Published in 2014, Marissa Meyer’s Cinder retells Charles Perrault’s traditional fairy-tale Cinderella. Perrault’s Cinderella, despite being published in 1697 has and still holds an influential position in children’s literature. Meyer reconstructs the traditional, beloved tale of Cinderella by taking key points of the domestic patriarchal-led story and rewriting it through a feminist lens. Justyna Deszcz sates in her essay, Feminist Fairy-tale Reconfiguration, that many feminist writers have used the fairy-tale as ‘…an elastic frame within which contradictory gender images can be exposed and reformulated in multiple ways. Revisionist feminist stories…focus on recycling old paradigms or on experimenting with themes, structures and styles, in ways that de-emphasize male domination.’ (Deszcz 29). Thus, by co-opting the story of Cinderella and creating a headstrong, reactive female protagonist, Meyer’s Cinder is more than a YA dystopian novel, but also a symbolic feminist text as it directly rejects stereotypical gender perspectives.
Before addressing Meyers co-opting of Cinderella it would be imperative to note the tropes in such tales. In her essay A Quest of Her Own Lori Campbell explains “the genre promotes universal models of female dependency, an influence that is felt particularly since fairy-tale prototypes permeate popular forms of fiction such as pulp romances” (Campbell 16). She notes “romantic fantasies [such as] Cinderella…which praise female subjugation to female power, encourage women to internalize only aspiration deemed appropriate to our ‘real’ sexual functions within a patriarchy’’ (Campbell 5). It is through this subversion of the classic fairy-tale, particularly with the construction of a reactive, self-reliant and driven heroine, that Meyer is able to convey an alternative message to her—predominantly female—YA dystopian fiction audience. Cinder, despite being a re-telling of a domestic fairy-tale in which female characters typically remain ‘passive, submissive and helpless’ (Lieberman 190) follows the literary tradition of dystopian novels featuring a strong female protagonist. This protagonist challenges authority and exemplifies a diverse expression of femininity. Through implementing the form of a fairy-tale, Meyer cleverly knocks down traditional constructions of girls as helpless, beautiful and submissive and utilizes the genre to highlight that existing social orders are not natural but instead, artificial constructs that can be subverted.
Cinder herself is not only a plucky young cyborg, she is “the best mechanic in New Beijing” and the sole provider for her household (Meyer 10). In Perrault’s story, Cinderella is forced to do manual labour in the form of house work and serve her stepmother and sisters. Cinder has more agency—her family seems to rarely leave the house and she spends the majority of her time out in the city—possesses a valuable, technical and decidedly un-delicate skill-set to which she dedicates almost all of her time. Where Cinderella takes a passive role in her own life, Cinder is active and takes control of her own future. Rather than wait for something in her life to change (or for a fairy godmother to fix everything), Cinder makes the decision to actively fix the old car she finds, break out of her repressive household and forge a new path counter to that being forced on her by her guardian. In this way, Meyer has her protagonist defy the “princess” stereotype. Instead of waiting to be rescued by a prince or even given the tools she needs from a fairy godmother, Cinder chooses and constructs her own destiny with tools she has acquired on her own.
A key scene which explores the subversion of “girl” stereotypes is when Cinder enters the ball. The scene is, of course, a highly memorable moment pinched from Perrault’s Cinderella in which Cinderella arrives in style wearing her dazzling fairy godmother-given gown, looking barely recognizable from her rag-wearing, soot-covered self, all while hoping to make an impression on the prince as he looks to choose a wife. Meyer recreates this moment, but re-writes it with a stark contrast that highlights the driven and heroic qualities of Cinder. Cinder only goes to the ball to warn Emperor Kai of the threat Queen Levana poses to the Commonwealth and the world and warn him that their marriage will not improve relations between Earth and Luna, but instead give the Queen absolute control of the Commonwealth. Cinder does not attend the ball with the frivolous intentions of finding a husband; her reasons are political and the visit could come at a lethal cost to her. She is not being saved by a prince; Cinder is saving an emperor. She thus, “carves out a permanent independent position alongside—rather than in comparison or as subject to—the male version that has reigned for centuries” (Campbell 5). Meyer’s Cinder prevails on her own terms through her own independence, “shoving her thoughts to the back of her mind, she reached under the steering column and grasped the power supply and supply and circuit wires she’d already stripped and wrapped.” (Meyer 326) Meyer highlights this “independent position” by magnifying Cinder’s impressive mechanical skills in this pressured situation, in which she is self-reliant and trusts in her own, typically ‘masculine’, knowledge of machinery.
Furthermore, Cinder enters the ball ‘with damp hair and mud splatters on the hem of her wrinkled dress’ , ‘soaked’ with ‘wet boots’ which encourages people to look at her ‘with barley veiled revulsion’ (Meyer 327-336). Cinder throughout the novel gives very little thought to her appearance. There are a few instances of her being momentarily concerned about a certain physical attribute she finds unsatisfactory, but she often dismisses these quickly. Rather than frame Cinder as the perfect image of genteel beauty, this female protagonist is much more focused on her work as evidenced by her typically dirty appearance. Through Cinder’s description, Meyer shows that girls are more than their external appearances and the construction society has built of them. Meyer uses Cinder, as an example of girls ‘doing it for themselves’ and not depending on someone else to make changes for them.
Campbell, Lori M. “Introduction.” A Quest of Her Own, edited by Lori M. Campbell, McFarland & Company Inc., 2014, pp. 4-14.
Deszcz, Justyna. “Salman Rushdie’s Attempt At A Feminist Fairytale Reconfiguration In Shame.” Folklore, vol 1, 2014, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30035141.
Lieberman, Marcia. “‘Some Day My Prince Will Come’: Female Acculturation Through The Fairy Tale.” College English, vol 34, no. 3, 1972, p. 190. JSTOR.
Meyer, Marissa. Cinder. New York, Rampion Books Inc., 2012.
- In what ways does the fact that Cinder is not “fully human” in the eyes of society complicate her subversion of stereotypical girlhood? Does it weaken a feminist reading of her character?
- Queen Levana could also be considered a strong female character. How do you read Meyer’s inclusion of a powerful female antagonist?