks for “a hazel twig,” which she takes to her mother’s graveyard for planting. She goes to her mother “three times a day,” often “wept and prayed.” By the name of God, the hazel twig grows into a magical tree, in which resides a Holy bird: “If she uttered any wish, the bird brought her whatever she had wished for.”
One day, when she feels disappointed when the stepmother denies her excess to clean, beautiful garment and attendance to the King’s three-day festival, “the bird threw down a dress of gold and silver, and a pair of slippers embroidered with silk and silver.” Clearly, no matter how moral she is, her morality is only a foundation to her discursive beauty: she is moral, God thus beautifies her through the bird. This Holy transformation of Cinderella, by the Holy bird, happens for three consecutive days for the sake of the festival: by each day, by the identical discursive criteria of “dress” and “shoe,” she measurably becomes more beautiful. Then, the question remains. Why this eventual, moral, discursive beauty?
We ought to be careful, at this conclusive phase, because we cannot impulsively blame the prince as the ‘sexist’ or ‘patriarchal’ reason behind these women’s voluntary self-beautification.
On the one hand, to be very precise, the prince seems not to be the explicit beneficiary of this power. The prince, by ritualistic order of the system, has to find a correct woman: a specific type that may preserve the ‘face’ of the Kingdom. The prince, therefore, is only another subject of the knowledge of the ‘Royal blood’:
“For a society in which the systems of alliance, the political forms of the sovereign, the differentiation into orders and castes, the value of descent lines were predominant; for a society in which famine, epidemics, and violence made death imminent, blood constituted one of the fundamental values.” (Foucault 1978: 147)
On the other hand, these women are never coerced. There is no repression, only pleasure and pride within the women themselves at a specific knowledge of beauty: to be beautiful, in a particular way, seems so honourable. The Royal family does not release any coercive decree; there is only cordial invitation to these women to the three-day festival. The Royal family will not have control over the women’s subjectivity, if the women do not voluntarily submit themselves to the quest for self-beautification in the very first place. This self-beautification, almost like an inherent ethic, precisely accords to the discourse of beauty; the women, just like the men, are subjects in a wider power.
As the marriage proceeds, what we can observe is the successful and strategic protection of an exclusive power. The Feudal marriage is less about love, sex, or care, than about lineage, class survival, and pure-bloodedness, in the elitist sense of these terms (Panttaja 1993: 97). What the women and the men must achieve, in their voluntariness to subject themselves to the discourse of feminine beauty and the deployment of Royal alliance, is not so much a beauty, not so much a desire for beauty and sex, as actually a historically contingent identity of the monarchical elite. Royal women must show that they are worth the blood and phallic function of the Royal family; Royal men must show that they are worth the title of the King.
Hence, Feudal culture denotes a well-coded system: wherein destinies of appearance and behaviour, the tasks of marriage and succession, the quest for women with a specific breed of morality, femininity, and beauty, have already been pre-determined by a Royal aesthetics. Since “a marriage would change the make-up of the ruling group, polluting it with the wrong blood,” the lineal or patrilineal subjects must be discursively cautious (Panttaja 1993: 94). And to feminists, if a patriarchy does exist, it is a ‘classed’ patriarchy, which forms part of the power of the Feudal State.
This power is named the ‘Monarchy’, a power that cannot be owned, seized, or lost by anyone, and that survives by discourse.
Baker-Sperry, L. and Grauerholz, L. (2003) ‘The Pervasiveness and Persistence of the Feminine Beauty Ideal in Children’s Fairy Tales’. Gender and Society, 17(5). Page 711 – 726
Barcíková, V. (2015) Stereotypical Female Roles in Selected Traditional Fairy Tales and their Modern Adaptation. Master’s Thesis. University of Pardubice
Grimm, J. L. and Grimm, W. C. (1812) ‘Cinderella.’ Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
Foucault, M. (1978) The History of Sexuality. New York: Pantheon Books
Panttaja, E. (1993) ‘Going up in the World: Class in Cinderella’. Western Folklore, 52(1). Page 85 – 104