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From Prostitute to Princess: Cinderella's Dark History

"Old, Old Fairy Tales: 'Cinderella'. She lost her slipper as she ran from the castle..." Author: Anne Anderson (1874-1930). Public Domain image.

"Old, Old Fairy Tales: 'Cinderella'. She lost her slipper as she ran from the castle..." Author: Anne Anderson (1874-1930). Public Domain image.

Sadly, between 1950 and 2015, Disney's Cinderella hasn’t evolved much. Fans who crave more of the story’s dark history are better off watching Into the Woods, where at least chopping off heels and toes à la the Brothers Grimm made the cut. (Too punny?) But if you think a bloody slipper and eye-pecking birds are the most scandalous things this story has to offer, you don't know Cinderella.

Whether it’s more empowering female leads who actually pass the Bechdel Test or more gruesome details from the versions of yore, something is decidedly missing from today's depictions of Cinderella. Although they can be found in nearly every account of her story, Cinderella is far more than pretty dresses and impossibly tiny feet. She is a complex character as capable of breaking her stepmother's neck as she is of inspiring us to “have courage and be kind.” If we grew up believing in unrealistic expectations of love and beauty—that one day we would grow to be beautiful princesses who would marry Prince Charming—we have Cinderella to thank. But a look back beyond today’s whitewashed princess reveals a complex woman who has much more to teach us than “if the shoe fits… you can marry a prince.”

There are more than 345 known versions of the Cinderella story with more than a few surprises up their sleeve. And I’m pretty sure someone has been hiding them from us. How else could we have lived this long without knowing that history's most beloved princess has been both a murderer and a high-class call girl? How else could we remain so blissfully ignorant of the story’s history of incest and domestic violence? 

Don’t believe me? Let’s see what Cinderella has been up to for the past 4,000+ years:

 

From prostitute to princess... 

"Campaspe" by John William Godward, 1896. Public Domain image. 

"Campaspe" by John William Godward, 1896. Public Domain image. 

While Basile tells of a Cinderella who arrives at the ball looking “as if she [is] a courtesan,” once upon a time Cinderella didn't just look like she exchanged sex for money, she actually did. In the Greek/Egyptian story of Rhodopis, the Cinderella figure is captured by pirates and sold as a sex slave. She becomes a “free woman”a kind of ancient Greek courtesan / high-class prostitutewhen a wealthy man buys her off the auction block. She eventually marries the Pharaoh who finds her slipper, becoming the “Royal Lady of Egypt.”

From courtesan to queen. Is it any wonder Pretty Woman is considered a Cinderella story?

But if this early princess was a prostitute, she was also a free and powerful woman, so admired by her lovers that they built a pyramid to honor her.

 

Prince Not-So-Charming...

"Cinderella" by Carl Offterdinger, c. late 19th C. Public Domain image.

"Cinderella" by Carl Offterdinger, c. late 19th C. Public Domain image.

In the Nordic tale of Katie Woodencloak, Cinderella escapes her stepmother—who beats and starves her—only to get mixed up with a prince who douses her with water, calls her an “ugly troll,” and says he would never touch anything that comes from her “smutty fingers.” In a nearly identical Italian version, the prince either pelts his future bride with shovel, whip, and iron fireplace tongs or whips, kicks, and hits her.

Charming…

 

Demure princess or cold-blooded killer?

"Frédégonde l'étranglait contre la planche inférieure," Henriette De Witt, 1887. Public Domain image.

"Frédégonde l'étranglait contre la planche inférieure," Henriette De Witt, 1887. Public Domain image.

In Basile's version, Cinderella wants her father to marry her governess, so she breaks her stepmother's neck. In the beginning of this endearing tale, Cinderella's father “had a daughter so dear to him that he saw with no other eyes but hers.” But by the end Dad tells the king, “I have a daughter, but… she is a sorry, worthless creature, not fit to take her place at the table where you eat.”

If her fall from grace is Cinderella's karma for killing her freakin' stepmother, it doesn't last long. In the end she triumphs by marrying the king. The moral of this version is definitely not “thou shalt not kill.”

 

I’ll have an order of the Salted Mom, please.

"Silver Favourites" by Alma Tadema, 1903. Public Domain image.

"Silver Favourites" by Alma Tadema, 1903. Public Domain image.

Linda Holmes notes that there is a version of Cinderella in which Mom makes a bet with her daughters. When she loses, the girls eat Mom for dinner. Hey, a bet's a bet! Am I right?

In yet another tale of princesses and cannibalism, the wicked stepsister type boils herself to death trying to become as beautiful as her sister. (Beauty must suffer!) The Cinderella type then has her stepsister salted like a fish and served to their mother for dinner

Mmm... Can I get fries with that?

 

Remember that time Cinderella almost married her dad?

19th century engraving of Gustave Doré's "Cendrillon." Public Domain image.

19th century engraving of Gustave Doré's "Cendrillon." Public Domain image.

There are over 75 versions of the story in which Cinderella’s father tries to marry her. They all look pretty much like “All-Kinds-Of-Fur,” a Grimm Brothers variant, with the king making a promise that he won’t remarry unless he finds a woman as beautiful as his dying queen. The king looks at his daughter one day and sees that “she resemble[s] his deceased wife in every way, and he suddenly [feels] a great love for her.” He decides to marry her, “for she is the image of [his] deceased wife, and nowhere else can [he] find a bride who is her equal.” The princess gives her father an impossible task, hoping to put him off his crazy plan. But he succeeds, saying those five little words that no daughter has wanted to hear, ever: “Tomorrow is our wedding day.”

 

Disney did not invent the unattainable princess physique.

The World of Fashion; February 1838: EVENING DRESSES: Fig. 2. Public Domain image.

The World of Fashion; February 1838: EVENING DRESSES: Fig. 2. Public Domain image.

When Disney's 2015 Cinderella was released, The Guardian published a scathing exposé outlining the ways in which the film failed to provide the kind of positive female role models young girls deserve in a post-Frozen-and-Brave world. Which would have been awesome. Except that the entire piece is about the size of Cinderella's waistline. The good news? Kenneth Branagh is off the hook for his “faux pas,” as Perrault set the precedent over 300 years ago by giving his Cinderella a waist so slender that two hands could have encircled it.”

So that's where Disney got the idea for those unrealistic princess waistlines...

 

So… can we learn anything positive from Cinderella?

The second illustration of the 1865 edition of Cinderella. It appears on page 4. Public Domain image.

The second illustration of the 1865 edition of Cinderella. It appears on page 4. Public Domain image.

If we can see past the fact that “the very core of this story is that if one man sentences you to live among bitches, only another man can save you,” many versions of Cinderella do have important and empowering lessons to impart. From its origins through 1998’s Ever After, Cinderella stories have (sometimes) imparted wisdom about women’s power, agency, and the importance of forgiveness. Perrault values Cinderella for her goodness as much as her beauty. The socialist king in the Rhodopis version teaches us to be kind to those who are less fortunate, to practice compassion, and to value loved ones above material wealth. Even 2015’s not-so-exciting-now-that-we-know-all-this Cinderella is brimming with valuable life lessons, including an overarching moral that all humanity would benefit from practicing: have courage and be kind, and always believe in a little bit of magic.

What's your favorite version of Cinderella? And what do you think this timeless tale has to teach us? Contact us and let us know!