The other day I was speaking with someone about retellings and favorite childhood books, and when we got to Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, she said, “I always loved Ella Enchanted because Levine said she wrote it because she always wondered why Cinderella didn’t just leave. I always thought that, too.” As much as I also love Ella (I’ve probably read it about fifteen times), this comment troubled me because it seems to me the answer is is clear: It isn’t simple for people, especially children, to “just leave” the people who are abusing them. When you also consider that most “Cinderella” stories take place in fantasy worlds or historical time periods when women didn’t have many rights, it becomes even more obvious why a young girl couldn’t “just” set out on her own to seek her fortune and have that venture go well.
As writers continue to offer variations on this classic tale, I hope more of them will take the time to thoughtfully consider that Cinderella’s “evil stepmother” is more than a trope or a plot point; she’s an abuser. The effects of that on the Cinderella’s psyche deserve to be explored, not glossed over as something unimportant that Cinderella happily endured while she sang with her charming animal friends (as Disney suggests).
Additionally, authors who want their Cinderellas to just “man up ” and go should make it clear what specific factors in their literary worlds enable the protagonist to do so–as well as clarify that Cinderellas who don’t aren’t necessarily wimps. They may be bound to their abusers by psychological and societal factors beyond their control.
Why Don’t We Talk about Abuse in “Cinderella” Stories?
I’ve been taking issue with representations of child abuse in young adult and middle grade novels in general recently, and I intend to write a post on the topic more broadly in the future. However, I am particularly disappointed by the number of “Cinderella” retellings (and other fairy tale retellings with abusive parents, such as “Snow White”) because the entire point of a retelling is to expand on an existing story, to explore things that were left unexplored in the originals. Retellings give authors an opportunity to flesh out a bare-bones source story that often focuses on plot instead of things like character psychology/interiority. In retellings, flat good or evil characters become complex, insta-love becomes a complicated romantic relationship, small details that “just happened” in the original are explained at length. Yet somehow the fact that Cinderella is suffering from child abuse is left unexplored, as if it somehow doesn’t matter either to Cinderella herself or to the readers.
Conversations about abuse have become more public in our society recently, and I think the fact that victims of abuse often struggle with extricating themselves from abusive relationships is becoming more widely-known. We have to remember this when we think of “Cinderella” stories and ask ourselves why she doesn’t just leave her stepmother’s home. We have to remember not to victim-blame, not to assume it’s somehow Cinderella’s fault for “allowing” herself to be treated horribly by her stepfamily. We should remember, too, she’s a child (or a teen), and children don’t just up and leave the only homes they have ever known.
However, we also should avoid the trap of gong too far in the other direction and assuming that Cinderella’s life isn’t “that bad,” of believing the abuse in the tale doesn’t need to be discussed. I understand that many authors who retell the story are interested in the romantic aspects of it, whether that’s the rags to riches story or the love story. They don’t want to delve into the dark world of child abuse in their retelling. And yet it’s there. I think responsible authors will tackle this somehow, will avoid the Disney mistake of suggesting that Cinderella’s main virtue is smiling throughout her abuse and being a happy servant. I want to see Cinderellas who are troubled or depressed or angry because of their treatment and to see authors discuss how their protagonists deal with their abuse. (Lili St. Crow does this in Wayfarer, but I can’t think of another author who does.)
Does It Even Make Sense If Cinderella Does Leave?
Besides the opportunity to expand on a short story, another benefit of retellings is that they allow for many variations of the same story. So it makes sense that, in some, Cinderella will “just leave.” However, I think whether she can is a question that should be thoughtfully considered by authors and readers alike. Particularly if a “Cinderella” story takes place in a past or pseudo-past time period, she may not have the resources to leave or may realize that leaving could make her life worse.
In Victorian England, for instance, a woman’s occupations choices were often between a low wage worker (perhaps a maid or a factory worker) or a prostitute. Some estimates suggest 1 in 12 women were prostitutes (source). The situation for many Cinderella characters is similar, when you remember that most of them are isolated and have no friends or family to live with if they leave their stepmother. Yet if a teenage female left home on her own, the likely options were:
- becoming a maid, just in someone else’s house instead of her stepmother’s (though this outcome is least likely since Cinderella would be alone without any sort of references, so no one would trust her enough to hire her)
- becoming a sex worker because no one would hire her
- becoming a beggar if she couldn’t find “honest” work and didn’t want to be a sex worker
So, no, many Cinderellas can’t “just leave” home. If authors want their Cinderellas to strike out on their own, they need to create the circumstances in the novel that allow them to do so. One example is Cinder by Marissa Meyer. In Meyer’s futuristic world. women can lead independent lives, and protagonist Cinder has enough training as a mechanic in order to sell her skills somewhere. However, most retellings in this vein–modern or futuristic ones–will still have to make some assumptions. Cinderella is probably at least 18 and legally allowed to just pack up and leave her abusive home. In a contemporary story, she might simply wait till she’s old enough to go to college. (I can’t say I’ve seen any modern versions where Cinderella makes a bid for emancipation at fifteen and then manages to find a job when most require employees to be at least sixteen.)
Cinderella’s situation is infinitely more complicated than most readers (or authors) assume when they ask why she doesn’t “just leave” her abusive stepmother. Psychological ties, lack of outside support, the inability to earn money elsewhere, and legal prohibitions on leaving home could all play a factor in stopping her. Remember that in most Cinderella stories, our protagonist is a child or a teenager. Most young people don’t simply pack up and leave home when they have no one to turn to and nowhere else to go. I hope more readers will be sensitive to this, and more authors will put the investment in creating complex Cinderella stories that recognize the existence of abusive and deal thoughtfully with how Cinderella responds to it.