A serious defense of Cinderella's "ugly" step-sisters
We’re all super-psyched for the new version of Disney’s Cinderella and we have high hopes that some of the dated stereotypes in the classic version of the fairytale (which we still kind of love for old time’s sake) will be updated for a new generation.
But in the meantime, let’s backtrack to the three original versions of Cinderella—Charles Perrault’s, The Brothers Grimm’s and Disney’s. We’ve always thought that Cinderella had it bad, but the real victims in this classic story are Drizella and Anastasia Tremaine—the so-called “ugly” and “evil” stepsisters. Sure, they may boss Cinderella around way too much and react with hostility when they realize she STOLE their stuff. But we can chalk that up to three things: fairly common sibling rivalry, a crappy mom who pitted the sisters against their step-sister, and a bunch of mice who did steal their stuff. And that’s just the beginning of the whole step-sister misunderstanding.
In all the variations of this fairy tale, a couple of things remain constant: the “evil/ugly” stepsisters dynamic and a really complicated pair of shoes. Shoes can be tricky, y’all, but have we ever stopped to take a look at the real story behind the Tremaine sisters?
The first thing we know about the step-sisters is that they believe, as so many children do, whatever their crazy, demanding mother tells them is true, which is basically: you’ll only be happy if you win the love of a man. How screwed up is that?! They are clearly living in a dysfunctional household, run by a woman who values male acceptance above all else.
Secondly, in the version by Perrault, the sisters are not described as “ugly” but rather “proud and haughty.” Haughty isn’t awesome, but what’s so wrong with being a proud woman? And how did that translate into being perceived as unattractive? Okay, time out. So because the sisters aren’t naturally timid/total pushovers, that makes them “ugly”? You’re breaking our hearts over here.
Up until recently (pre-Mulan and Frozen), many Disney fairytales equated beauty with a soft, shy demeanor. The classic beauty was the kind of quiet character who had more in common with tiny birds and mice, rather than people. Think Snow White, or yes, our beloved Cinderella. Pride wasn’t something considered desirable in women, nor were physical features that might be perceived as unique and non-conforming to narrow standards of beauty.
In the Disney film, the stepsisters are visually depicted in stark contrast to Cinderella. Their lips are thinner, their noses more prominent, their eyes rounder. While none of these features are unattractive in real life, in the film, they’re drawn to reflect comedic cruelty. The takeaway: if you look different than prescribed notions of conventional beauty (aka Cinderella), there’s something wrong with you and your dark, dark soul.
If the sisters are “proud,” the viewers are supposed to relish in their ultimate dismissal by the prince. They’re knocked off their high horses, so to speak, when the glass slipper comes around. But in actuality, their rejection by the prince is pretty sad, and not for obvious reasons.
In Grimm’s version of the fairytale, the stepsisters go to drastic lengths to fit into the slipper. One of the stepsisters cuts off her toes to fit into the shoe, and the other cuts off her own heel.
What if the sisters weren’t trying to deceive the prince, and simply wanted to get away from their awful mother who policed their looks and pressured them into finding a spouse? It may interpreted, via Grimm’s version, that they were self-harming to escape their own wretched, oppressive home life. Maybe their actions don’t measure up to pride, but they do reflect a certain tragedy, a sincere cry for help.
In the fairytale that we rewrite, we take these sisters under our wing and tell them it’s cool, be yourself, and let go of the need to please a mom who places so much value on the opinions of men. (The prince sucked anyway—I mean the guy couldn’t even remember what his dream woman looked like.) And then we tell them they’re beautiful, just the way they are.
Of course, in fairytales so-called “ugly stepsisters” aren’t prone to happy endings. In the end of Perrault’s version, the stepsisters beg for Cinderella’s forgiveness and she takes pity on them, allowing them to stay in her court and marry lesser lords (gee, thanks). In the classic Disney version, they don’t seem to even get an invitation to the wedding. In Grimm’s version? Well, birds peck out their eyes at Cinderella’s wedding.
Maybe this new Disney version, out in March, will provide a less gruesome, more uplifting outcome for Drizella and Anastasia. Somebody, give a sister (or two) a break.