Cinderella: An Absurd Fairytale


cinderellaOnce upon a time, there was a beautiful little girl called Ella. Her father died when she was very young, leaving her in the care of his second wife and two step daughters. Jealous of her beauty and general wonderfulness, the stepmother and her daughters forced Ella into becoming their maid, and generally set about trying to repress her spirit.

It’s actually a horrible story, come to think of it.

Ella is forced to slave away for people who she, and her father, had trusted to take care of her, and there seems little happiness in sight. And then things magically look up when the fairy godmother arrives and grants her one wish: to go to the ball and escape the misery for a time.

The important thing that many people miss out in in the Cinderella story is what exactly she wished for. There’s been a meme doing the rounds for a while, that pointed it out. Cinderella didn’t ask for a Prince, or for love; she asked for a night of fun. A night where
she could forget the drudgery of her life for a time, pretend to be someone else and dance away her sorrows like any other privileged young woman in the kingdom. She never asked to be rescued from her situation; that sort of came along later.

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I actually think Cinderella is a very gender neutral story. The core is pretty simple: someone who leads a boring, seemingly meaningless life is suddenly sparked into a realm of wonder by some sort of amazing event, and then everything that they have been through acquires significance and importance. We tell ourselves that Cinderella was rewarded with love and riches because she was ‘good’ and ‘kind’. There has to be some causal connection between what she did before/how she lived and what came next for her. The fairy godmother didn’t visit the wicked step sisters after all.

Cinderella is the ultimate ‘absurd’ hero, along the lines of Camus’s Sisyphus. Camus defined his hero thus: ‘..the whole being is exerted toward the accomplishing of nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.’ Cinderella’s drudgery was undertaken as some kind of absurd punishment, handed down to her by someone who, by all rights, should have risen higher than to take out latent frustration and insecurity on a helpless child. The stepmother is the ‘god’ of Cinderella’s absurd universe, dictating her endless servitude and demanding unflinching love and obedience in return. Being the hapless human she is, Cinderella delivers.

Cinderella does the chores allotted to her because she cannot do anything else. There is no place for rebellion in Sisyphus’s world. His knowledge of this, and his ability to continue on in spite of it is what makes him a hero; similarly, for Cinderella, she perseveres simply because she must. She has no choice. The way her life is lived is unchangeable by her own agency; the attitude she brings to it is what makes her heroic.

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She’s so got this.

The beauty of a fairytale is that things can change, and often do, for no real rhyme or reason. Cinderella’s escape from her absurd existence is simply a fluke. The fairy godmother appears literally out of thin air and rescues her, provides her the night of fun she desires. That brief escape from her rock leads to bigger and better things, but how long before those become their own version of the dreary existence she just left behind? Camus makes it clear that this constant repetition of a meaningless task, the endless labouring towards a hazy and undefined goal, is what defines modern existence. Power comes from recognising this and continuing regardless. it comes from watching as the boulder rolls down the mountain and then following it down the path, to start afresh. ‘..the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols,’ Camus notes. In the recognition of his state, he owns his fate and diminishes the power of the gods.

Cinderella’s ‘escape’ from drudgery is the joy inherent in a fairytale, a pretty fabrication told to children. The reason the story ends where it does is because to follow it onwards would be unbearable. We would see her happiness dissolve, her marriage become routine and rote, another boulder to be rolled up a hill. We might see her giving joy and life to it, as becomes her character, but it wouldn’t do the job of conveying the fabricated moral half so well, that ‘kindness’ will get you places.

One must imagine Cinderella is kind.

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Choosing sides: Cho Chang and the dilemma of friendship


23-leslie-ann.w529.h352.2xPowerful female friendship is something that, increasingly, TV shows are getting the hang of depicting. Bonds between female characters are increasingly becoming the focus of various series, most notably in Girls, Parks and Recreation and even Orphan Black. Even the very testosterone-laden Mad Men has its share of female friendships, like the one that’s grown between Peggy and Joan.

Fantasy, though, seems to be lagging behind in this field. Perhaps its the overwhelmingly ‘male’ nature of the genre, where female character led books are outnumbered drastically by their male counterparts. Even Harry Potter, which has a good number of strong female characters, stumbles when it comes to depicting friendship between them. This may of course be due to the fact that the narrative usually follows Harry’s view, and he’s hardly the most observant narrator. But Rowling does throw in a few tidbits about conversation between, say, Hermione and Ginny, or Molly and Tonks, to indicate the ‘girls’ do talk, but when they do, it seems to be mostly about men.

Here’s an example. When Harry breaks up with her, Ginny says that Hermione had told her to date other people earlier, to loosen up around Harry. So the one reported conversation we have between the two (apart from vague allusions to Ginny telling Hermione about how she would break into the boys’ broom cupboard at home) is about a boy. Tonks comes over to the Weasleys’, for ‘tea and sympathy’ about Remus. Romilda Vane asks Ginny about the rumoured tattoo on Harry’s chest. And Mrs. Weasley, Hermione and Ginny sit around giggling over a love potion in the dining room of the Leaky Cauldron in Prisoner of Azkaban.

Given all this, I somehow doubt the books would pass the famous Bechdel test.

But my point here is not to dissect the gender dynamics of the Potterverse. Or rather, it is, but I want to focus on the presentation of one character in this regard: Cho Chang.

Cho-cho-chang-16186170-1919-2560Cho is, funnily enough, the one character who really sticks up for a female friend over a boyfriend. When Marietta Edgecombe gets hauled up as the snitch, the one who ratted on Dumbledore’s Army, and Harry confronts Cho, Cho springs to her friend’s defence. She tries to explain what drove her friend’s actions, mentioning the fact that her mother works in the Ministry and that she was under pressure to protect her family, but Harry is unsympathetic. In fact, later he fumes that Cho should have had better sense than to be friends with the girl in the first place, and is incensed that she would even try to stick up for her.

And after that, things sort of unravel for the two of them.

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I suppose you could put this outburst down to the fact that Harry is, at the end of it all, a fifteen year old boy, and not a very sensitive one at that. But given that loyalty and sticking by his friends is such an intrinsic trait for him, it’s surprising that he doesn’t appreciate it in Cho. But I guess that’s because, to his mind and that of most of his supporters, Cho’s friend has done an unforgivable thing, and she is compounding her own guilt by continuing to associate with her. From Harry’s point of view, Cho might be endorsing Marietta’s extremely problematic actions.

I think Rowling presents a very interesting dilemma here. Is Marietta’s selling out of the group similar to the way in which Pettigrew sold out Harry’s parents? I think Harry might see it that way, which is a little unfair because the bond between Marietta and the rest of the group is not halfway near as strong as that between the Marauders. Second, would Cho-Chang-promo-cho-chang-22382815-1846-2560
Harry really have respected Cho if she had turned her back on her friend, instead of defending her? Right then, Harry sees it as a simple choice: Cho has to choose between him and her friend. By defending Marietta, Cho declares that her support lies with her, and she doesn’t care how Harry feels.

One of the key indications we have of Harry maturing is his forgiveness of Snape at the end of the series. In Half Blood Prince, when he finds out that it was Snape who told Voldemort of the Prophecy, he is extremely angry, both at the professor and Dumbledore for continuing to shield him. But at the close, he has forgiven and understood Snape’s actions enough to actually name a son after him, and confess that Snape was ‘probably the bravest man’ he ever knew.  He’s learned enough to place actions in perspective, and possibly to forgive people for doing things he himself wouldn’t. He is able to feel sympathy for Draco when he has a viewing of Voldemort using him to torture others; he can coach Ron into destroying a Horcrux very soon after his return, not letting any of his anger for his abandonment touch him; he even, we are led to believe, helps to commute the Malfoys’ sentence, and lets them get away with paying fines rather than serving time in Azkaban. Harry stops reacting in a knee-jerk manner, being less of a Sirius and growing into a Lily by the end of the series. And it’s because of things like the encounters with Cho that we can really see and appreciate this change.

Wow, J K Rowling. You really are a genius.

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Wow, J K Rowling. You really are a genius.