Cinderella complex

I’ll start out by saying that I don’t much care for romantic comedies.  Flat characters, recycled plots, gender stereotypes (for males as well as females), and unrealistic over-the-top emotion.  However, succumbing to the logic of “well, it’s on TV”, I’ll occasionally watch a few, with no expectations, for light fare.  Unfortunately, what was on TV yesterday was Maid in Manhattan.  (now, I can like Jennifer Lopez, as The Cell is one of my favorites and there are, surprisingly, decent actors in this film: Ralph Fiennes, Bob Hoskins, Stanley Tucci, and Natasha Richardson)  I could write a whole review on why this movie is awful, from lack of chemistry to borrowing the whole ten year old son begging forgiveness of “prince charming” on behalf of his mother (straight out of Pay It Forward, though done better with Haley Joel Osment and Kevin Spacey, over a more complex and personal transgression), but Maid’s not worth the time taken to write said review.  But it did get me thinking about the following: What is the immense appeal of Cinderella stories and why haven’t they been updated with respect for women (and men)?  Is there such a thing as a good romantic comedy?  And, actually, are there any movies with real women in them?

First, I guess I should address the men thing.  I think true feminism (or at least the type of feminism I subscribe to; of the various, maybe I lean most towards postmodern) is, quite simply, equality.  Women aren’t worse than men, nor better than men.  That everybody should be treated with equality, dignity, and respect (within reason, because I know devil’s advocates – me – automatically join in with, “well what about serial killers” and such).  I know this is a gross oversimplification, but I think that the black rights movement and women’s rights movement are similar in that they both made incredible strides since the ’60s, but that, unfortunately, the main conflicts are still around, now more subtle and ingrained, which is much harder to recognize and fight, than obvious discrimination.  Anyway, I think that, all too often, within discussions of feminism, men and male roles are either insulted or left out.  And I believe that is because those “in power” (if this is all about power) already have power; you don’t worry about the struggles of men, when trying to gain rights for women, or, worry about the impact and concerns of the rich, when trying to obtain rights and opportunities for the poor.  I still think that male roles have certainly been called into question by expanding female roles.  And even beg the question that perhaps traditional male roles might also have been stifling and unfulfilling: the pressure to marry, the pressure to protect and to provide, appearance to some degree, and, as always, status and money.

My solution to the whole thing? screw roles and do what you want to do.  Regardless of gender, if you want to do ballet or play football or be a stay at home parent or work construction or wear boots or have long hair or not wear makeup, then do so.  There’s nothing in the biological makeup that predisposes any of the above, as those are all societal distinctions.  I know that males and females have different reproductive organs and secondary sex characteristics, as we were all taught in health class.  These, again, are anatomical and just that, when you strip away all that society has attached onto it over thousands of years.  There are differences in male and female brains, most notably that females have language processing areas on both hemispheres, whereas males only on the left.  There’s a list of other brain differences.  Bear in mind, however, that function can dictate form as well as the reverse.  If one child runs around a lot, while another sits still, reading and talking with friends, the first child will develop more spatial ability and the second, more language ability.  I think pigeon-holing people on the basis of anatomy (whether you have a long or short urethra, and especially when you delve into something as completely arbitrary as amount of melanin produced, i.e. skin color) is stupid.  (among other harsher words I could’ve chosen)  It’s as stupid and arbitrary as the feuding characters in Dr. Seuss’ satirical commentary on the arms race, The Butter Battle Book, or in original Star Trek’s “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”.

I think discrimination does, as they all say, have a great deal to do with power, but I also think that people probably just enjoy hating people.  And there’s a self-serving element of haves and have-nots.  If you are a have-not, you loathe the haves.  And if you’re a have, or become a have, you’ll do anything to keep what you now have, which likely includes hating the have-nots.  Ok, so maybe that’s the same definition as power, but it’s also status and selfishness, belonging to a group made special through exclusion.  Concepts and images stamped on the consciousness from tradition, socialization, and the media are hard things to shake.  Plus I think a lot of people like boxes.  (I am so profound…)  They must, though.  It must feel comforting to have things a certain way, everything in its nice box.  Born with an external urethra, let’s swaddle you in blue (again, blue and pink not arbitrary?) and give you toy trucks, use words like “handsome”, and encourage roughhousing and sports.  Born with an internal urethra, let’s swaddle you in pink, use words such as “pretty”, give you dolls, foster an interest in shopping, and, nowadays, tell you you can be and do anything, but still rather enforce that being thin and attractive is very important, and maybe, deep down, you’re still supposed to fantasize about a wedding day and finding true love.

But (trying to rein myself back in) my quandaries, for the moment, are apparently far more superficial, that being the enjoyment of a good movie, rather than trying to write a thesis on evolving gender roles, or even just enumeration of why I think discrimination is stupid.  too late.

Ok, on to Cinderella.  For starters, here’s a brief bit of history.  It’s an archetype (Jung’d be proud).  The witch, the maiden, the prince.  (notice, the males in the story are also horribly weak sappy characters.  The prince probably under just as much pressure to get married.  Children’s fables are and have been essentially moral tales, tales told not just to entertain the kid, but to teach them moral lessons, demonstrate proper and improper behavior, and show them what their expected societal roles are.  Lie, and they’ll cut off your tongue.  Steal and they’ll cut off your hand.  Be nasty, prideful, and mean, and you’ll get your eyes pecked out by birds.  (the fate of Cinderella’s/Aschenputtle’s stepsisters)  Be a good pious person, mind your parents, do your chores, and you will be rewarded.  And, with Cinderella, it also tries to alleviate, perhaps, some strain of class conflict.  Is the real reward marrying the prince, or elevating out of lower class status?  I’m wondering if romantic comedies today are still essentially moral fables, just geared towards adults instead of children?

The maid in Maid isn’t just subject to luck, as she earns her upward mobility via career (side note, see Barry Lyndon for a completely different take on upward mobility).  But it is mostly luck.  Is that what movies show us of love?  You’re alone and depressed and your life sucks.  Then, one day, by luck, the person of your dreams bumps into you.  That person, that connection, that love, changes everything (love does change everything), but also saves everything.  As clichés say, love, happiness, and opportunity aren’t just going to find you and rescue you.  You have to rescue you, right?  Love and that loving partner can’t do and fix everything.  If these stories are fables, what’s the message at heart here?  To be passive and wait for some great thing to come along and save us?  maybe if we’re good?  or work hard?  Or is it just nice to watch other people find love, in some sappy overdone formulaic way?  I always joked about what would happen after prince and princess get married.  divorce, right? or endless marital strife.

I’m sure there are millions of interpretations of Cinderella, and I’ve only pecked at a few.  I generally disliked Phallus Tales’ embittered conclusions.  To say that the Brothers Grimm are misogynists is anachronistic and it’s an outright lie to assume they intentionally manipulated these myths to brainwash children into a “christian” woman-hating dogma.  I would have to do more research to confirm, and I’m sure some censorship did occur, but I do know that the Grimm’s intent was not to broadcast their own agenda.  In fact, the complete opposite is true, in that they were pure students of language, mired in nationalism, and the aim of their undertaking was to be as true to the original as possible, to look past the Christian era and try to expose, if it exists, a sense of ethnicity, something that might bind all these disparate dislocated Germanic people as a common whole.  Trying to uncover and expose this “true” voice, this ethnic consciousness, not espouse their own.  I assume this because I would assume that individuality and individual expression directly opposes nationalism.  (and as for the anti-Christian rhetoric “Phallus Tales” takes on, I believe, within the Romantic period, the Grimm brothers were looking for pre-Christian Germanic identity.)

At the time, Germany was not one unified country and it would not be until after the Grimms’ deaths.  “Germany” was a collection of various states/provinces, which were jumbled and reorganized after the Napoleonic wars.  Perhaps due to the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars and also the Romanticism movement, there was an air of nationalism.  Perhaps seeking to forge a national essence of German identity from amidst all these separate states, in what would be a precursor towards German unification in the later 1800s, the Grimm brothers traveled around and collected all these folk tales and recorded the basic archetypal story.  (I wonder if Jung’s ideas about archetypes were influenced by the Grimms’ seeking to extract a “German national essence” from many local variations on age old fables.)

In the “Phallus” article, about halfway down the page, is a quote I like, that paragraph referencing Andrea Dworkin’s Woman Hating.  In general, I don’t like the essay.  A lot of talk of victimization and misogyny.  Read now, reinterpreted for a modern audience, perhaps.  But anachronistic and not the Grimms’ intent.  and not the stories’ intent, being as they were to instruct children in proper manners.  (Dr. Dick’s blog, here, as well as introducing some themes of early 1800s German life, references a German contemporary, Hippel, who did stand up for women’s rights.)  Though I dislike the article, I figured I would include “Phallus” (besides immature giggling at the reference, still appropriate, since all this boils down to genitals) to show one take on Cinderella.

So here’s another, the Wounded Feminine.  I don’t really like this one either.  All this soul cultivation warm and fuzziness.  I also think this is taking a modern concept of women and applying it on a simple age old story.  Is Cinderella really about her self empowerment and actualization or is it just a story about a good girl who gets married?  But you never know.  Mists of Avalon come to mind.  (I’d enjoyed the miniseries at the time and its female-oriented take.  but now, some years later, I tend to agree with its critics.  Mist’s male characters are as one-dimensional as the female ones in patriarchal works Mists was trying to refute.  And its depiction of paganism, omitting negative aspects, does not offer a fair balanced argument between paganism and christianity, Mists‘ pivotal theme.  So the story’s less a story and more a vehicle for the author’s platform.)

and paganism.  Granted, I don’t know much about (European) paganism.  Besides being earth-centered, they also seem to be greatly female-centered.  But I don’t know if that is true to original paganism, or if that is modern neopaganism, taking many elements from original paganism and infusing them with modern (post-1960s?) constructs of feminism.  You could argue that, if original paganism was very female-empowering, then these age old folk tales also were, and that the original connotations were changed as the culture did, to reflect the moral codes that needed to be enforced at the time, especially when put into print.  The one thing I do like from “Wounded Feminine” is the idea, something actually rather obvious but it took me reading this article to see it, that Cinderella isn’t showcasing men putting down women, it’s showing women putting down women.  Women being their own enforcers.   “[T]he wounding begins and is taught by other women” (Julie Smith, “Cinderella and the Wounded Feminine”).  pause for the ramifications of that thought.

Lastly, there’s Catherine Rose’s article.  The beauty of this article is its conciseness (a gift I completely lack).  It pretty much says it all in two paragraphs.

Ok, I think that’s as far as I’m willing to go with Cinderella right now.  I delved perhaps too much into German history and context, which ignores the fact that this story is global.  All I can, repeatedly, say is archetype.  But what does archetype really mean?  Stefan Stenudd suggests, that Jungian archetype in myth is a contradiction because these concepts (i.e. the maiden, the witch) are universal, hence well known, and thus cannot simultaneously be hidden from consciousness.  But I’m confused.  Didn’t Jung know that these archetypes are consciously obvious, staples of human existence?  I think my interpretation of Jung, intermingled with a bit of that pesky inescapable Plato cave analogy, is that you consciously recognize “hero”, “maiden”, “anima”, “witch” etc., but that these concepts are the tip of the iceberg giving you hints to a deeper collective (beyond yourself, perhaps Buddhist-like, all souls connected) unconscious (not known to you but existing as a greater deeper kind of meaning/emotion/truth/realization/thing).  And isn’t that what the Grimm Brothers were trying to do, get at this mysterious, buried, essence of ethnicity, of what it means to be “German” (but you could broaden that, certainly, to human), of a common thought belonging to Folk (people), through examination of potent and recurring themes in folk tales.  Folk tales told by many different people, in many different places, and over time.  sounds like collective unconsciousness.

[and now my rant foray into linguistics…]

To simplify, I think everything, archetype-wise, comes down to whether you believe major concepts change over time (such as gender roles and connotations of words such as “woman”, “witch” etc.) or whether there is one overlying or underlying Meaning.  (If obvious and overlying, this falls perhaps under christian-type constructions of god and truth and if underlying, falls into the realm of collective unconsciousness.)  Since the Grimm’s were philologists [see earlier Grimm link mentioning Volksmund, Folk-Mouth literally], it’s basically, in a way, the debate between descriptive and prescriptive linguistics.  Does a word have a static and immortal meaning (or philosophical concept or reference and so on) or do words and language (and, with it, perhaps, philosophy, worldview) evolve?  (this raises questions about whether language is the same thing as thought, if you can’t conceive of a concept until you have a name, a word, for that concept.  thus learning another language can expand your worldview as well.  feminists have also had a field day in language and semantics.  how might this be relevant?  If words and language evolves, then it could debunk archetype theory, if both the image and conception of, say, “witch” changes over time.  Maybe at one time it connoted a gruesome woman who sexually consorted with the devil and now could connote a neopagan wiccan.  (But maybe Jung (or Grimm) would try to search past the disparities and try to distill commonalities.)  If words and language are the same thing as thought, or craft thought (think Orwell’s doublespeak), then evolving language could reflect or alter current day beliefs about, well, anything.  Would the Cinderella myth persevering be evidence for archetype and/or against language evolution?  Is it the same story then as now?  Anyways, here’s a clip with Stephen Fry on the prescriptive/descriptive debate:  (this is part 2 and what he’s in the middle of saying is a defense of poetry, though it’s meaning is more subtle and gradual)

In addition to folk tale concepts persisting perhaps because of archetype, they also persist to enforce of proper gender roles.  Woman as passive, obedient, aspiring to love and fulfilling the role of wife, is/was fairly global.  There are a few notable exceptions of matriarchal societies.  Why does the Cinderella story persist and why isn’t it much altered in modern American cinema?  Has it been coopted to instruct moral behavior and traditional gender roles and/or conception and expectation of romantic love to adults now?  Or is it just a cookie-cutter venue to push those primordial emotional buttons, just enough for light entertainment, when you’re not in the mood for something deep or abrasive or sad or scatological.  or when there’s nothing good else on TV.


for more, or for later, is there such a thing as a good romantic comedy? are there movies with real women in them?  Here’s two articles I highly recommend addressing the latter:  Movies For Adults by Paulina Borsook and Ten Hollywood Movies That Get Women Right by Sheerly Avni

and, briefly, off the top of my head movie contenders: The Hours, 10 Things I Hate About You, Girl, Interrupted, Shrek, Terminator 1 and 2, The Runaways (and check out the real ones!), and Firefly/Serenity…all I got right now


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