Talking Bodies: The Abject and Bodily Inscription in Marissa Meyer’s Cinder (by Julia V. and Sarah G.)

Initially published by Charles Perrault in 1697 (Britannica), “Cinderella” continues to evolve in Children’s Literature as a beloved tale of oppression, magic, and triumph. The influence of the classic fairy tale is seen throughout popular culture in numerous tropes, plot devices and metaphors. Marissa Meyer’s Young Adult dystopian novel, Cinder, utilizes the structure of “Cinderella” with the basic plot of a protagonist under the guardianship of an evil stepmother. However, Meyers creates a new society, intertwining humanity, technology, with the existence of androids and cyborgs.

While Cinder can be read as a revisionist fairy tale, revisionism meaning the “departure from the original” (OED), the novel reads more to the use of sampling. Typically used when discussing pieces of music, the process of sampling refers to, “imitation” (OED) that brings something pre-existing into a new context and to a new audience. Meyer utilizes sampling in Cinder to re-contextualize “Cinderella,” taking the original framework of the story and re-working it to fit into a technologically advanced world.

Apart from borrowing plot and character structures, Meyer also draws on the notion of uncovering identity that is found in the subtext of the magical fairy tale elements in the original “Cinderella.” With Perrault’s tale, the climax of the fairy tale revolves around the Prince’s search for the identity of the girl who fits the glass slipper. What the original fairy tale and the revisionist elements found in Meyer’s Cinder explore is the notion of forcing characters to read either their own or others’ bodies to discover identity.

Judith Butler’s work on the body and performativity serves as an introduction to reading the body as a text. In Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversions, Butler argues: “the body is figured as a surface and the scene of a cultural inscription” (78). For Butler, who also cites Foucault and Nietzsche, the body can be “understood as a medium…[or] a blank page” (78), which positions it as a text to inscribe and read. The body then, is a “medium which must be destroyed and transfigured in order for ‘culture’ to emerge” (78). Butler’s argument serves as a theoretical foundation to understand bodies as texts in both Perrault’s “Cinderella” and Meyer’s Cinder. Perrault’s folk tale places the body as the only source of identification. Likewise, Meyer’s dystopia places the physical body as not only the source of identity, but also an aspect in the creation of culture and societal structure in New Beijing.

In the original fairy tale, “Cinderella,” the Prince searches for his princess by looking for a foot that will fit into the glass slipper that was lost at his ball, announcing that “he would marry whoever possessed the foot for which the glass slipper had been made” (Perrault 101). Later, the Prince discovers Cinderella’s identity through the physicality of her body, where “as soon as [he] saw her foot, he knew it would fit the slipper perfectly” (101). Furthermore, when the Prince first meets Cinderella, he and all other attendees “can not help gazing at her” (100). Through very little interaction, the Prince understands Cinderella only through her physical body, initially in gazing upon her at the ball and later mirrored in his search for her identity through the size of her foot.

Similarly, Meyer uses the physical body as a text through the construction of a technologically advanced society. The dystopian society of New Beijing requires citizens to have a “small dark square in [their] wrist[s]—an ID chip” (Meyer 82). In New Beijing, “‘it is difficult to make a living without [an ID chip]—money, accounts, licences, they all require an identity’” (169). The ID chip serves as an advancement on modern society’s version of a driver’s licence, however, the important differentiation is that the chips are physically implanted, thus identities are inscribed into their bodies. The significance of ID chips and their implantation in New Beijing’s citizens marks the importance of physicality over internal aspects of identity and introduces the body as a text that is physically read by ID scanners all over New Beijing.

As Julia Kristeva discusses in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, the abject “has only one quality of the object—that of being opposed to I” (Kristeva 1). Kristeva mentions examples such as blood, excrement, and other bodily fluids to argue that the abject is what has been expelled from the body, ‘the other,’ that which you are not. The construction of the self versus the not-self creates the abject out of what “is radically excluded.” Using Kristeva’s theories on abjection, the opening scene of Cinder can be read as Cinder rejecting that which she is not. Cinder is introduced in the novel while she is removing her mechanical foot, “struggle[ing] to loosen the screw,” eventually “yank[ing] the foot from its socket” and feeling “a sense of release hovered at the ends of those wires—freedom” (Meyer 3). Although she states that she is removing her mechanical foot because it is too small, Cinder’s actions can be read through the abject lens. As we later discover, she was born a Lunar and was never “ask[ed] to be made Cyborg” (279). Cinder’s rejection of the foot, in this case her abject, thus represents her rejecting an identity that she was neither born with, nor chose, but one that was imposed on her physical body.

In a final example of the text as a body, Cinder discovers her true identity as a Lunar through Dr. Erland’s medical tests and scans. After a hovercraft accident, the only way to save Cinder’s life was to alter her body from that of a Lunar to a Cyborg. Remembering this alteration, Cinder expresses that “some surgeon, some stranger, open[ed] her skull and insert[ed] their made-up system of wires and conductors” (80). Through physical alteration, Cinder undergoes in an attempt to save her life, her identity as a Lunar is removed and her identity as a Cyborg replaces her body. As she says, “someone…altered her brain. Someone…altered her” (80).

Both the classic fairy tale “Cinderella” by Charles Perrault and the YA dystopian novel Cinder by Marissa Meyer place overwhelming emphasis on the body as a text. In both stories, the physical body serves as a site for the characters’ identities and their physicality leads to the discovery of new facets of their selfhood. Using both Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject and Judith Butler’s theories on bodily inscriptions, these perspectives place Cinder in the conversation of using the body for cultural and societal inscriptions and identities, where modern-day society favours the exterior over the interior.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is the idea of the body as a text gendered in Marissa Meyer’s Cinder? Think of how the body is used as a text in Charles Perrault’s “Cinderella,” where the Prince is depicted as a character of depth in contrast to Cinderella who is read only through her physicality.
  2. How does the description of characters’ physical bodies influence how we understand race and/or disability in Cinder?

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. “Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversions.” English 2250G: Introduction to Cultural Studies, edited by Professor Michael Sloane. Western University, 2015, pp. 77-88

“Charles Perrault”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. http://www.britannica.com/biography/Charles-Perrault. Accessed 2 Nov. 2016.

Kristeva, Julia. Power of Horror. Translated by Leon S. Roudiez, Columbia UP, 1982.

Meyer, Marissa. Cinder. Feiwel and Friends, 2012.

Perrault, Charles. “Cinderella: or The Little Glass Slipper.” Folk & Fairy Tales, edited by Martin Hallett and Barbara Karasek. 4th ed., Broadview Press, 2009, pp. 97–102.

“Revisionism, n. 1.” OED Online, Oxford UP, Sept. 2012. http://www.oed.com.proxy1.lib.uwo.ca/view/Entry/164895?redirectedFrom=revisionism#eid. Accessed 2 Nov. 2016.

“Sampling, n. 1.” OED Online, Oxford UP, Sept. 2016. http://www.oed.com.proxy1.lib.uwo.ca/view/Entry/170421?redirectedFrom=sampling#eid. Accessed 2 Nov. 2016.

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9 thoughts on “Talking Bodies: The Abject and Bodily Inscription in Marissa Meyer’s Cinder (by Julia V. and Sarah G.)

  1. I found your argument that the characters in Cinder are forced to read their own bodies and others’ bodies to discover identity really interesting! I definitely agree that what is contained on each person’s ID chip is more important to the government and the general public than their more internal aspects of their identity like their hobbies and personality. Assuming that Cinder’s cyborg status is recorded on her ID chip, in her interactions with others – like at her booth in the market – her identity as a cyborg is more important to those around her than her personal identity as “the best mechanic in New Beijing” (Meyer 10).

    However, I would disagree that Cinder’s cyborg-ness is her abject. While it is true that it is an identity that she did not choose for herself, being a cyborg is part of her identity nonetheless. Due to her cyborg parts being much more than just a synthetic hand and leg, but also including a control panel in her brain. This aspect of Cinder means that every aspect of her life is filtered through her cyborg-ness. She knows when she is being lied to, she can send a comm through her control panel rather than having to use a portscreen, and the scanner in her brain can “measure the points of [a] face and link [an] image to the net database” (7) allowing her to recognize strangers for who they are despite never personally meeting them before. Being a cyborg is as much a part of her now as any other characteristic she has, meaning that her cyborg parts cannot be ‘other’ or abject from herself. Cinder is a cyborg and despite not choosing to be that way, it is a huge part of her identity as a character in this novel.

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  2. I think you raise excellent points, especially in your reading of the ID chip as a physical manifestation of identity to be “read” by chip readers much like we can “read” the body (in this case, in Cinder) as a text.

    You bring good parallels between the original Cinderella and Meyer’s adaptation, and I found the foot to be particularly well-discussed. In the original story, her foot is read as the physical manifestation of the girl the prince is seeking, whereas in Cinder, her old, too-small (unlike in the fairytale, where the foot belonging is portrayed as tiny, having no conception of “too-small”) cyborg food is a physical manifestation of the impossibility that her and the prince could be together.

    However, I would like to address your statement that “Cinder discovers her true identity as a Lunar” and that “her identity as a Lunar is removed and her identity as a Cyborg replaces her body”. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, an identity is “who someone is, the qualities, beliefs, etc., that make a particular person or group different from others”. I would argue that Cinder’s true identity does not have to be exclusively Lunar or Cyborg, since both are a part of who she is. In fact, if anything, although she is the missing princess and is a Lunar, the bulk of her memories, life, beliefs (essentially, what makes her who she is) are connected to her being Cinder, a cyborg. The truth behind who she is, as a body (a lunar) is something she can discover, but her identity has to be shaped over time. Her memories as a lunar may have been removed, and her years of growth stolen away from her, but her identity will remain predominantly that of a cyborg, and it will take time for her to come to terms with her new reality.

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    1. In response to Meyer’s choice of “Cinderella” as the fairy tale base for this novel, I think the itemization of Cinderella’s foot in the original fairy tale creates the foundation for the theme of women’s bodies as text in Cinder. As we mentioned in the post, the Prince in “Cinderella” vowed to “marry whoever possessed the foot for which the glass slipper had been made” (Perrault 101). Cinderella’s body becomes a text to be read and studied in order to find maiden from the ball.

      While writing the blog post, Julia and I thought of asking the following discussion question: What is the significance of emphasizing a foot in both Perrault’s original “Cinderella” and Meyer’s introductory scene in Cinder? What type of comment does itemizing this part of the body make towards the overall narrative?

      To answer this question, I view the foot as a symbol of the amount of agency that Cinder and Cinderella possess in their narratives. In Perrault’s fairy tale, Cinderella is given the a shoe by her godmother to emphasize her foot for the Prince. While Cinder removes her cyborg foot on her own and chooses to replace it because she finds it uncomfortable. Cinder has more agency than Cinderella in her encounters with Prince Kai as she is given more dialogue compared to Cinderella. However, in the fairy tale, Cinderella’s foot is praised and viewed as ideal, while Cinder hides her cyborg foot. Thus, in response to your other question, the technology in Cinder’s body relates to her being read as an Other.

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      1. To add another level of intertextuality to the cinder-foot conversation, I came across another interpretation of it while writing my essay. Victoria Flanagan believes cutting off the too small foot is a reference to foot binding, which transforms the opening scene into one of “freeing herself from a patriarchal symbol of feminine subordination”(62-63). Meyer confirms this on her blog, where she writes that “Some scholars believe that the earliest Cinderella tale came from 9th-century China” and “some believe that the iconic glass slipper (which was gold in the Grimm version) came to us from China’s tradition of foot-binding and a culture in which women were praised for tiny feet”. This adds another layer to our analysis of an already subversive act of bodily self-fashioning and Cinder seizing control of her own “text”.
        Throughout the text, Cinder discovers more and more about the ways in which her body has been used and changed by other people, from the surgeries that saved her life when she was a baby to the creepy Lunar-disabling experimentation of her guardian, culminating with the plague trials. While the technology in her body makes her an Other to non-Cyborgs and non-shell Lunars, in the end it saves her from Levana and will help her escape literal prison, and she’s no longer an Other from herself. Her journey takes her from a too-small, uncomfortable, childish foot to a tricked-out titanium one, which is an incredibly cool response to centuries of dainty-footed, “pure” and untouched maidens.

        “FAQ.” Marissa Meyer. http://www.marissameyer.com/faq.

        Flanagan, Victoria. Technology and Identity in Young Adult Fiction: the Posthuman Subject. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

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      2. Ella, thanks so much for adding to the conversation! I find Flanagan’s interpretation of foot binding as freedom of the female from patriarchy fascinating. Likewise, it is interesting that Meyer commented on the act of foot binding in a blog post.

        This layer you added could be further extended to represent Cinder’s character through her actions. The fact that Cinder is first presented to readers in an act similar to foot binding sets the tone for her character. Her action suggests she will not be the stereotypical princess figure. As we mentioned in the post, the action also suggests she has more agency over her body than Cinderella did in her fairy tale.

        With this layer of analysis, Cinder has agency and is aware of her role as a female defying society’s expectations. Shortly after the act of foot binding, Prince Kai arrives commenting on Cinder’s appearance as “‘not quite what [he] was expecting’” (Meyer 8). Thus, Meyer’s choice to begin the novel with an action related to her foot represents Cinder’s overall outlook and departure from her princess counterpart.

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      3. The question you pose is something I want to touch upon: “What is the significance of emphasizing a foot in both Perrault’s original “Cinderella” and Meyer’s introductory scene in Cinder?” I too questioned why the opening scene of “Cinder” centred around Cinder’s foot and her interaction with Kai. The Disney version of “Cinderella”, which is heavily influenced by Charles Perrault’s version (and not the Grimm one), does not introduce the slipper or the prince until the latter half of the film. The film first depicts Cinderella’s interactions with her stepmother and stepsisters, essentially setting her up as a mistreated character who we should feel sympathy for and happiness when she gets her happy ending. The novel does not start off with showing Cinder’s mistreatment. Perhaps this is because we are all familiar with the story and do not need such context, it is assumed by the reader and the author that we know the backstory already. I read, introducing Cinder’s character through the removal of her foot as immediately giving this version of Cinderella more agency and power. She can take her foot off and the foot is a symbol in the fairy tale (along with the slipper) of Cinderella being the chosen one, the true princess. Cinder has agency and power over her foot and can choose to replace it and upgrade it. This is due to her cyborg status and her skills as a mechanic, a position and skill Cinderella never embodied or had in the fairy tale.

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      4. Meagan, thanks for your insight on the question! The comparison you made with the first scene of the Disney film to Cinder is an excellent point. Instead of presenting the problem of the novel in the opening scene as Cinder’s stepsisters and stepmother, Meyer introduces the readers to the idea of a cyborg. Cinder’s status as a cyborg, and likewise the additional identities she discovers of herself as the novel progresses, is the focus of the narrative. In the Disney film, Cinderella’s main problem is her obligation to her stepfamily. Her animal friends are aware of this problem and desire to help Cinderella overcome her hardship by escaping to the ball. In Cinder, Iko tries to sell the idea of going to the ball to Cinder. However, the conversation shifts once Cinder mentions her “‘cyborg parts’” (Meyer 31) as a complication to attending the ball.

        While the opening scene does display Cinder’s agency and ability to defy expectations of females in society, the scene also presents Cinder’s status in society as an Other. Although the act of foot binding is liberating, we must also consider how Cinder feels as a cyborg in society and how she chooses to
        ‘pass’ as a teenaged girl instead of telling her customers that she is a cyborg.

        A final layer to include on the representation of the foot is the cover of the novel. As we briefly discussed in class, the cover is a failed representation of Cinder. The cover presents an idealized and stereotypical feminine foot with a red high heel that is not an accurately depict Cinder’s character. While the cover can be read as a marketing strategy to entice fans of the fairy tale market, it does complicate Meyer’s attempt to separate Cinder from Cinderella. If the cover is read as a marketing strategy, what does this marketing technique suggests about society’s views of altering stereotypical female characters? What would the publishers at Feiwel and Friends have to lose by accurately presenting Cinder’s foot in a boot instead of a heel?

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  3. Hi Julia and Sarah,

    I really, really enjoyed reading your blog post, specifically the part where you discuss Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject lens through the ‘Cinder’s’ opening scene of Cinder removing her robotic root. I hadn’t thought of this scene this way and think that it created a whole new perception of the novel for me.
    I’m not familiar with Charles Perrault’s ‘Cinderella’ but have a good enough idea of the varying interpretations of the Cinderella tale. I do think that Meyer’s ‘Cinder’ generates similar gendered ideas of the body as a text found in other Cinderella texts. In ‘Cinder’, Cinder’s robotic body and identity are tied so tightly together that she cannot see herself past her cybernetic enhancements. This is understandable within her world as cyborgs are seen as a lower class or racial group within New Beijing. Throughout the novel Cinder, as well as other characters, discuss body’s as text, specifically those of cyborgs and Lunars, with greater focus being on the bodies of women (Cinder and Queen Levana.
    Cinder’s identity and importance begins and ends with her cyborg parts. She is nothing more than these additions and it is made clear through social perceptions and ostracization (i.e. cyborg draught, Adri’s ownership of Cinder, Prince Kai’s reaction to Cinder’s true identity). Meanwhile, Queen Lavana’s body is read as a contrast between beautiful and ugly through varying characters eyes. Queen Lavana’s body as a text is deceptive. The Queen’s body then is understood as a representation of the elusivity of female beauty, as Levana only uses it to control her citizens as her true physical appearance is too grotesque to be looked upon (or taken seriously). The importance of body as text within ‘Cinder’ is enforced through Cinder’s own perceptions of herself, and the depictions of Queen Levana’s true ‘beauty’.

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