The Cinderella Complex

What do modern fairy tales tell us about our culture?

Ella meets her fate

No matter how sassy, ambitious, and independent a girl might be, her life is only complete when she’s Mrs. Prince Charming. At least that’s the subtext of two “modern” Cinderella stories now in theaters— Ella Enchanted and The Prince & Me.

Both films are updates of Walt Disney’s well-known take on the classic fairy tale, in which a passive, preternaturally good young woman is saved from a dismal life as a scullery maid by the arrival of her Prince Charming. But in hewing closely to this version’s old-fashioned plotline, both films also mark a shift away from the feminist revisions and critiques of the 1960s and ‘70s, in which writers like Marcia Lieberman and Angela Carter rejected the notion that happiness was only to be found by nabbing a man.

Historically, fairy tales have reflected the values of the society in which they were written or revised–mirroring its preoccupations, obsessions, ambitions, and shortcomings. So the question inevitably arises: What do these updates say about our culture’s view of women and marriage? Why do the older versions no longer ring true?

In Ella Enchanted, Ella of Frell (played by Anne Hathaway), a poor but beautiful young woman desperate to escape the constraints of her awful stepfamily, sets out to rid herself of a curse she’s had since birth—excessive obedience. (Gail Carson Levine, who wrote the novel Ella Enchanted, set her defiant protagonist in opposition to Disney’s Cinderella whom she saw as blindly obedient.) Along the way, Ella and the kingdom’s much sought-after prince, Prince Charmont (“Char”), fall in love. In The Prince & Me, Paige, a poor farm girl (played by Julia Stiles) fervently pursues her dream of becoming a doctor by working her way through college. When she falls in love with “Eddie,” the crown prince of Denmark, she is faced with a choice: Should she attend medical school or stay with her true love?

It’s interesting to examine the transformation that occurs in each young woman’s life after meeting her prince. Prior to their courtships, Ella and Paige are role models for what modern women are taught they should be: smart, confident, career-minded. They are in control of their destinies and undistracted by men. Paige, for example, makes it clear that she has no time for a boyfriend who might compromise her goals.

And yet their admirable moxie finds its demise in romance. Pair Ella and Paige with their better halves and they differ little from their Disney predecessor: They’re submissive and invisible, women behind their men.

Destined to be queen

Indeed, the responsibility of each woman is to bolster her man’s ego and improve his public image. When Eddie and Char express doubt and fear about becoming king, Paige and Ella inspire their princes with an obligatory adoring pep talk, providing them with the confidence to ascend the throne. In The Prince & Me, much is made of Paige’s positive influence on her fiance (she redirects his lowbrow preference for the “Girls Gone Wild” type); we witness Paige’s transformation from independent young woman, worthy of praise in her own right, to caretaker, supporter, muse, and moral compass for her husband.

On one level, of course, Ella Enchanted and The Prince & Me are just teen entertainments, with the sylphlike stars and escapist plots that Hollywood has recognized have box-office potential. The last several years have seen a flood of such princess tales, movies like The Princess Diaries series (also starring Hathaway) and Hilary Duff’s upcoming A Cinderella Story. America’s increased royal fixation may also explain the success of such films; our fascination has no doubt been heightened—at least among teenage girls—by Prince William’s coming of age. His bachelor status provides young women with a fantasy that he might feasibly provide them with their very own fairy tale.

But on another level, these films reflect a newly coalesced form of “feminism”—one that shows women as bright and self-sufficient but doesn’t categorically disparage pre-feminist preoccupations with spouse and family. From a radical feminist perspective, these films seem to be less progressive than the fairy-tale revisions of their immediate forbears; it might even be argued that such “updates” represent a regression. Today’s tales act out society’s dueling fantasies and realities, exposing the deep cultural ambivalence we have about the role of women in society. We may pay lip service to the idea that a woman should be educated and capable, but there remains an unspoken belief in our culture that happily ever after only comes with a prince.

How did we get here? In 1697, French writer Charles Perrault updated an age-old fairy tale about a young woman named Cinderella to appeal to his contemporaries—French nobility and bourgeoisie. Many early versions of the tale boasted a resourceful young woman who played an active role in her destiny. Perrault, however, wrote his Cinderella as a well-mannered, docile, selfless woman who would fit in seamlessly with the ideal 17th-century upperclass society. It was his version that Walt Disney made famous in 1950 and to which feminists vehemently reacted in the 1960s and ‘70s, ultimately co-opting the story to their own ends. (In her famous poem, “Cinderella,” for instance, Anne Sexton mocks the happily ever after: “Cinderella and the prince/ lived, they say, happily ever after/ like two dolls in a museum case/ never bothered by diapers or dust …”)

Today’s teenage girls (the intended audience of these films) have been brought up by women who read Sexton and her peers and who have taught their daughters that they can want it all—marriage, career, family. But can they haveit all? As Ella Enchanted and The Prince & Me demonstrate, women still walk the tightrope between society’s competing expectations: Can a woman maintain her own identity while falling for her prince?

It’s a question our culture has not yet been able to answer. First ladies and wives of presidential candidates are encouraged to forge their own identity, but they nevertheless feel the cultural imperative to present a façade of sympathetic, supportive wife to the American public: Think of Hillary Clinton’s transformation from policy maven to domestic doyenne or Judy Steinberg Dean’s metamorphosis from professional-minded doctor to doting 60 Minutes interviewee. Likewise, the women of Sex and the City were celebrated for being smart, accomplished, and independent, yet they still longed to be swept away for a fairy-tale ending with the man of their dreams. The Bachelor, perhaps our most horrifically explicit public enactment of the fairy tale, thrusts its young female contestants into an environment in which they’re all vying to be “chosen” by “the one”—just as the prince in these fairy tales must “choose” his bride from a pool of eligible maidens.

Yet Ella and Paige do not entirely abandon their individuality. By overcoming her curse of obedience, Ella saves Char’s life and prevents his evil uncle from ruling the kingdom. Paige makes the decision to attend med school, leaving Eddie to tend to Denmark on his own. But in the end, both women fold their lives into the lives of their men, not the other way around. Ella becomes Char’s wife, and though Eddie tells Paige he’ll wait for marriage until she becomes a doctor, Paige still plans to ascend the throne as queen of Denmark; it’s clear that she’ll make some significant sacrifices to be with him—just later, rather than sooner.

The fictional heroines of Ella Enchanted and The Prince & Me attempt to reconcile the dichotomous desires of today’s women, but the resolution is an uneasy one. Neither of these women quite figure out how to navigate the conflict, making them an apt reflection of our society’s own bewilderment. But we’ll get there eventually: Twenty years from now, there will surely be a new Cinderella incarnation. It’s likely she’ll still want her happily ever after, but what that might be is anybody’s guess.