Sunday, January 24, 2010

In Which I Would Cheerfully Feather The Princess, or, The Problem with Cinderella

There's a deep unfairness in a certain fairy tale which struck me even as a wee thing, and has only grown more obnoxious since. It's a fairy tale with a lot of names, and a lot of variations, but it basically follows this line:

Once there was a beautiful girl, naturally of high or highish station, whose horrible awful mother/stepmother/sisters/father treated wrong. She was made to do chores, and dressed worse than the rest of the family, even though she was pretty and sweet and they were generally big mean poopy heads. But some supernatural and usually dead version of a mothering force stuck up for her, and the mean poopy heads had their eyes picked out or their feet turned to lead or they were rolled down a hill in a nail studded barrel, you know, like that scene in 10,000 Maniacs. And the pretty girl married a prince, and he didn't have any serious inbreeding deformities or anything, yay. *

Now I don't object to the rather obvious wish fulfillment there. I believe there are times we all feel like innocent lovely blameless people in sea of poopy heads, and a little harmless fantasy revenge is far better than reporting their cars stolen. Some of those stories even feature seriously heinous parents- baby eating in laws and incestuous fathers, or caretakers who mutilate and eat parts of the abused child. Nasty vengeance would indeed seem to be called for, there. And no matter what the level of material comfort, being treated as less-than in any group, by any means, is terrible and even dangerous for humans and other social animals. And for children who are currently in emotionally or physically abusive situations, the power of reading about others in such situations winning through can be massively sustaining, I know.

What chaps my hide is that so many of the Cinderella stories are about the unfairness of, essentially, a rich and privileged person being treated like everybody else. Oh no, look! Our fair heroine is being forced to do chores and physical labor, in an era before machines! She's not allowed to go out partying with her much older sisters! She's supposed to stay home and keep out of the way of people with established households, like every other young unmarried person of her era! How awful! Can't her abusers see she's pretty? And probably innately ritzier than them, by virtue of having a less dramatically branching family tree or something?

The absolute friggin' worst is The Goose Girl, in which a princess, by virtue of being both stupid and a coward, manages to let her intended husband marry her maid, while she, poor thing, is forced to-horrors!- live like a peasant! Doing work, and all! And being scolded by a decapitated horse head, which, admittedly, is creepy. So of course, when this is found out, the maid, who's been able to pass at court the whole time, is tortured to death in a grand public spectacle, and Princess Sissypants is given her oblivious prince, and all's right with the world. That'll teach people born to the serving classes to attempt to ease their situation in any way! Take that, intelligent non-nobles who dare threaten the concept of inborn superiority! If life is hard, just sell your worthless peasant children to the nearest cannibal witch! Geez, there are rules for these things.

I like to think that a few months later, this unspecified little nation-state was utterly overrun by Viking raiders, who took the ruling couple back to serve as house-slaves to their assertive, outspoken wives, where they quickly began to reek of fish and were regarded as utterly ordinary all the long days of their lives.

Rock on, scheming servants. My sympathies go with you.

*Heroines whose stories come close, but dodge this, for various reasons: Snow White (when she's a princess, not Rose Red's peasant sister), the fair maid in Mother Holle, Deerskin (because dude, horrific!), Bearskin (what's with the daughter-rape, fairy tale dads?!?), Two Eyes, the girl of The Cherry Tree, and Vasilisa The Brave, who gets an absolutely awful deal which I should totally write up as its own story someday.