Cinderella by Default: Queering the Narrative

I’m taking an American Sign Language class right now. I’ve always thought it would be cool to learn ASL, but in the past several years it has become especially pertinent, because I now have a family member who uses some ASL, due to being autistic and mostly non-verbal. I’ve also found it helpful to use basic signs to communicate with my partner at night, since (without getting into medical details) both of us have some issues that can make it painful to speak that tend to flare up at night. There are a lot of benefits to learning a gestural language, and I’ve been enjoying it a lot.

We had a group assignment recently to perform a funny short skit. We could do whatever we wanted as long as it wasn’t inappropriate or anything, but the teacher strongly suggested fairy tales as something that would likely be the easiest.

“Let’s do Cinderella!” one of my group members said.

“Yeah! I’ll be one of the stepsisters!” She pointed to me. “Elizabeth can be Cinderella!”

“Huh? Wait, why me?”

“You’d be perfect for it! You’re blonde,” she reasoned.

Now, some context: I am the only non-Hispanic white person in this group. Everyone else is Latinx. My hair is… some indeterminate color between blonde and brunette. Some strands of it can still be reasonably described as blonde, but some of it is so dark it is almost black. It used to be unquestionably blonde, but like many people with a similar hair color, it got darker as I aged. Now, some people say I’m blonde, some people say I’m “dirty blonde,” and others say I’m brunette. I usually just don’t bother to describe it myself. Other people can decide. I don’t really care.

This time, nobody questioned her assessment of my hair color, but I was half expecting an argument, because it’s happened before.

In any case, I really don’t think that “white and blonde” are essential character traits of Cinderella. Why can’t a Latina play Cinderella if she wants to? Regardless of what ethnicity the actress is, the story would still make sense.

Of course, I recognize that the portrayal could become more problematic because of the Ethnic Menial Labor trope and the very over-represented stereotype of Latinas as maids (according to the study quoted in that post, “Since 1996, 69% of maid characters on major films and TV shows are Latina!”). I’m sure that some people would be uncomfortable with the casting because of that, and that’s completely reasonable. But on the other hand, isn’t the Cinderella story already about getting out of forced domestic labor and thus a story that has the potential for subversion of that stereotype?

We should also keep in mind that similar stories have existed in many cultures, not just European ones. So I think it’s terrible to suggest that only blonde white girls can play Cinderella.

I asked if anyone else wanted to play Cinderella before the role defaulted to me just because I’m white. But no one wanted to, because they weren’t that comfortable with the language so they didn’t want to have that many lines. And most of them, except for our Fairy Godmother who suggested that we do Cinderella in the first place, had no acting experience either. Okay, fair enough.

I’ve had minor roles in three plays because my parents put me in theater camp when I was a kid, and I’ve taken some drama classes too, so I wasn’t intimidated by that.

But I’m uncomfortable with the Cinderella narrative.

I don’t like it, because the ending suggests that the only way to escape an abusive situation of forced servitude is by marrying a rich guy you’ve just met, especially if he’s royalty. And that’s terribly unimaginative.

I mean, come on. Cinderella has a Fairy Godmother. Are you really telling me that the best she can do is give her a temporary dress, and turn some stuff into other stuff for a little while? Isn’t that directly contradicted in the story itself, because the glass slippers don’t disappear after midnight?

Also, where was this Fairy Godmother before now? I think she’s been slacking off.

And why does this even have to be a Prince that Cinderella marries anyway? How heteronormative. If marriage really has to be involved, I’d at least want to see a queer relationship develop.

So, since I was the one who had the most lines in this thing, and I had to start practicing well before the other students, I rewrote the script.

In my version, when Cinderella meets her Fairy Godmother, she’s like, “Hey wait a minute, where have you been this whole time?”

And the Fairy Godmother is like, “Whoops, sorry! I was traveling around the world. But I’m here now! You should go to the ball and have a good time!”

So she goes to the ball and has fun dancing with the Prince. (Because of course we weren’t getting away with not having a Prince, since we had one guy in our group and there’s really no one else he could play in this story.)

In the 2015 live action version of Cinderella, Ella meets the Prince in the woods before the ball and they hit it off there. The Prince’s reason for inviting all the ladies in the kingdom to the ball is because he’s already hoping to meet Ella. And that at least makes the whole thing easier to accept for a modern audience.

But being limited to about 7 minutes, we really didn’t have that kind of time to establish anything like that.

So when the Prince comes looking for Cinderella the next day, she still barely knows him and she’s really not into the idea of marriage. She has decided she doesn’t want to have kids, because she already spends all her time taking care of her step-family and it’s really not fun. She doesn’t know anything about politics, but she knows she’d be required to produce an heir if she married the Prince, and suspects she’d be obligated to do a lot of other stuff, too. She’s not willing to trade one set of obligations for another. And even if she has servants to do the menial labor for her, having been in that position herself, she doesn’t want to put others in that position.

So she refuses.

After all, she’s got a Fairy Godmother who likes to travel around the world, so why not do that for a while instead? Her Fairy Godmother readily agrees, and off they go! Who knows what adventures they’ll find?

Maybe after a while, they find a nice little cottage in a forest and Cinderella settles down there, living out her days in peace and quiet, surrounded by many animal friends. Maybe her Fairy Godmother sticks around, and they live together as queerplatonic partners. Or maybe Cinderella is happy solo. Or maybe she finds a great community somewhere that readily accepts her, where no one is forced into servitude and everyone has ample opportunities to learn and grow together.

That’s what I’d call a happy ending.

6 thoughts on “Cinderella by Default: Queering the Narrative

  1. So, actually, interesting anecdote: I was Cinderella in a touring theatre production for schools (we went to elementary schools to performed there) and I had multiple kids wonder at how I could be Cinderella when I wasn’t blonde and didn’t have a blue dress. Due to the areas we were performing in, the majority of our audiences were black and Latinx kids and I’d get the “why aren’t you blonde?” question after almost every show. (We did Rumpelstiltskin next year and got no questions, so I wonder how much of this is influenced by the hegemony of the animated Disney movie. Although our Fairy Godmother was black and got no questions to the best of my knowledge, so maybe the merchandise is the more important factor…)

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    • Oh wow, that’s really cool! And hey, I was in Rumpelstiltskin too!

      Yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s all about that Disney movie… or both of them now I guess? I wish they were brave enough to go with a non- white actress for the live action one, but what can you expect from Disney… I think people are more likely to accept supporting roles as any ethnicity over the main character too.

      And then there’s witches, who are apparently not allowed to be blonde (unless they’re “good” witches) so when I played a witch as a kid, they made me spray- dye my hair black… which was awful because after several days in a row of this, my hair actually started falling out. If only the adults had been less racist, ugh.

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