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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We need to talk about Jasmine

I grew up quite the Disney kid, as I’ve mentioned before. And so the news that Emma Watson, everyone’s favourite book loving leading lady, is signing on to play Belle in Disney’s revamped Beauty and the Beast was quite exciting. I mentioned this development to my mother, whose response was a world weary sigh and the following question:

‘Why do they want to ruin all the animated movies?’

Being the sassy twenty something I am, I retorted with, ‘Because they have to make the movies more obviously feminist.’

Then I sobered down and added, ‘Also, to make money.’

The conversation made me think, though, about the need for ‘feminist-ifying’ Disney heroines. When I was a kid, watching all those classics like ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Pocahontas’ for the first time, I never really thought about what kind of social codes or behaviours they were prescribing. Now, with all the revamping, they’re coming under some heavy fire and re-examination, so of course I jumped on the bandwagon and went back and rewatched an old favourite: ‘Aladdin’.

I’ve always had a soft spot for this movie. There are two reasons for this, both of which are pretty superficial:

Aladdin was my first crush, and continues to be my favourite Disney prince of all time. 

Someone once told me that I looked like Jasmine.

I warned you—superficial reasons.

Anyway, the rewatch (which took place in September 2014, to be precise, in chilly Chicago, in the company of one of my best friends) made me realize something: Disney already had a fiery, feminist princess, way before Mulan entered the scene. And that princess was Jasmine.


aladdin-disneyscreencaps-com-1391What’s in a name:
‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Little Mermaid’—what do all these classic Disney princess movies have in common? They all include/refer to the female protagonist (the ‘princess’) in their title. Aladdin’s Jasmine is the only one of the original line up to not enjoy that privilege. She is also, notably, the only female character in her movie. Apart from the denizens of a brothel who show up once (during the song ‘One Jump’), and a little girl at the fruit market, Jasmine seems to be the only woman in Agrabah. Or the only woman who’s important enough to be part of the titular hero’s story anyway. She has no female support system, and her only friend is a tiger trained to dismiss troublesome suitors.

Sticking it to the marriage market: When we meet Jasmine, she has just cast off the unwanted advances of yet another conceited princeling. It’s not the first time this has happened—her father has been foisting suitors onto her for a while because the law says she ‘must be married’ to ascend the throne. ‘The law is wrong,’ she says, and all her jasmine pissedactions seem to suit her words. Even when ‘Prince Ali’ shows up, impressing the Sultan with his grand entrance, Jasmine remains unmoved. ‘I am not some prize to be won!’ is her melodramatic exiting line. You go girl.

The existential angst: There’s no question that Jasmine feels ‘trapped’. The movie is full of symbols of her seeking the freedom she lacks—freeing the birds in her garden, jumping over the walls to see what awaits her on the other side, even, at one point, declaring that maybe she doesn’t ‘want to be a princess anymore!’. I suppose you could pin this down to poor-little-rich-girl angst, especially when you contrast it to Aladdin’s desire to find a place/security in his street rat world. Also, when she breaks out of the palace, Jasmine very obviously has no idea how to function in the ‘real world’, nearly losing her hand for her naivety. But she’s a fast learner, and picks up quickly enough.

Smooth playa: Jasmine remains unimpressed by ‘Ali’s’ grandiose display. Jasmine is also a keen observer and can tell quickly that ‘Ali’ is not who he says he is, and is bold enough to confront him about it—‘Why did you lie to me?’, she demands after their romantic ride. Also, look at this bit from ‘A Whole New World’, where Aladdin rolls an apple off his shoulder and Jasmine catches it: it’s obvious she’s figured out who he is.

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OMG: Remember how Megara is such a big deal in the Disney pantheon because she uses her sexuality unashamedly? Well Jasmine did that LONG before her. Jasmine
jasmineseduces Jafar, distracting him in order to let Aladdin get about his mission of ‘making things right’. Jasmine knows what she’s got and she ain’t ashamed to flaunt it. If you don’t think this is a big deal in a kids’ movie…well. I really don’t know what to say. Of course, it could also be said that, as the only ‘exotic’, Eastern princess in her time, Jasmine was unfairly sexualized in a manner that her fellow ‘white’ princesses like Aurora and Snow White were not. But at least she owns her sexuality, and uses it to achieve her ends on her terms.

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At the end of the movie, Aladdin is promoted to ‘suitable’ status because of his exploits, and Jasmine agrees to abide by age-old conventions and get married, so maybe this is a bit of a cop out. I’m looking forward to the rework that Disney will no doubt get down to making, where Jasmine is the real heroine (let’s face it, she’s a lot more fun than Aladdin) who makes her way in a man’s world, maybe picking up a street rat or two on the way.

But only if she wants it, of course.

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