Fairytales Can Be Feminist Too: Cinderella and the Marginalized

Monday, November 23, 2015

ATTENTION: This post may have spoilers for Cinder by Marissa Meyer. Note that this is part of a project for my Women in Literature course.

There seems to be dozens of "Cinderella" adaptations floating around everywhere. It is one of the most prevalent and timeless fairytales to be recorded, and has thence morphed into hundreds of adaptations ranging from movies, books, shows, and even poetry. It seems that people cannot get enough of Cinderella and her glass slipper. 

Upon reading the Grimm version of "Cinderella," I have come to realize that even though I thought I knew the Grimm version... I didn't. I expected to read about glass slippers, and a pumpkin turned carriage, and a dead father. Turns out it was a "golden slipper," not a glass one; there was no mode of transportation mentioned at all in the story--apparently the pumpkin carriage is a facet of Perrault's version of the tale; and the father never died in the tale, he was consistently aware of how atrocious Cinderella's step family was the entire time (Grimm 91).

As most of us know, Cinderella is a girl who is kind and gracious. We see it in all the movie adaptations and in all the books. If you could place a bet on something not changing in a faithful Cinderella adaptation, it would have to be that she is patient and kind. And Grimm is no different. 

Grimm's version of Cinderella plays heavily on the matriarchal power of the time period, and gives power to Cinderella through her dead mother. Before passing away, her dead mother told her to be "pious and good," and she becomes just that; however, in her goodness, Cinderella experiences great suffering and marginalization at the hands of her family (Grimm 86). In relation to this, Linda T. Parsons asserts that "fairy tales...convey the message that women must suffer, if not be humiliated, before they are rewarded... In many traditional tales, being rewarded with the prince and the security of marriage is the result of the heroine's submission and suffering, along with her beauty, rather than her agency" (Parsons 137).

Suffering and humiliation in the Cinderella tale is very similar to that of Cinder by Marissa Meyer; however, I argue that Cinder has a way of revealing more of the plight of a woman, and more particularly a marginalized woman than the original fairytale does. 

First, it is important to understand that Cinder is a teenage girl who does not conform to gender stereotypes. She is not the passive princess waiting for her prince to sweep her off her feet, and she is not the consistently silent young woman content to be "pious and good" (Grimm 86). She is a mechanic, cyborg, and Lunar. 

Okay, now what exactly does that all mean? Well, I'm glad you asked. Let's take it one-by-one.

Mechanic
Cinder is the "best mechanic in the city" of New Beijing (Meyer 10). As many today assume, a mechanic is associated with a male dominated work force, and it is just as abnormal in New Beijing as it is in current day America to have a teenage girl be considered the best in the city. Meyer makes note that it was not abnormal for people to automatically assume she was a male based on her profession (Meyer 8). 

I think, however, that giving Cinder this "masculine" profession, allows her as a woman to reclaim the work and make it genderless. She is a good mechanic because she is a cyborg, and because she has to consistently upgrade and repair her own cyborg limbs (left hand and left leg). In doing this, she understand mechanics because it is useful, not because it is masculine or feminine; it is in fact human survival for her, and is therefore genderless.

Cyborg
Which brings me to the fact that she is a cyborg. To make sure that I explain this fully, a cyborg is part organic human and part scientific mechanical engineering--think more or less of prosthetics except on a more advanced scale to the extent that circuitry runs just as seamlessly through the body as blood pumps through a heart. 

Linh Cinder is exactly 36.28% cyborg (Meyer 82). The society in which Cinder lives is not kind to those who are cyborgs. In fact they are sometimes misjudged as criminals and menaces to society (Meyer 277). They are so strongly looked down upon that they are drafted as test subjects in order to figure out a cure for a plague that has been killing hundreds (Meyer 28).

This kind of marginalization happens not only to Cinder, but the thousands of other cyborgs that are drafted as "guinea pigs for the antidote testing," which puts an entire group of people oppressed by the government at risk of dying as well as eventually the people of the Commonwealth (Meyer 29).

Lunar
Lunar... Yes, Cinder is considered Lunar. About halfway through the novel, Cinder finds out that she isn't human after all; she is in fact Lunar--part of the people group who live on the moon. On Earth, Lunars are feared, and rightly so due to being able to control bioelectricity, giving them the ability to manipulate the feelings, thoughts, and perceptions of humans and fellow Lunars. 

Above all, these people are marginalized, not only on Earth by on Lunar as well. So not only is Cinder a female teenage mechanic, but she is also 36% cyborg (which is more than any other person in New Beijing), and is Lunar. All three of these characteristics of Cinder place her in the outer reaches of society. "To be cyborg and Lunar. One was enough to make her a mutant, an outcast, but both?" (Meyer 178).

And as with any Cinderella retelling, it would not be complete without a prince. Though I will say there is not much emphasis on Cinder's beauty, like so many fairytales like to emphasize, but there are a few mentions of her beauty and body seen by society.

Cinder constantly wears gloves to keep her cyborg hand covered in order to forego the nasty and prejudicial looks from people (Meyer 5), but not only that, she seems to also be self conscious and contemplates the idea of a skin grafting for her cyborg limbs (Meyer 31). 

It's important to note that there is a reason Cinder is self conscious and considers her cyborg part "ugly" (Meyer 101). Her stepmother, Adri, connects the idea of beauty to the act of obtaining a suitable husband for her daughter:

"'Let's take in her waist some more.'
Threading a pin through the hem of Peony's neckline, the stranger started at seeing Cinder in the doorway but quickly turned away. Stepping back, the woman removed a bundle of sharp pins from between her lips and tilted her head to one side. 'It's already very snug," she said. "We want her to dance, don't we?'
'We want her to find a husband,' said Adri." (Meyer 22)

Adri correlates the male defined view of beauty as the only way to obtain a husband. She does not mention personality or the heart of Cinder's stepsister, but rather emphasizes that it is physical features that make a person beautiful and give them value. For the only value that Cinder has, according to Adri, is her ability to fix various androids and things around the house.

Taking all of this into context and looking at the broader picture, women are only considered through the context of the male gaze much like Lunars--and more specifically cyborgs--are considered through the context of humans and their behaviors appropriated, which in itself takes away agency.

As Parsons states, "given the oral tradition of fairy tales and its connection with women, it is apt that women now reclaim fairy tales in a an attempt to disrupt binary gender construction and to re-vision possibilities for women and men" (139). Though I think this is quite true, Nancy A. Walker brings up an excellent point mentioning that if an author is only to use traditional narratives that are well known such as fairytales and biblical stories, that one has to be careful, for in using those tales, one might "endorse instead of [challenge] the assumptions of the original [text]" (7). Furthermore, she adds that "revisionary, 'disobedient' narratives, on the other hand expose or upset the paradigms of authority inherent in the texts they appropriate" (Walker 7).

I would argue that Cinder does just that, and this entire novel is written to upend the original tale, giving Cinder a character that isn't only mistreated by family but marginalized in society... and that my friends is the more "disobedient" part of the narrative, because it is in its disobedience that Meyer sheds light on the plight of the non-fictionally marginalized women of modern society today.

Sources:
Grimm's Fairy Tales, Barnes & Noble Classics
Cinder by Marissa Meyer
Ella Evolving: Cinderella Stories and the Construction of Gender-Appropriate Behavior by Linda T. Parsons
The Disobedient Writer: Women and Narrative Tradition by Nancy A. Walker



4 comments:

  1. Great post! I love Cinder, and I agree that Meyer has done a wonderful job when it comes to giving minorities representation. It's also worth mentioning that Cinder is probably mixed-race; she's managed to hide in China, which suggests she's at least partly Asian, and the Lunars are a big melting pot of different cultures, so I think Cinder is a voice for a lot of marginalised members of society.

    Thank you for listing your sources, too - Ella Evolving sounds like a really interesting read. There's another book I think you should check out, if you haven't already: Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale by Catherine Orenstein. It goes back to the origins of Little Red Riding Hood and then talks about how she's been used throughout the years, including in more recent years where she's been used to advertise lipstick and all sorts. It's really interesting if you're into fairy tales. :)

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    1. I almost thought about mentioning Cinder's ethnicity, but it's so vague that I couldn't really prove anything. Also, I have read that by Catherine Orenstein... I actually used her as a source for my section over Red Riding Hood, that was published just before this post!

      Thanks for reading and for getting in on the discussion! :)

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  2. I LOVE this feature. I'm fascinated by fairytale retellings, and The Lunar Chronicles is my favourite so far. I was surprised that the father is actually present in the original Grimm's fairytale! That makes Cinderella's suffering even worse, I feel, since she shouldn't have been alone. Your arguments about Cinder are so spot-on. It reminded me that the only comment about beauty - at least the fake kind that would be socially admired - she receives from Prince Kai was not complimentary ('You're even more painful to look at than she is'). I don't want to spoil Winter in case you haven't read it, but the end of the series is so perfect in terms of Cinder's character growth and departure from the original fairytale.

    Also, thank you for listing your resources! I've bookmarked your other posts in the series to read once I've read the books :) Great post!

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    1. I know! I was super surprised about that too! i think what's interesting is the DIsney version and Cinder to a certain extent is more based on Perrault's version rather than Grimm. Ah! Don't spoil Winter! I haven't read it yet, but I can't wait to!

      Yeah, I hope you can take a look at those resources. They were very insightful. Also, you must read The SLeeper and the Spindle and Crimson Bound (the other two books I wrote over). They are both EXCELLENT! Crimson Bound is one of my favorites of the year!

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