Bottom line: Do you like Cinderella romances?
Erin: They pretty much always make me want to pull out all my hair.
Holly: I have to admit that I don’t think I’ve read that many Cinderella romances? BUT! I have read approximately 1000 different versions of the Cinderella story – I used to teach a seminar on fairy tales and we spent an entire week on Cinderella – so I have a lot of thoughts. The short version: I think the Cinderella story is fascinating in its malleability and what it can reveal about who retells it. She contains multitudes! In terms of romance, I think my biggest disappointment is when authors don’t do more with it, but rather just stick to the beats of Disney, because that is BO-RING. Where are my magic trees?
Ingrid: I do! Obviously some can be a little stressful, but I think they tend to have a lot of potential.
What defines a “Cinderella” romance for you?
Erin: I would expect to see a poor protagonist living with an unwelcoming family who meets the other protagonist in some kind of misunderstanding/deception situation, after which the protagonists are separated and come back together when the truth is found out. Fairy godmothers, magic pumpkins, and talking mice optional.
Holly: **cracks knuckles** Ok guys, I’m going to nerd out now. At its heart, Cinderella is about crossing class boundaries. And this movement is a huge source of anxiety – who gets to move up, and who is in danger of moving down. So one could make the argument that any rags-to-riches or unequal match story is a Cinderella romance, but I think that for it to really be a true Cinderella retelling there has to be some back and forth across class lines. When Cinderella goes to the ball, she’s pretending to be wealthy (or, at least, mistaken for someone who is wealthy); the real magic happens when the prince finds out that she’s just a nobody, and recognizes her anyway as The One. This was a long-winded way of saying that I agree with Erin, except I think you can have a Cinderella story without the evil step-sisters. (Speaking in terms of literary devices, they are evil because they fail at doing what Cinderella does successfully.) She just has to be poor.
Ingrid: I feel Holly on this one, but I also feel like a lot of Cinderella romance expands on each character’s value system–for example, obviously the Evil Step-family values status above all else. The Prince wants someone “real”. Cinderella wants someone to see her and choose her. So I guess I have found that the whole “your true values will be seen and rewarded accordingly” thing to be what defines a “Cinderella romance” for me.
What do you find fun about Cinderella romances?
Erin: I like that Cinderella is finally able to get out of a bad situation. I would not say that I find them particularly “fun.”
Holly: I think the fantasy of dressing up and pretending to be someone else and escaping your life for just a little bit – and then escaping your life for real – is really powerful.
Ingrid: It’s just a classic rooting for the underdog situation. You know she’s the real gem here, and it feels so satisfying to see her appreciated and rewarded for being a good human.
What do you find problematic about Cinderella romances?
Erin: I am almost always made fantastically anxious or uncomfortable by the unnecessary cruelty of Cinderella’s family, and I don’t like that Cinderella was put in the position to live this way. She also has never seemed to me to have much agency, as she’s very much subjected to a cruel family and rescued by Prince Charming. Things are always happening to her, she is not making things happen for her, which is not something I am good at tolerating in a protagonist.
Holly: First, I disagree that Cinderella necessarily has to be passive – though that does seem to happen a lot. (Again, why is Disney our go-to metric when there is so much other Cinderella material to work with?) There is definitely a sense of, “only a man with money can fix my woes” instead of, I dunno, “I found a decent man and we’ll work it out together and have a modest life full of love and laughter.” But that’s not the trope, so if I have problems with fantasies about obscene wealth, then these are not the books for me.
Ingrid: So, I don’t particularly love the “he’s the only one who sees her worth” vibe. In Ever After with Drew Barrymore, I found that they portrayed the Cinderella character as almost crackling with strength and wit and she certainly had people staunchly in her corner, so I don’t think that dynamic is a given in these stories.
Do Cinderella stories work better for you in a specific sub-genre or time period?
Erin: Maybe they work a little better in a historical context where women were more socially and economically vulnerable than men due to their legal standing. I can’t really think of any adult romance Cinderella stories off the top of my head, but I feel like I’d probably rage at a contemporary heroine who hasn’t worked to get herself out of a bad situation without the help of a Prince Charming. I think any other sub-genre or period would lead me to expect that the heroine should do more to rescue herself before she ever even meets the Prince.
Holly: Wanting to improve your lot in life and maybe being a bit sneaky about doing it transcends time and place.
Ingrid: I feel like half the fun of the Cinderella story is flipping it around and trying it out in new ways. I don’t think any particular way works better because I think it’s pretty versatile!
What’s one book you loved that featured this trope? What’s so great about this book and how it handled that trope?
Erin: Eloisa James’s A Kiss at Midnight probably gets just far away enough from full-blown Cinderella that I enjoyed the story. Things don’t just happen to Kate, Kate makes things happen. And Gabriel has his own problems to wade through before he can finally start making the right choices. So there’s some good drama here instead of a lot of infuriating drama.
Holly: Ok, I’m going to be bad, and pick a movie. Because Ever After is the most satisfying Cinderella retelling.
Ingrid: I’m sorry, but I agree with Holly. Ever After made it almost impossible to focus in school for about 4 months after it came out. Plus he has that accent and the scowl and really it kind of overlaps into Grumpy/Sunshine, which everyone knows is the best trope.
Are you Team Erin, and find Cinderella stories incredibly stressful? Are you Team Ingrid, and love seeing people’s true values revealed and rewarded? Or are you Team Holly, and you’re just gonna be a nerd and spend an hour trolling through this database of different Cinderella folktale retellings? Let us know in the comments!