The Cinderella story has always evolved with the times. Rebecca Solnit's update is overdue.

Maybe it's no longer useful to teach girls that being pretty and getting married is the best way to achieve social mobility.
Image: Brandy, Whitney Houston, Cinderella - 1997
Brandy and Whitney Houston appear in Cinderella in 1997.Walt Disney / Storyline/Citadel/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
Get the Think newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Syreeta McFadden

Cinderella is one of the oldest myths in the world; versions of the rags-to-riches tale date as far back as to the Greeks. At its core, it is a story of transformation and further — beyond the gloss and the societal implications about beauty — it is a story about self-discovery through the triumph over oppression.

When Disney released the animated adaptation, “Cinderella,” in 1950 — based on the version by Charles Perrault — generations had come to accept an idea far from the original Cinderella myths. She was no longer the Egyptian courtesan of Greek mythology, the girl with a fishy friend of 9th century China, an abandoned child of 12th century France, an abused stepchild of 17th century Naples or the plague orphan of a bourgeois German family as imagined by the Grimm Brothers. Instead, she was a minor noble, demurring to mistreatment at the hands of an inherited family, who experienced a miraculous intervention by an outsider with magical powers to be changed into a princess for one night. The message for millions since was that one needed to marry well in order to triumph from hardship — or at least transcend class status.

Later versions rarely stray too far from the get-glam-and-get-married formula. My favorite adaptation of Cinderella is the 1997 television production of Rodgers and Hammerstein version, featuring Brandy as the eponymous heroine and Whitney Houston as her fairy godmother. After her stunning transformation, they sing in harmony. “It’s possible!” But what’s possible? Even as one can’t help but feel the glittery excitement of the call to adventure or the ability to break free of restrictions to fulfill your heart’s desire, all possible futures only exist in the confines of marriage to a man and conformity to strict beauty standards. You’re still rendered incomplete without an outward transformation to satisfy the male gaze and the society as a whole.

Get the think newsletter.

But Rebecca Solnit’s adaptation of this timeless tale, “Cinderella Liberator,” puts a version of Cinderella with more agency front and center in her new children’s book.

Princess status isn’t the endgame for Solnit’s Cinderella; instead, she asks herself what kind of person she wishes to become. Cinderella isn’t waiting to be rescued from a bad domestic situation, she’s looking "for a little help”; friendship, community and support; a gentle push to be a better person in the world; and to set the terms of her own life. Solnit’s ideation of Cinderella serves the time we live now, where girls (and boys too) need to recognize their own worth and gifts in order to resist rules that would limit their potential.

Beyond that, her “evil” stepmother is no longer strictly a villain but a societal force, an insatiable howling wind driven by greed, driven by a mindset that promotes the idea that there isn't enough abundance in the world to care for community and family.

The nasty stepsisters are more than mean for meanness’ sake: They’re young women who have been conditioned by their stepmother to accept that their only value is their beauty, and the presentation of that beauty to be envied by others. Readers meet this blended family in the throes of their routine — Pearlita piling her hair as high as possible and Paloma stitching away at making their wardrobe more ostentatious and glamorous — showing that they are always obsessively trying to meet expectations of beauty that their mother taught them because society has always demanded it as so.

Solnit attempts to dispel these tropes, addressing how that mindset limits the potential and the possible futures of young girls. “But there isn’t actually a most beautiful person in the world, because there are so many kinds of beauty,” she writes. “Some people love roundness and softness, and other people love sharp edges and strong muscles…. Some people love someone so much they forget what they look like.”

Cinderella ultimately attends the ball — which is when she asks for help for her baking plans, dances and delights in the community, befriends the prince (who also desires more than simply being a prince.) The object, though, isn’t a romantic connection and Cinderella returns home by choice by midnight and respectfully asks the mice and rat who have been transformed as coachwomen if they desire to remain in their transformations or return to their world before.

Solnit’s tale rebukes the old patriarchal order in which we are immersed because it is through fiction — myths, folktales, novels — that readers are allowed the dream space to build pathways for innovation and practice empathy. “The happy ending of the fairy tale, the myth, and the divine comedy of the soul is to be read, not as a contradiction, but as a transcendence of the universal tragedy of man,” Joseph Campbell wrote in “The Hero of Thousand Faces.” “The objective world remains what it was, but because of a shift of emphasis within the subject, is beheld as though transformed.”

The transformation, rags-to-riches myth is evergreen because each generation needs it to survive and upend societal rules and norms. The Cinderella myth was transformed in the late 18th and 19th centuries (and persisted into the 20th and 21st) because the dominant narrative of these centuries has been class struggle. And, in the class struggle as a woman, Cinderella was often relegated to helpless ingenue — uncertain in some iterations, fearful in others, resigned to her fate in too many, all until a man rescues her, a reflection of the dominant narrative about women, too.

But for Solnit’s Cinderella, "happily ever after" is a choice, and her choice. Happily ever after is becoming a fully realized person surrounded by friends, doing what you love, rather than marrying the prince and disappearing into history while he rules. Maybe your choices liberate the prince and everyone around you. Maybe it’s less easy than the fairy tale version, but women are increasingly finding it more fulfilling, too. It’s possible!