This Is Not Your Mother’s Cinderella: The Romance Novel as Feminist Fairy Tale

Times are grim for the Brothers Grimm: feminist revisionists keep messing with their fairy tales, trying to expunge misogynism while holding on to that elusive something that makes the tales vibrate in the reader’s mind, that aspect that makes the fairy tale, in Max Luthi’s words, “the universe in miniature” (25). And nowhere is that elusive something more sought after than in romance novels; a genre that relies heavily on the tradition of the tales even while requiring their revision for reader satisfaction. Of course, fairy tales bear a strong similarity to all genre fiction in their certainty about life; as Luthi defines them, fairy tales “aim for clarity, exactness, positiveness, and precision. There is no ‘if’ and no ‘perhaps’” (57). But the similarities between fairy tales and the romance genre in particular are deeper than the tidiness of the universes with which they deal. There is something in the fairy tale that resonates in the romance even though the tales must be extensively revised to satisfy their female audience.

Writers and editors of romance fiction have recognized the close ties of their genre to the tales. Former Harlequin editor Sherie Posesorski has said that all romance novels are “built on” fairy tales, and romance author Tiffany White writes that “fairy tales were the beginning of my love affair with the romance genre” (220). This affinity has not been lost on the publishers’ marketing departments. Several houses such as Harlequin and Bantam have marketed very successful fairy tale series and others are following suit. But what is it, exactly, that makes this relationship so successful? If the power lies simply in the tale, then the stories would be retold with little or no change in plot or characterization, yet all the authors in the Harlequin series, even those who professed an unambiguous love for the tales, made major revisions in the dynamics of their stories. So what aspects of the fairy tale resonate? Structure? Motif? Theme? A closer look at JoAnn Ross’s The Prince and the Showgirl , a 1993 Harlequin Temptation based on the Cinderella story, sheds some light on the question of just what it was that the Brothers Grimm had going for them, and what it is that romance writers have been tapping into ever since.

The most obvious source of resonance in the translation of Grimm’s “Cinderella” to Ross’s Prince would seem to be the structure of the plot, from “once upon a time” to “happily ever after.” Critic Steven Swan Jones argues that “the very great extent to which literature relies upon folk traditions to hook and hold its audience” depends upon “identical narrative patterns and basic sociological premises” (32). If Jones is right, analyzing and comparing the narrative structures of the Grimm’s and Ross’s Cinderellas should point up the similarities that make the specific Cinderella plot so successful. But the two most common approaches to fairy tale structure–those of V. Propp and Claud Levi-Strauss–both prove barren in this case.

A Proppian analysis is the purest analysis of the structure of the tale because it looks only at the form, not at the specific content. Yet this is the reason that a comparison of Proppian analyses of the Cinderella story and of Ross’s book isn’t particularly helpful: the comparison reveals generic structure only. There’s a protagonist with a lack who decides to do something about it, encounters conflict generated by the antagonist, resolves it, defeats the antagonist, and emerges transformed into a new person. The only specifics at work here are the aspects that tie the tale to family (lack of a father, threat to family, resolution through marriage) and the increase in the status of the hero at the resolution. Although these specifics are certainly romance staples (earlier heroines were often made orphans to increase their plights; every hero is a prince not a frog), they aren’t specific enough for readers to recognize the Cinderella plot.

Claud Levi-Strauss’s analysis of oppositions and conflict also isn’t much help. Levi-Strauss argued that the structure of the fairy tale in its oppositions remains constant even as it crosses cultures, as Cinderella certainly had to do to get to Harlequin. Yet Ross eliminates most of those constants in her retelling. David Pace has pointed out that the oppositions between Cinderella and her step-sisters create tensions because the evil, vain. lazy, dirty sisters are high status while the good, modest, hardworking, clean Cinderella is low status. A reader is invested immediately because the external signs of status have not been assigned properly. But Ross announces in her author’s note that “this is not the fairy tale your mother knew” and recasts the wicked stepmother and stepsisters as hapless victims of the father’s trusting nature: he has died, and his manager has embezzled his tax payments, and now the family is poor with a huge tax bill. Not only do the step-relations not vilify the Cinderella figure (here named Sabrina), they turn to her for help, look to her for leadership, and hand over power to her as they travel to a Monaco-like country to sing as a sister act at the coronation of the country’s prince in order to restore the family’s fortunes. Ross’s revisions stem from a rejection of the stereotype that casts all women as bitter rivals; she makes it clear in her note that the stepsisters are “worlds different from those original harridans” (220). But the revision also destroys the tension of the opposites that would make the story work across cultures.

Ross’s revisions also counter most of the other conclusions that Pace draws from his analysis of the original tale. For example, Pace argues that the opposition of the women in “Cinderella,” which shows that there is no familial feeling between Cinderella and her sisters, means that the tale shows that “only blood or marriage ties can hold a family together” (253). Yet Ross’s Sabrina feels passionately responsible for the family she’s acquired by her father’s marriage, not her own. Pace also points that in the Cinderella myth “unmarried = low status and married = high status” (254). But while this is at work in all traditional romances which demand a marriage or a promise of a marriage at the end, it really doesn’t apply to Ross’s romance because at the end of the novel, Sabrina and her family have earned the fame they need to establish their careers, pay off their debtors, and return to living well on their own. Sabrina doesn’t need the prince to return to living well, although she will certainly rise in status when she married royalty.

If the structure of the tale isn’t what resonates in the romance, is it the motifs that carry the message to the reader? Jane Yolen sums up the Cinderella motifs as “an ill-treated though rich and worthy heroine in Cinders-disguise; the aid of a magical gift or advice by a beast/bird/mother substitute; the dance/festival/church scene where the heroine comes in radiant display; [and] recognition through a token” (298). Ross hits only one of these–Sabrina gets dressed to the teeth and goes to a ball where she dances with a prince–but Ross changes the meaning of the motif significantly because the prince already knows who Sabrina is.

The motifs of the Aarne-Thompson Index reconstruct the archetypes of the tale from variants from cultures all over the world, and Ross hits some of the Index criteria as listed under tale type 510. But once again, the motifs that are peculiar to “Cinderella” are missing. Sabrina is not The Persecuted Heroine, and she has no Magic Help. She does meet the criteria of the next motif–she meets the Prince and dances with him in beautiful clothing–but there is no Proof of Identity scene, no slipper-test, no ring, no golden apple. She achieves motif #5, Marriage with the Prince, but that’s the end of every romance novel, not just Ross’s Cinderella remake (Ramaujan 266). In fact, meeting with a romance figure and a happy ending are basic romance genre criteria, so Ross very probably did not choose these elements because they’d resonate with her readers as the Cinderella story in particular.

This rejection of most of the motifs does more than just remove familiarity with the tale from the plot of Ross’s book: it also skews the power structure. The power in “Cinderella” comes from two sources: magic and status. By removing the magic elements, Ross has leveled the playing field. As Jack Zipes has noted, fairy tales take place in a “realm without morals” where magic and status determine the winner (8). Cinderella would still be in the ashes if it weren’t for the magic of her dead mother, and she’d still be poor if the prince hadn’t had the clout to defy her stepmother. But Ross’s deletion of the magic elements means that her Sabrina has to use her own talents to rise; her removal of the stepmother as antagonist means that the prince’s power is irrelevant to Sabrina’s success. In short, by messing with motif, Ross had undercut whatever resonance the elements of the tale provided.

If the motifs can be shifted easily, theme can’t. Theme is the spine of the story; rip that out and the whole plot puddles at your feet. And theme in fairy tales is very consistent. As Luthi has argued, the fairy tale introduction of “once upon a time,” or in the Breton, “once there was, one day there will be,” means that “what once occurred, had the tendency continually to recur,” and that the fairy tale theme is for all time (47). Propp has shown the universal fairy tale theme to be that if you have a lack in your life and you quest for an answer, you will be rewarded. And Pace in his discussion of Levi-Strauss has noted that behind the idea of Cinderella’s social mobility is “the belief that there is an innate justice within the social system and that wrongs will eventually be righted” so that even though the Grimm’s Cinderella is pretty much a passive wimp, she succeeds anyway because good triumphs and the world is a just place (254). These thematic aspects are present in Ross’s story because, in romance, there is an underlying certainty that love really does conquer all, that (to paraphrase Pace) there is a belief in a kind of innate justice within the emotional system of human beings. Still, although this may be an indication of what ties the romance in general to the fairy tale in general, it can hardly be cited as an aspect that demonstrates why Cinderella in specific resonates in Ross’s novel.

Beyond that, theme is problematic in “Cinderella” because the heroine is too passive to truly quest. Although Jane Yolen has pointed out that the Cinderellas of much earlier tales “made their own way in the world, tricking their stepsisters with double-talk, artfully disguising themselves, or figuring out a way to win the king’s son,” those earlier tales aren’t the ones most modern women remember (296-7). We remember the passive woman in the Grimm ashes. In the Grimm’s story, Cinderella feels a lack of love and status; she follows her mother’s interdiction and is good; she quests (?) by asking others for help, and she is rewarded with the love of the prince and marriage. The tale punishes active women (the stepsisters who move heaven and earth and even chop off body parts to snag the prince) and rewards the passive (Cinderella, who depends on other to save her, runs away from confrontation, and sits waiting to be rescued). The Grimm’s culture was obviously sending women the message/theme: “Be good and passive and you will be rewarded.”

But if the Grimm’s culture rewards passivity in females, Ross’s modern audience does not. Therefore Ross has to skew her theme: her heroine is aggressive as she leads her sisters to security; she approaches the prince sexually; and she defends herself physically against her attackers because, as Ross puts it, her prince “could only fall in love with a woman capable of slaying her own dragons” (220). Ross’s Cinderella moves the plot instead of being moved by it, so the theme of Ross’s novel is not “Be Good and Passive” but “Be Strong and Aggressive “ or “Be Like the Bad Stepsisters.” Obviously, specific theme in “Cinderella” is not what makes Ross’s novel resonate.

So what does resonate?

In the final analysis, Ross’s story is specifically a Cinderella story for two superficial reasons: Sabrina has a stepmother and stepsisters, and she goes to the ball and dances in a beautiful dress. That’s enough for readers to identify the story’s source as ‘Cinderella,’ but not enough for the deep structure of the fairy tale to resonate because the deep structure has been transformed by Ross’s revisions.

Which leads us back to the fairy tale in general. Something is at work here; if it’s not from the tale type in particular, it must be from the genre in general. And sure enough, if we give up examining the specific tales to concentrate on the general aspects, the resonating elements become clear. Propp’s structure of lack/lack liquidated in fairy tales becomes valuable because the generic lack in fairy tales is almost always a double bind of low status and lack of love, both of which translate to a lack of security. And the fairy tale heroine always liquidates the lack; she always rises in status at the end, and she always achieves a marriage that assures her not only of love happily ever after but also of a family structure and protection. The most important aspect of this is the reason that the heroine lives happily ever after: the fairy tale assures the reader that warmth and love are the rewards that a good woman gets naturally. She does not have to earn the reward; in fact, she can sit in the ashes and she’ll still get her prince.

This would seem to be skewed in the romance revisions because all the heroines actively pursue their quests, but a closer look shows that the same structure is still at work because the best of these heroine are not pursuing love. The romance heroine pursues a worthy goal and achieves it on her own while the romance plot runs in tandem with her quest; therefore the romance is something the heroine achieves inadvertently while working to win her external goal. She doesn’t have to earn her hero’s love; she gets it as a freebie, unconditionally, because she’s intrinsically worthy of being loved, and her worth is demonstrated to the reader by the way she conducts her quest. Her hero doesn’t love her because she wins; he loves her because of the person she is. At Luthi puts it, the fairy tale hero and heroine “do the right thing, they hit the right key, they are heaven’s favorites” (143). Seen in this light, Cinderella, passive in the ashes and Sabrina, spunky in sequins, are sisters under the skin.

In this move from the specific story to the fairy tale in general, even the motifs come into play, especially Meeting the Prince and Marrying the Prince. Every romance hero must be a prince. He can be flawed, but he can’t be fatally flawed, and in some way he must offer the heroine something of great value, usually something that will increase her power. So while romance heroes don’t have to be handsome, they do usually have to be strong or admired in their communities (status) or wealthy or successful or all of the above so that by offering the heroine marriage, public confirmation of unconditional love within the sanctions of society, they increase her security.

All of these aspects of structure and motif reinforce the most important source of resonance: theme. The generic fairy tale theme is embedded so strongly in the structure and motif of the genre that it has already become obvious in this course of this paper: society is emotionally just and good, and therefore a woman will be rewarded with unconditional love if she remains true to herself (and her culture’s concept of a heroine). This becomes evident thorough a cursory survey of the romance genre over the past thirty years. Early heroines were active in their plots but passive in relationships with the heroes. Rape romances were common in the seventies, inspired by the success of Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower , but these romances, as distasteful as they seem today, actually reinforced the romance theme. For although the hero initially rapes the heroine through a misunderstanding, her innate strength and courage force him to love her unconditionally, thereby making the heroine the powerful secure figure at the end of the story. Today, rape romances are anathema at publishing houses because our culture now recognizes that there is no misunderstanding that will excuse rape, but this shift shows only that society’s perception of what is acceptable in a hero and heroine have changed, not that the theme of romance has changed. The heroine still achieves security and unconditional love simply because of who she intrinsically is because her society is part of an emotionally just universe. The romance genre has planted its roots firmly in the universe of the fairy tale.

But if the theme alone makes the romance resonate with fairy tale power, then why are the specific fairy tale books so particularly popular? A look at reader response to the individual fairy tales provides a possible answer: the tales don’t quite get it right.

Although Steven Swan Jones has argued that the resonance of a tale comes from the text interpreting “the larger drama of life,” in fairy tales that larger drama is often of male life, not female, and this has led many women to feel both drawn to the original tales and uncomfortable with them. Luthi states that “the fairy tale is a poetic version of man and his relationship to the world, a vision that for centuries has inspired the tale’s hearers with strength and confidence because they sensed the fundamental truth of this vision,” but ask even a small sampling of women how they feel about fairy tale heroines, and you’ll find a surprisingly consistent lack of confidence in the “fundamental truth” of the genre (144). This unease was captured beautifully by Candace Bergen when she announced at the Academy Awards that her favorite movie as a child was Snow White because she learned that someday a prince would come and sweep her away on a white horse, and then added, “It took me years to get over that.”

“Getting over that” isn’t easy; what we internalize about life as children stays with us at a very deep level. Folklorist Kay Stone interviewed women who reported over and over again internalizing the passive message of the fairy tale. One woman described herself, like Bergen, as putting herself “in the princess’s role, waiting for Prince Charming.” Another said, “I was homely, and I kept thinking that [what happened to Cinderella] would happen to me, too–I’d bloom one day. But it’s never happened. I’m still waiting!” (136). And an eleven-year-old girl, looking back on her earlier interpretation of “Cinderella,” said, “I used to like ‘Cinderella,’ too, like, it should be my story. She starts off very poor and then she gets rich and very successful, and I used to think of myself that way. I thought I’d just sit around and get all this money” (qtd. in Stone 135). Eventually reality sinks in–waiting isn’t going to do it–and the real discomfort begins. Here’s this delightful fairy tale all about women achieving love and security, and it just doesn’t work.

But the fact that it doesn’t work doesn’t negate the power of the tale. One woman reported to Stone that “I remember a feeling of being left out in the fairy tale stories. Whatever the story was about, it wasn’t about me. But this feeling didn’t make me not interested in them. I knew there was something I was supposed to do or be to fit in there, but I couldn’t do it, and it bothered me” (qtd. in Stone 133). Even the Harlequin authors who embrace the most traditional aspects of the fairy tales put in qualifiers that make the ideas “more about me.” Leanne Banks wrote that she had chosen Snow White as her tale because “I fell in love with the brave, handsome prince. I admired Snow White’s beautiful complexion and generous nature. I also admired her housekeeping ability…” But then Bank follows this traditional list of good girl attributes with a subversive caveat: “When the cameras stopped, did those seven men ever drive Snow White straight up the wall? Did they cramp her love life? Did she dream of opening and managing her own mining company?” (i). Clearly, Banks is like Stone’s subject: she has problems identifying with the heroine, but she can’t escape the tale, either. As Luthi has pointed out, “Fairy tales are unreal, but they are not untrue: they reflect the essential development and conditions of man’s existence” (70).

But what can’t be escaped can be revised. The magic of the specific tale romance is that it resolves the problems women have with the specific stories by revising the detail without altering the central truth of emotional justice, thereby coupling the resonance of the story with the satisfaction of getting it told right this time.

The major move in the resolution of the problem is the transformation of the character of the heroine and her movement through the plot to make reader identification more comfortable. As noted earlier, the Grimm heroines were almost universally passive and static because that kind of women were good women in their culture, but that kind of heroine is frustrating for modern readers. Stone reports that one woman remembered identifying with the Snow Queen, even though she was meant to be a negative figure, because she was so powerful. A twelve-year-old girl told Stone that she identified with the older sisters who kept making stupid mistakes because they were more interesting to her than the heroine figures “who just sit by the fireside and never do anything, and then one day blossom into beautiful girls” (qtd. in Stone 132). The message is clear: female readers need a female heroine who will do something. So JoAnn Ross, while recognizing the inescapable draw of the Cinderella plot, recast the story to make it “more about” the female reader by giving her heroine the capacity for action and power.

Ross’s core problem with adapting the fairy tale as a model for her modern romance was that Cinderella is not the hero in her story. In genre fiction or any other form of popular narrative, hero/protagonists must be at the center of the action and must, through their own actions, set and keep the plot in motion by striving for something they need desperately. But the fairy tale heroine is most often a catalyst not an actor. It is her beauty that sets the plot in motion, spurring the hero to pursue and rescue her while she remains passive and pure, patriarchal virtues but protagonist vices. This need for the revision of the passive heroine can be most easily seen by analyzing the Cinderella plot using screenwriting analyst Michael Hauge’s character opposition diagram. Hauge argues that in any modern plot, the protagonist must be in direct opposition to the antagonist (Hauge calls these figures “hero” and “nemesis”) in order to satisfy the reader’s need for catharsis, an opposition that is also prevalent in all fairy tales. For practical purposes, this opposition means that the protagonist’s motivation for action must become the source of the antagonist’s conflict and vice versa.

FIGURE ONE GOES HERE (and Jenny is trying desperately to find it)

Hauge’s diagram makes the problem in “Cinderella” evident at once. As shown in the first diagram above, while the stepmother/antagonist’s motivation does indeed lead to action that provides Cinderella’s conflict, Cinderella’s motivation produces no action on her part. Instead, the dead mother and the prince are the characters whose actions haul Cinderella out of the dust and thwart the stepmother. So where is the real conflict in the classic Cinderella? As the second diagram above shows, it’s between the prince and the stepmother, making Cinderella a bit player in her own story.

FIGURE TWO GOES HERE (this one too!)

And that’s not the only problem in the original conflict. Hauge’s diagram has two more character slots. One is for the reflection or ficelle character, the side-kick who provides help and understanding for the hero; in “Cinderella,” that’s the dead mother who works through the magic birds, but she’s missing in Ross’s version. Hauge’s last character slot is for the romance character, the reward the protagonist gets if she completes her quest. In “Cinderella,” the reward for the person who completes the quest is–Cinderella. This conflict problem is present in almost every fairy tale with a female protagonist. As Jack Zipes as noted, in female-hero tales, the primary goal is marriage: for Cinderella being a reward is her reward. But in male-hero tales, achievement is more important than winning a wife. As Zipes, puts it, “Women are incidental to the fates of the male characters whereas males endow the lives of the females with purpose (26). Ross couldn’t make her plot work on female hero lines, not in 1993. So she inverted the structure of “Cinderella” to put Cinderella firmly in place as hero; as shown in the second diagram above, Sabrina actively outwits, not the step-relations who have become benevolent reflection figures, but the anti-royalists who intend to bring down her prince and in the process cancel her performance which she must complete to save her family. The double-layered romance plot leaves the prince exactly where he’s supposed to be, as the princess-hero’s reward.

What Ross has accomplished is to fix the story for the reader by doing what Terry Eagleton has termed “defamiliarizing the systems in the text” (102). Eagleton explains semiotician Yury Lotman’s argument that when certain patterns in texts are violated, the violation throws the patterns into relief so that “even the absence of certain devices may produce meaning; if the codes which the work has generated lead us to expect a rhyme or a happy ending which does not materialize, this ‘minus device,’ as Lotman terms it, may be as effective a unit of meaning as any other” (103). In this case, the changes create a more effective unit of meaning than the original: by “defamiliarizing” the systems in “Cinderella,” Ross has created a parallel text with a heroine who shows the reader an acceptable version of “what to do”–not sit in the ashes but be active and aggressive and demand satisfaction in her life.

That is what all the romance revisions of fairy tales accomplish: they take the general elements that resonate from all fairy tales and recast them using just enough concrete detail from the original tales so that the reader can recognize the tale that’s being reworked. The reading of the recasting becomes tremendously satisfying because this time, the reader isn’t left out of the story anymore; now it’s about her.

This combination of resonating theme and liberating recasting is powerful. First, the theme draws the reader in. As Harlequin author Tiffany White wrote, fairy tales “taught me…the magic in believing and that there is always a handsome prince” (220), and this is the bottom line that romance has remained steadfast to. No matter how much the genre has evolved over the years, there is always a prince, and the heroine always wins his devotion. But the romance delivers more, promising the modern reader that she will win love only if she remains true to herself–active and passionate. It’s a simplistic message but an important one, for in a huge, chaotic world where a woman is sent so many conflicting and impossible signals about who she should be and how she should act, the romance novel offers a precise miniature universe in which, if she follows her instincts and her heart, she’ll live happily ever after.

And for women everywhere, that’s not a Grimm message at all.

Works Cited:

Banks, Leanne.   The Fairest of Them All .   NY: Bantam, 1993.

“Cinderella.”   Grimm’s Fairy Tales.   Cleveland: World Publishing Co.

Davis-Todd, Birgit.   Telephone interview. 10 Jan. 94.

Eagleton, Terry.   Literary Theory: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 1983.

Hauge, Michael.   “Screenwriting for Hollywood from Concept to Sale” Seminar.   Cincinnati, 6-7 Nov. 1993.

Jones, Steven Swan.   Folklore and Lit in the United States: An Annotated Bibliography of Studies of Folklore in American Literature.   NY: Garland, 1984.

Luthi, Max.   Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales. NY: Indiana UP, 1970.

Pace, David.   “Beyond Morphology: Levi-Strauss and the Analysis of Folktales.”   Cinderella: A Casebook . Ed. Alan Dundes.   Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.

Posesorski, Sherie.   Telephone interview. 23 Nov. 93.

Propp, V. Morphology of the Folktale . Trans. Laurence Scott.   Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1968,

Ramanujan, A. K.   “Hanchi: A Kannada Cinderella.” Cinderella: A Casebook . Ed. Alan Dundes.   Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.

Ross, JoAnn.   The Prince and the Showgirl .   Toronto: Harlequin, 1993.

Stone, Kay.   “The Misuses of Enchantment: Controversies on the Significance of Fairy Tales.” in Women’s Folklore, Women’s Culture . Ed. Rosan A. Jordan and Susan J. Kalcik.   Philadelphia: U of Penn Press, 1985.

White, Tiffany.   Naughty Talk.   Tornoto: Harlequin, 1993.

Yolen, Jane.   “America’s Cinderella.” Cinderella: A Casebook . Ed. Alan Dundes.   Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.

Zipes, Jack.   Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion.   NY: Wildmore Press, 1983.

Written by Jennifer Crusie, this essay was originally published in Romantic Conventions. Ed. Anne Kaler and Rosemary Johnson-Kurek. Bowling Green Press, 1998. 51-61.