A Modern Cinderella

Karol Kelley. Journal of American Culture. Volume 17, Issue 1. Spring 1994.

In modern society fairy tales are still compelling. Found in oral, written and filmed versions, the stories may serve a pleasurable purpose for individuals or a cultural purpose for academics. Fairy tales have been studied to produce typologies and methodologies in folklore, to examine societal similarities and differences, and to identify changes in values over time. On the one hand these stories have been criticized for supporting the status quo; on the other, their motifs have provided acceptable plot elements for hundreds of Hollywood motion pictures.

Cinderella is one of the best liked of these tales, measured both by the number of variations of the story and by the scholarly and popular interest in them. There are some 700 versions of Cinderella. It has been recorded in every area of the world, in written form in China as early as the ninth century CE (Bettleheim 236). Marian Roalfe Cox published her study of 345 variants of Cinderella in 1893 (Cox). Since that time folklorists have continued to study the story, as have literary historians, psychologists, and feminists. The most popular version in recent years in the United States has been that of Charles Perrault, which was compiled in France in 1697. In roughly the past 40 years in America, elements of his story have appeared in a full-length Walt Disney cartoon, two shorter cartoon videos and some pastiches, a stage musical filmed for television and made into a video, and dozens of Hollywood films. Of the latter, Pretty Woman is the most obvious Perrault derivative.

The first and last of the above-mentioned film variations, the Disney Cinderella and Pretty Woman, have certainly been very successful. The Disney cartoon has been reissued repeatedly in theaters since its creation in 1949 and is for sale or rent as a home video. It was Oscar-nominated in 1950 for Best Sound, Song, and Musical Scoring and has been reviewed as having “an adult following as well as a children’s following” (Greatest Movies 88). Pretty Woman appeared early in 1990 and by November of that year had earned $178.4 million at the box office (Shearer 24). It has continued to sell well as a video and to earn even more money from home rentals. Julia Roberts won an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress for her role of Vivian.

Given the major changes in American society that took place during the 40 years between the making of these two films, differences in social values might be expected, especially concerning gender roles. Beginning with the women’s movement in the 1960s there have been demands for information about women, sexuality and gender. The scholarly studies since that time have produced a better factual knowledge of women, the development of a number of feminist ideologies, and a new awareness of how gender stereotypes are created and also what their costs to society are. This data has resulted in a number of societal changes.

Politically in the past 30 years the interest in women’s issues has meant alterations in many laws in the United States that applied to women and the passage of an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. This caused serious discussion even though it was never ratified. For the first time in American history large numbers of women openly asked for political, economic and social equality with men.

The demand for equality is one conception of feminism. A more thorough definition has been provided by Nannerl O. Keohane, the former president of Wellesley College. She says that feminism

embraces the belief that no one of either sex should be channeled into (or out of) a particular life course by gender. Each person should have the opportunity so far as possible, to pursue her own visions, hopes, and dreams—to prepare herself to realize her own ambitions and to define her own identity, untrammeled by stereotypical expectations about what men or women can or cannot, should or should not, do. (23)

This statement implies that feminism requires self-acceptance as well as tolerance, that is, the acceptance of others’ dreams and decisions for themselves.

The fields of history, psychology, and literary history have also been affected by the recent concern for gender issues. There is the new area of women’s history with differing sources, methodologies, time divisions and subjects of investigation. Today there are dozens of excellent books on topics not previously considered: changes in women’s work and organizations, courtship and marriage patterns, sisterhood, sexuality, birth control, rape, and prostitution, among others. There are psychological studies identifying differences in male and female development, in gender perceptions and language, and in men’s and women’s behavior and values. Both psychologists and literary historians have begun to look at fairy tales in different ways, refuting the Jungian view that these stories are universal and the Freudian idea that they aid children’s oedipal development. The more recent views criticize all tales, especially Cinderella.

In 1981 Colette Dowling published The Cinderella Complex. In this work she argues that the gender expectations and the promises of the Cinderella story are psychologically harmful to women. “…[G]irls, from the time they are quite young are trained into dependency, while boys are trained out of it.” Girls therefore expect that “there will always be some one to take care of them,” and this feeling becomes more intense with age (101). Because being dependent is identified with femininity, women accept this attitude for themselves. Unfortunately, dependence also produces feelings of fear. Instead of trying to create a life for themselves, females search for a man to give them protection, a sense of identity, and the proof that they are loved (56, 141). To cope with their anxieties when lacking a man, many women become what Dowling calls “counterphobic.” Outwardly they insist, “I don’t need anybody. I can take care of myself.” Inwardly they are fearful of becoming responsible for themselves and are terrified of being alone (67, 80). Dowling finds that

Feeling helpless and frightened is so threatening to these women that they devote all their energies to constructing a life—and a style—calculated to throw everyone (themselves included) off the track. They may become racing-car drivers. Or actresses. Or prostitutes. (72)

Recent literary scholars have reacted to fairy tales in the same ways that psychologists have. In 1982 Jennifer Waelti-Walters attacked the traditional folk stories for presenting girls as objects and as passive victims (1). She calls the reading of fairy tales “one of the first steps in the maintenance of a misogynous sex-role stereotyped patriarchy” (8).

Jack Zipes, in a book published in 1983, takes a historical and not a psychological perspective. His interest is in the origins of the literary fairy tale for children in seventeenth century France and how over time the motifs, characters and themes were rearranged or eliminated to reflect the changing values of society (6-7). Zipes argues that fairy tales “have always symbolically depicted the nature of power relationships in a given society” (67). He contrasts the older version of Cinderella with Charles Perrault’s adaptation and finds a shift from a matriarchal to a patriarchal point of view. In the earlier story Cinderella is a strong independent woman who rebels against the hard labor forced upon her and uses her wits and her dead mother’s help to regain her upper class status in society. She does achieve her goal, which is not marriage but recognition. Perrault, on the other hand, wrote to socialize the children of the bourgeoisie, that is, to prepare them for the roles he believed they should play in society. He sexualized society, providing clear gender stereotypes. Thus Perrault’s Cinderella is beautiful, polite, graceful, industrious, obedient and passive. She does not threaten men either by coquetry or intelligence. She waits patiently for the right man to come along to recognize her virtues and to marry her. Perrault’s male characters must be active, intelligent, and ambitious. Not necessarily good-looking, they must be courteous and courageous. Social success and achieving are more important to these heroes than winning a wife. Thus due solely to their sex, Perrault heroines have a very limited range of opportunities, dreams, and possible behavior (Zipes ch. 2).

Like Zipes, Ruth Bottigheimer takes a historical perspective in her 1987 study of fairy tales, Grimm’s Bad Girls and Bold Boys. She also seems to support the feminist point of view that fairy tales are not beneficial to women. She looks at the Grimm brothers’ works as historical documents and investigates both changes over time and gender differences. She discovers that as the nineteenth-century progressed, females increasingly lost their power in the tales, as measured: by their speech, which is direct for males and indirect for females; by their silence, as compared with males; and by their punishments, which are harsher for females and occur after one transgression, while males can offend three to five times before retribution.

Recent academic work thus reflects the ideas of the women’s movement. What of the popular culture? Apparently it does not. Perrault’s gender role stereotyping remains unchanged in both Cinderella and Pretty Woman. The latter uses current fashions and artifacts and ignores the older sexual taboos, thus giving the film a modern appearance. Despite this, Pretty Woman does not illustrate any major changes in gender expectations and is unaffected by any form of feminist ideology.

Cinderella could not be expected to be a feminist film. Disney chose to use the Perrault story and adapted that to the rhetoric of an era firmly anchored in the feminine mystique. The characters are ranked and segregated by sex. Traditional gender stereotypes and personal choice determine the behavior, life courses, and dreams that are shown in the cartoon. The same may be said of Pretty Woman, and, in addition, there is ambivalence concerning the family and friendship and more acceptance of the traditional male values of competition and revenge than in the Disney film.

In both Cinderella and Pretty Woman the male sex is ranked higher in wealth, occupation, and status than the female sex. A class society prevailed in the earlier time period of the cartoon. The Prince’s family is not wealthy but royal, making him the future king and future ruler of his country. He therefore has the highest possible status. Cinderella comes from a gentry family which has financial problems due to the death of her father and the selfishness of her stepfamily. Cinderella is forced to do the work of a scullery maid. Her status can be raised only through marriage, when she will take the position of her husband.

In Pretty Woman Edward Lewis is the hero. He is fabulously wealthy, able to indulge his every materialistic desire. Given the Yuppie generation of the 1980s, Edward’s occupation as a successful and wealthy corporate raider gives him the highest possible status. Vivian Ward is the heroine of Pretty Woman. As the picture opens she lacks the money to pay her rent and has a pin holding up her boot. She is a prostitute, a job defined as “debasing oneself for money.” Near the ending of the movie she considers raising her status herself, but she, too, chooses to marry. Edward’s background is far superior to Vivian’s. His father had been rich, and his mother, a trained musician. Edward is well-educated and sophisticated. His manners are impeccable, and he is accustomed to elegant places, to formal clothing, and to upper class amusements such as polo and the opera. Vivian is the product of a lower class family from a small town in Georgia. She is intelligent but uneducated, reaching only the eleventh grade in school. She throws her gum on the sidewalk, is ignorant of table manners and how to dress, loves television, movies and popular songs, and calls an orchestra “a band.”

In Cinderella the hero and heroine are equal at least in manners, and education is not mentioned. In Pretty Woman education and manners help to determine status, and Vivian ranks far below Edward. The gender stereotypes in popular romances give heroes a higher status than their heroines. This is found to be true in both of these films.

In addition, gender clearly determines occupations and activities. Obtaining money is not a problem for the Prince, and he hunts and travels. Cinderella remains at home and does housework, which is properly feminine but is also dirty, physically demanding and demeaning. Life is even sex-differentiated for the mice. The males go to obtain food and have exciting adventures. When a male mouse wants to help make Cinderella’s dress for the ball, a female mouse says, “Leave the sewing to the women; You go get the trimmin’.”

Edward is a businessman working with male executives, lawyers, bankers and senators. Of course his telephone operator is female. Vivian provides female services for men. Lacking job skills she is unable to support herself by any other kind of work open to her, and she must struggle to keep some control over her own body and out of the hands of male pimps. The hotel and store managers are men; the sales clerks are women. The expectations presented are that women are supposed to work, but that men are to hold the superior and better-paying jobs.

In both movies males have much more power and are the rescuers of females. In Cinderella the King has the power of life or death. Granted, Disney sentimentalizes the scenes with the King’s imaginary grandchildren. The male desire to see his line and name carried on is a traditional one, however. Although the Disney cartoon ends with the marriage of the Prince and Cinderella, presumably they will have the children to fulfill the King’s hopes. Males are seen as rescuers; females are more passive. The male mice and dog free Cinderella from her locked room. By marrying her the Prince saves Cinderella from her family’s abuse and from her domestic chores. Even the stepsisters hope to be rescued from their daily routine by husbands.

Women who have power are presented in the Disney film as either evil or silly. The wicked stepmother controls her household and the three young women in her charge. The true nature of the stepmother was revealed only after the death of Cinderella’s father, whose authority presumably restrained the stepmother’s behavior. The fairy godmother has enormous magical power. This is trivialized by her silliness, her song Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo, and by her absentmindedness: she can’t find her wand, or remember her magic words, or even notice that Cinderella needs a dress to wear to the ball.

The hero of Pretty Woman also has the power of life and death, at least over the continuance of various corporations and over the jobs of the people working there. He is able to set up a billion dollar deal to take over Morse Industries. Borrowing a necklace worth a quarter of a million dollars is a minor transaction in his life. Edward can influence Senate committees and bank officials. Because of his enormous financial power, he has only to ask to receive the services he desires. Vivian has neither power nor identity. Abandoned by the man who brought her to Los Angeles, she could not support herself. Her friend Kit talked her into becoming a prostitute. Vivian cried but was powerless to do anything else. Her feisty personality indicates counterphobia, a fear of being helpless, rather than independence. She lacks identity in repeatedly being ready to be called by any name a man likes or by being ready to do anything a man asks of her. Crying “Nobody will help me,” she is unable to buy a dress by herself. She has to be rescued by Barney Thompson, the hotel manager, or by Edward and his credit card. In addition, Edward saves Vivian from being raped by Phil, his lawyer. She is also helped by Mr. Morse, the elevator man, and the hotel chauffeur.

Interestingly, the women in Pretty Woman have even less power than those in Cinderella. The snobbish salesladies have some control. They can order Vivian to leave the store. Later they are punished by losing commissions, and their roles are small. More significantly, the part of the fairy godmother is transformed into a male role. Not a woman but a man enables the Cinderella character to achieve her dreams. Barney helps Vivian to get her first ladylike dress, teaches her the table manners she needs to know, and finally unites the couple by informing Edward that the chauffeur knows where Vivian lives, and that Edward is making a mistake. Barney tactfully says, “It must be difficult to let go of something so beautiful.” Ostensibly he is talking about the necklace, but they both know he is referring to Vivian. The latter does give advice and financial aid to her friend but is simply passing on Edward’s words and money—his power and not hers.

Thus in neither movie do females partake of any of the stereotypical male behavior. It is the men who rank higher in wealth, occupation, status, power and action. What of the women? Once again the stereotypes prevail. Traditionally women are to be beautiful, feminine, dependent, devoid of negative emotions but fully expressive of all positive ones. Females exist to fulfill male needs.

Both heroines are beautiful, but both need the right clothing to make them marriageable. When Cinderella is dressed like a princess, the prince only has to see her to fall in love. An item of apparel, her glass slipper, identifies her as the woman the Prince really wants to marry. Clothing has the same powerful effect on Vivian. When she is dressed like a hooker, she can be one. Given elegant and ladylike clothing, Vivian feels cheap when propositioned and eventually decides to give up her life on the streets.

Both heroines are seen as very feminine. Femininity includes beauty and appearance, the aforementioned dependence and helplessness, and also emotions. Traditionally anger and censoriousness are not feminine. The negative characters can express anger. The ugly stepsisters fight with each other and tear Cinderella’s dress to shreds. Fear, sadness and self-pity are permissible for good women, as are the positive emotions of compassion, friendship, love and happiness.

Given the situations of both heroines, anger and resentment would appear to be logical reactions. This is not portrayed in either film. Cinderella is obedient to her stepfamily but lives in dreams, merely saying, “Well, they can’t order me to stop dreaming.” Unable to attend the ball, she can cry in self-pity, “It’s just no use…I can’t believe any more.” Hope and dreams are restored by her fairy godmother’s magic, however. At a later time when there is more openness to emotions, Vivian’s anger also seems very restrained. Finding her rent money gone, she is forced to sneak out of her building to avoid the rent collector. All she says to Kit, who took the money, is “I can’t believe you bought drugs with our rent money.” Edward reveals to Phil that Vivian is a hooker, and although she is ready to walk out, refusing her pay, she stays, saying only, “You hurt me…Don’t do it again.” Her feeling of self-pity in Barney’s office is much clearer than her resentment.

Cinderella is usually portrayed with positive emotions. She is kind, helpful, sympathetic, and loving, and by implication, pure and good. She is concerned with relationships, a real female value, even trying to persuade Bruno, the dog, and Lucifer, the evil cat, to get along together. These qualities, plus her beauty, youth, restraint, and lovely singing voice will make her a good enough wife for a future king.

The Prince, unlike Cinderella, is vulnerable internally. He is cut off from his feelings. She is outwardly oppressed, kept from the ball and locked in her room by her family and thus must be rescued by another. Nevertheless, Cinderella can fulfill the Prince’s needs. He wants a wife and an escape from his boredom. Cinderella’s appearance and her adoration of him activate his feelings and involve him in a love relationship. He has found a female to complement himself—she has the emotions that he lacks. Cinderella has a man to give her an identity (she is his wife), the love she has always been dreaming of to compensate for her victimization, and someone to take care of her for the rest of her life. We are told that “they lived happily ever after.” Cinderella, therefore, clearly defines the male and female stereotypes, and pictures a successful conclusion to both male and female dreams.

Vivian, also, is usually presented with positive emotions. She is helpful, ready to run and answer the door for Edward; grateful, making a point of thanking Barney; sympathetic, expressing concern and compassion for Edward and Morse; and loving, especially to Kit and to Edward. She is good to the extent of being honest and generous with her friends, wanting to pay her bills, and not using drugs. Phil clearly sees her as having a moral influence on Edward, a traditional female stereotype.

Where Pretty Woman is modernized is in the openness toward sex. Nevertheless, there is some ambiguity. Sexuality in 1950 was covertly implied in the thought of having children within marriage. With a heroine who is a prostitute, sex in the 1990 film can be blatant. Most scenes are erotic. Vivian can be sexy and at the same time shown as anxious to leave the red light district and to become a proper wife, the traditional female goal.

Amy Kaminsky, in her study of two Argentinean women authors, makes some comments that seem to be applicable to Pretty Woman. Agreeing with Simone de Beauvoir that the prostitute “exists as a projection of male fantasy,” Kaminsky points out that the male perceptions of paid sexual encounters are of eroticism and pleasure (119). The prostitutes on the other hand, see the interaction as “devoid of sexual content, the better to demonstrate that prostitution is more about humiliation and submission to power than it is about sex” (130). Both views are found in the film. Obviously, the sexual relationship of the two central characters is supposed to be wonderful. Vivian also says, “I just do it. I’m like a robot,” and this is after sexual encounters with Edward. The scenes between Vivian and Phil support the idea that prostitution is about abasement and power and not sensuality.

There are other modernizations. Edward is even more inwardly vulnerable than the Prince. The hero of Pretty Woman is a compulsive worker who is unable to get in touch with his own feelings. Spending 10,000 dollars on therapy has enabled Edward to express his anger toward his father. His fear of heights, his incapacity to maintain personal relationships, and his inability to share his musical gifts with others or to take the time to relax and enjoy his life all indicate additional emotional problems. Vivian lacks the education, knowledge and background to help herself, but she can give Edward everything he needs. She can laugh out loud; she can be spontaneous; she knows about taking days off; she is able to have fun; she can “veg-out” and relax. Despite Kit’s coaching in how not to feel, Vivian allows herself to kiss Edward on the mouth and to fall in love with him. He is slower in his response, but he does begin to enjoy himself, to feel and to care, and finally, to love. Like Cinderella and her Prince, Vivian succeeds in awakening Edward’s dormant emotions.

The movies include a number of sex-segregated fantasies. There is the male dream of making all the money a man could want and of winning out over all competitors. There is the fantasy of the beautiful, willing, submissive woman, as when Vivian says, “Baby, I’m going to treat you so nice you’ll never want to let me go.” There is the vision of great sex with a beautiful woman, with no responsibilities beyond financial ones. An old theme in popular literature and the theater is that of the rich, royal, or upper class man who wants to be loved for himself alone. None of Edward’s friends (the people he “spends time with”) really care, but Vivian cannot help herself. She falls in love with Edward despite all her resolves never to mix business and pleasure.

Vivian’s fantasies are also stereotypical. The heroine being treated to all the new clothes that she wants is a common theme in modern romances. Perhaps the male apology for having hurt the woman is a female dream. The prostitute’s fantasy of a rich, good-looking, non-twisted client merges into Vivian’s childhood dream of a knight on a white horse coming to rescue her from her locked tower. She, like Cinderella, wants a man to give her identity, proof that she is loved and protection/marriage.

Respect for both sexes and the family may be found in feminist works. If the family is criticized, alternatives are suggested. In Cinderella all of the human characters are bumbling and ridiculous or greedy and evil. The stepmother and stepsisters have no love for Cinderella, only jealousy and hatred. Her family abuses Cinderella. The King is willing to push his son into any marriage. These ideas are even more emphatic in Pretty Woman. In the opening scene Phil puts his wife down. “My wife went to a lot of trouble [for this party]—she called a caterer.” Despite 10,000 dollars worth of therapy, Edward was not there when his father died. They had not spoken in 14 years. Little information is given about Vivian’s family, but her mother does not sound nurturing. She often locked her daughter in the attic, despite the fact that it did not change Vivian’s behavior. Her mother also called her daughter “a bum magnet,” which may have been a self-fulfilling prophesy. Only the hero and heroine in Cinderella are attractive characters. In Pretty Woman Barney and Mr. Morse perhaps provide the “good” father figures that neither Vivian nor Edward had. In both films the family is denigrated, while, ironically, only heterosexual love and marriage are offered as a solution to the problems of life caused by families.

Recent academic work has stressed the importance of sisterhood for women. This topic does not appear in Cinderella. Instead, women are shown as competing for men. Cinderella’s friends, who often help her, are all birds and animals, which in a hierarchical society are of an even lower rank than herself. Vivian and Kit, her friend, do keep saying, “Take care of you,” another modernization. Kit still doesn’t seem to be a very good friend. She steers Vivian into prostitution, urges her to deny her feelings, which increases anxiety, and takes the rent money for cocaine. Although they may be thrown out of their apartment, and Vivian actually has the rent money, it takes Kit three days to come and collect it. Vivian is loving, but Kit is irresponsible and uncaring in her behavior. She sees no reason to leave the red light district, even after the dead body of Skinny Marie is found in a dumpster.

Revenge is not a feminist idea. The only revenge displayed in Cinderella is between animals. Although the wicked cat torments everyone, it is the dog who is responsible for Lucifer’s death. Revenge is more common in Pretty Woman. Vivian tells the snobbish salesladies of the commissions they lost. Edward repaid his father for leaving his mother by destroying his father’s corporation. Phil loves “the kill.” He blames Vivian for his losing a great deal of money and tries to rape her in retaliation.

Two scenes raise the question of feminism. Vivian explains to Kit that she is going to a different city to finish school, find a good job and establish a life for herself. As in Keohane’s definition, Vivian seems ready to “pursue her own visions” and “prepare herself to realize her own ambitions and to define her own identity” (23). Unfortunately, such ideas disappear instantly when Edward climbs up her fire escape to rescue her. In a final scene Edward asks about the ending of her dream, what the Princess did after the Knight rescued her. Vivian replies, “She rescued him right back.” This sounds like a peer relationship, the equality of feminism, but it is not. Both the Knight, the Prince and Edward have real power. The Princess, Cinderella, and Vivian do not. They have the capacity to have children, and they possess their sexuality, which can stir repressed emotions. As has often been said, men are human beings; women are females, This is reiterated in both films.

Cinderella expresses the gender expectations of the 1950s. Pretty Woman demonstrates that feminist ideas are not necessary in a popular movie of the 1990s. Both movies start with the concept of dreams; both promise that dreams can come true. The question is, do we really want all of those same old tired dreams?