Cinders behind ‘Cinderella’: Melanin and Marriage

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A locked door can give one never-ending sleepless nights until the secret behind is revealed. The story of ‘Cinderella’ is one such locked door, concealing secrets. Let’s find them. Cinderella’s story is not unknown. It is one of those early fairytales that children get obsessed with. ‘Obsession’ might be a very strong word to describe the addiction to the stories but one cannot deny that the influence of these stories stays for a long time. As life gradually unfolds the ‘pretty’ truth about anxieties, pain, and humiliation (the issues some of the popular fairytales centre around), our perspective towards these stories start to change or rather evolve. The story of fair and kind Cinderella is no exception. Since the waves of Feminism hit the society, many critics have been working on the gender issues and gender politics that play their silent roles in the fairytales. Critic like Ruth B. Bottigheimer, in her book Grimm’s Bad Girls and Bold boys: The Moral and Social Vision of the Tales (1987), points out how the fairytales label a girl ‘bad’ and a boy ‘bold’ for accomplishing the one and the same deed. In her very recent essay, titled “Fertility Control and the Birth of the Modern European Fairy-Tale Heroine”, Bottigheimer points out the saddening truth about women’s loss of control on their own bodies in various fairytales. ‘Cinderella’, undoubtedly, is not free from such questions. But let’s bring the racial and marital issues under the spotlight for a while. Being a universally known story and having been made into several popular movies, Cinderella is not a white girl’s property anymore. She is now equally a brown girl’s fantasy as well as of a black girl’s. But the conception of Cinderella is stuck in the figure of a white skinny woman with blonde hair and pink cheeks. She is never brown or black neither in the illustrations nor in any of the movies or Broadway musicals. The only brown creatures that are shown in the Disney’s ‘Cinderella’ (1950) are the mice that are loyal friends to the damsel and are happy to serve her. ‘Cinderella’ has been told by many authors in many ways. Charles Perrault’s Cinderella; or, The Little Glass Slipper (1697) introduced a Fairy Godmother while Anne Sexton’s and Brothers Grimm’s version have no such human helping figure except a white bird that represents the blessings of her dead mother. The Fairy Godmother also appears in the Disney’s 1950 adaptation of the story, who helps Cinderella ‘transform’ from a dirty worn out woman to a beautiful, fair and attractive one. Her ragged clothes are changed into a beautiful gown that would allow her to enter the Royal ball at the palace. Not only that, the Fairy Godmother gives her beautiful glass slippers which are a symbol of purity and virginity of Cinderella. The Prince falls for her beauty as soon as he sees her, (and we never know if he ever appreciates her for intellect), the step-sisters who never leave any chances unused to humiliate her were struck so hard by her beauty that they cannot recognize her throughout the Ball (which is absurd). Thus a beautiful dress and fairness became the social ladder…a licence. One of the step-sisters, before going to the ball mock Cinderella by saying, “It would make the people laugh to see a Cinderwench at a ball.” Ironically, the same person praises the transformed Cinderella in front of the real Cinderella after returning from the ball, “The finest princess was there, the most beautiful that mortal eyes have ever seen. She showed us a thousand civilities, and gave us oranges and citrons.” Thus, beauty and impressive attire not only turned Cinderella eligible for the Ball…but also changed her entire identity. The obsession with fairness and makeovers are not faded even in the 21st century. Many tropical women and men are not proud of their natural tanned skin tone. This anxiety is fuelled by the advertisements of some cosmetics brands that portray a dark skinned man or woman as an unconfident one, unable to do achieve worth anything. These commercials always tend to establish Fairness and loveliness of a human being as the primary conditions of his or her chances to do better and greater deeds. They also seem to prove that it is one’s flawless beauty that works as a catalyst behind the real ability of the person. But life isn’t a fairytale where beauty would bring us royalty or success. It is rather a trap. And such cases are not uncommon where people step into such traps and go for a makeover only to feel confident and ‘superior’. But little do they know that all these external transformations are temporary just like the fairy Godmother’s magic. Cinderella’s story, like other fairytales, also ends with a happy note: marriage. It is interesting how the tale begins with a marriage and also ends with one. Marriage, as it turns out, is one of the dominating issues throughout the story. The widower father of Cinderella marries another woman with two daughters of his own daughter’s age. The three young women surely had a competition in the track of marriage and perhaps, that is why, Cinderella, too, wanted to go to the Ball and try her luck (but in the recent live-action adaptation from Disney, directed by none other than Kenneth Branagh, shows Cinderella’s former encounter with a disguised Prince and her desire to go to the ball was only to meet her friend, and not the Prince.). It wouldn’t be an offence to point out the fact that the step-sisters are portrayed awkwardly to keep Cinderella always a step ahead of them. Finally Cinderella fits perfect into the glass slipper among all maidens in the kingdom. But by which parameter did the society consider Cinderella to be a ‘Perfect’ one? According to the story, Cinderella never complained, she never fought back, and never joined in a conversation about sexuality; she always did what she was told to do and suffered silently. So then, are these the prime and foremost conditions of womanly perfection? This leads us to another question: did Cinderella realize that by fitting into the slipper she accepted the terms and conditions of her in-laws? This scene isn’t uncommon in our contemporary Indian society where the matrimonial sites and Patra-Patri columns have paved their way to the front pages of tabloids and newspapers. In such matrimonial columns there are instances where the bride or groom’s family mentions the ‘should have-s’ and ‘shouldn’t have-s’ of the match-to-be…almost objectifying a living entity. Another matter surfaces up: the issues regarding the unequal marriages. A sequel to Disney’s ‘Cinderella’ (1950), titled ‘Cinderella II: Dreams Come True’ (2002) shows Cinderella’s struggle to become a royal personage from a regular woman. The movie gives us several after-marriage stories of Cinderella where she faces problems with her royal in-laws and in some way or another she makes them happy. Although sometimes she manages things in her own way the purpose remains the same: be an unpaid maid and make everyone happy. Well, this can’t be a very unfamiliar scene with what are shown in the TV serials now-a-days, can it? A recent case in West Bengal, where a 24 years-old woman (Mita Das) was tortured and eventually murdered by her in-laws, again questioned the notion of ‘Happily-ever-after’ of a fairytale. Mita’s story isn’t a new one though. Thousand of Mita(s) die every day (be it suicide or murder) – just because they didn’t fit, they couldn’t perform well enough as a ‘perfect’ wife. So we see, while the fictional Cinderella(s) keep on managing to continue their stories, the real life Cinderella(s) face “The End”(s) so soon.

– Subarnarekha Pal

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