Witches and Bitches, Cyborgs and Assassins: The Ageist Portrayals of Women in Young Adult Cinderella Retellings

Spoilers abound for Cinder by Marissa Meyer and Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas.


“Cinderella,” Illustration by Charles Robinson (1900)

“Cinderella,” Illustration by Charles Robinson (1900)

In the Grimm Brothers’ 1857 version of “Cinderella,” a talking bird rats out Cinderella’s stepsisters, warning the prince that they have cut off pieces of their feet to fit into the iconic shoe, thus resolving the climactic conflict. Cinderella’s active role is limited to wishing for pretty clothes, sneaking off to the ball, and running away from the prince multiple times in a cycle she seems unable to break without outside intervention.

The 1950 Disney version limits Cinderella’s active role even more, as did the Charles Perrault version on which it’s based: Cinderella doesn’t even wish for clothes—her tears summon her fairy godmother, who gives them to her—and she runs away from the prince not of her own volition but because the spell is running out.

The heroines of Cinder by Marissa Meyer and Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas, both inspired by canonical Cinderella stories, are active, talented, and intelligent, rejecting the passive, limited roles reserved for the Cinderellas of nineteenth-century European compilations and many adaptations since. Unlike in the canonical versions of the story, the heroines of these novels have the support of some female peers, rejecting the competitive positions the women of past versions have had to take up against one another in order to obtain mates. These representations of femininity are certainly an improvement over those in older tellings of the story, and even some of their contemporaries, such as those in Disney’s 2015 Cinderella.

It’s older women in general and mother figures in particular whose representation suffers in both Cinder and Throne of Glass. Jeanna DelRosso notes that mothers in Disney films are almost always dead and frequently replaced by an evil stepmother or “false” mother; this trend is reflected in these two modern re-tellings. The living older women and mother figures in Cinder range from a bitter, stingy stepmother to a sadistic queen, whereas those in Throne of Glass are feckless or unimportant minor characters.

Despite their more progressive treatment of active younger women and female peer relationships, these novels continue to perpetuate more conventionally misogynistic views of older women and intergenerational female relationships and prevent their female protagonists’ positive identification with mother figures.

Empowered Cinderellas

The canonical version of Cinderella is domestic, long-suffering, and eminently “good.” She endures the ill treatment of her stepmother and stepsisters, never complaining, and receives gifts from her fairy godmother in Perrault’s version or the little bird in the Grimms’ version. She earns the prince’s love without really trying—the only discernible reason for him to be smitten with her is her looks, augmented by the dresses given her by the fairy godmother or the bird. She is an innocent; unlike her stepmother and stepsisters, she doesn’t have to resort to destroying the female competition in order to obtain a mate. These tales teach young girls that if they are good, beautiful, and patient, their fantasies will be fulfilled—and, as Fisher and Silber have pointed out, canonical fairy tales have groomed girls to construct an ultimate fantasy that involves no other women, only “a handsome, well-born mate.”

In contrast to the image of Cinderella popularized by Perrault and the Grimms and reinforced by the 1950 Disney film, Cinder and Throne of Glass present young adult readers with two empowered, multi-dimensional female protagonists. These heroines form meaningful connections with other women, explore their complex and interesting identities, have goals other than marrying a prince, and act on their desires without being punished by the narrative. Ironically, the more active female Cinderellas are more in keeping with many of the oral folk tales that preceded textual adaptations and with the versions of the story that have fallen out of style, although even these oral folk heroines are “tamed” by a prince in the end, allowing them to win out over the competition of other women.

Cinder, the titular character of Meyer’s novel, is a cyborg and the best mechanic in the futuristic city of New Beijing. Like the canonical Cinderella, Cinder’s family forces her to work, but instead of the traditionally female role of kitchen or house maid, Cinder’s work as a mechanic is traditionally masculine. Although her family forces her to work to support them, Cinder enjoys her work and considers it part of her identity. She doesn’t “know the first thing about makeup” and makes fun of her sister Peony’s crush on Prince Kai, showing a rejection of traditionally female roles. However, she also enjoys traditionally feminine things such as pretty dresses and fantasizes about the prince asking her to dance at the ball, normalizing the complication of her gender identity in defiance of the Cinderella character’s conventional association with ideal womanhood.

Unlike the canonical Cinderella, who accepts her condition as her stepmother’s slave, Cinder makes a plan to escape from her family after her only friends, Peony and Iko, are taken away, leaving her alone with her cruel stepmother and older stepsister (so-called, even though they are legally her adoptive family). Cinder repairs an old car she finds in the junkyard and plans to escape from the city. She means to escape not into the waiting arms of the prince, like the Cinderellas who exercise their only moments of defiance in donning pretty dresses and going to the ball—as Fisher and Silber put it, “they find in perfect romantic love the only feminine role available from which to act, albeit passively, and the sole source of feminine accomplishment”—but to “be free.” She wants to see “the Taj Mahal, the Mediterranean Sea, the transatlantic maglev railway.” Cinder actively resists her stepmother’s tyranny in order to search for a place where she can feel fulfilled.

Celaena of Throne of Glass also blends elements of traditionally female and male gender roles in a way that doesn’t devalue either aspect of her personality. Prince Dorian chooses her to be his champion in his father’s contest to select a royal assassin because of her legendary reputation as an anti-imperialist and an adept killer. She has been imprisoned for the past year in a labor camp where the average life expectancy is a month and is skilled with many different weapons. She’s also fiercely competitive.  At the same time, she enjoys wearing beautiful dresses and loves parties and balls.

Throne of Glass is not as close a match to the canonical “Cinderella” as Cinder, but one important commonality is that she disguises her identity for most of the story and is revealed at the end. In Celaena’s case, there is a sense of self-affirmation in her revelation as the renowned and powerful assassin. In one of the most memorable passages of the book, Celaena fights one of her competitors, who calls her “bitch.” When she defeats him, Celaena reveals her identity to him by saying, “My name is Celaena Sardothien.... But it makes no difference if my name’s Celaena or Lillian or Bitch, because I’d still beat you, no matter what you call me.”. When Cinderella is revealed in the Grimms’ version not to be “puny little Cinderella” but the prince’s beautiful bride-to-be, there is a similar moment of affirmation, albeit one tied to a woman’s beauty as her most valuable attribute. In Celaena’s case, it is an affirmation of her power and her right to be respected for her ability.

When Cinderella meets the prince in the canonical tale, she is wearing her iconic magical dress. The prince is smitten with her from the start, and the only indication of why is her appearance, emphasizing the centrality of male-pleasing beauty in women’s lives. In many modern retellings such as the 1998 adaptation Ever After and the 2015 Cinderella movie, Cinderella and the prince meet before the ball, which makes their instant connection less explicitly about physical appearance.

However, in both Cinder and Throne of Glass, there is a deliberate choice to make the heroine meet the prince when her appearance is far from the feminine beauty ideal. In Cinder’s case, she is working as a mechanic, grease-stained and missing her cyborg foot, for which Iko has gone to buy a replacement. Celaena has spent the past year in a labor camp, and when she is brought before the prince she is in “a miserable state for a girl of former beauty.”. Both heroines quickly earn the respect of their princes, however; Cinder because of her skill as a mechanic, Celaena because she’s tough enough to have survived the mines and still spirited enough to talk back to royalty. In fact, Prince Kai never sees Cinder in a beautiful dress; when she arrives at the ball her dress is wrinkled, she is rain-soaked, and her gloves have grease stains on them, but Prince Kai is unconcerned. Clearly, in these novels, the heroine’s connection with the prince is about more than her beauty.

Envy and Female Peers

In nineteenth-century textual tellings of “Cinderella”—and many others besides—it is always the prince who “delivers the heroine from women’s wrath.”. Even in those tales that present a “good” and helpful mother figure, usually in the form of an animal such as a cow or a bird, sometimes of a fairy godmother, the Cinderella figure leaves behind her relationships with other women once she marries the prince. Other women are either monsters to be evaded or helpers along the way with no objectives of their own, and marriage to the prince is the ultimate end. In contrast to these tellings, the heroines of both Cinder and Throne of Glass have female friends who are rounded characters in their own right and with whom they identify positively and have meaningful connections.

In Meyer’s Cinder, the titular character is an orphan living with a less-than-accepting family and forced to work as a mechanic to provide income for them. At the beginning of the novel, while her tormentors, her stepmother Adri and older stepsister Pearl, are female, her only friends are female as well: her younger sister Peony and an android named Iko (who presents as a young female). Though they are peers in maturity, their relationships are nuanced by power dynamics; Peony holds a privileged position to Cinder’s within their family, and Iko is a servant. However, all three females are confidants, share many interests, and largely act as allies rather than competitors.

As Sianne Ngai points out in her essay on gender and envy, inter-female jealousy is often invalidated: “such forms of negative affect tend to be stripped of their critical potential particularly when the impassioned subject is female.” She argues that envy is a valid emotion that may stem from genuine inequalities, but it is often ignored because it carries such a connotation of femininity and pettiness. Portrayals of envy as destructive, hysterical, and primarily female “teach women to beware of and fear one another.” Cinder reflects this double bind of the environment of female jealousy fostered by society versus the societal pressure not to be jealous: Cinder can’t “swallow a twitch of envy at seeing Peony in that dress”—the ball dress Adri has had tailored for her—but is “usually able to ignore the jealousy she had toward her stepsisters—how Adri doted on them, how soft their hands were—especially when Peony was the only human friend she had,” implying that envy will destroy their friendship. At the same time, Peony is compassionate, saying Adri “should have made one for you too. It’s not fair,” creating validation for Cinder’s jealousy and strong ties of allyhood between the two girls.

After Peony’s death of the letumosis plague, Cinder steals Peony’s ID chip, an action which, although mostly born of Cinder’s desperation to escape New Beijing with a forged identity, is also a preservation of Peony’s memory and a representation of Cinder’s identification with her sister; she refuses to give the chip back to the android medical workers, stating that it “belongs to her family.” When Cinder decides to run away from her guardian, she not only seeks freedom for herself, but she plans to take “Iko’s personality chip and Peony’s ID chip” with her so they can “escape together, like she’d always said they would.” In Iko’s case, there is a chance at actual rebirth in a new android body, provided by Cinder. Cinder also briefly connects and identifies with another female peer, also mistreated by her guardian, who provides her with vital information near the end of the novel.

Celaena of Maas’s Throne of Glass is a convicted murderer as well as an orphan; at the beginning of the novel she is cut off from all her previous human connections. One of the most important relationships she forms during the story is with Nehemia, the passionate princess of a conquered nation. Celaena notes early on that “she’d sworn never to trust girls again, especially girls with agendas and power of their own,” which may be a reflection of her world’s (and our world’s) socializing girls to mistrust ambitious girls who may be a threat. She soon questions this decision, however, and Nehemia eventually becomes her closest friend: “This was unconditional love. Friends like this did not exist. Why was she so fortunate as to have found one?”

Celaena also makes an enemy in Kaltain, a young noblewoman who vies for the prince’s favor. After meeting Kaltain for the first time, Celaena notes disapprovingly that “women like that” are “so desperate for the attention of men that they’d willingly betray and harm members of their own sex,” and their relationship only deteriorates from that point. Kaltain is desperate to marry Prince Dorian, who is ever more obviously in love with Celaena, and Kaltain sees the other girl as a “harlot” obstructing her dreams of social advancement.. In the climactic battle scene, Kaltain drugs Celaena with bloodbane, hoping to slow her down enough that her opponent will kill her, an ultimate “betrayal of her own sex,” as Celaena might put it, culminating her career as a stereotypical jealous girl, this novel’s version of Cinderella’s bad stepsister.

However, although Celaena never sees Kaltain as anything other than the stereotype, the text is surprisingly sympathetic toward her. While the scenes from Kaltain’s point of view center on her desire to marry Prince Dorian and her need to get Celaena out of the way, this desire is not portrayed as vain or shallow, but taken to such an extreme that it consumes her and becomes a terrifying sickness with physical symptoms: “Even in her sleep, the pain seeped in, warping her dreams into nightmares so vivid she couldn’t remember where she was when she awoke.” Her role is not as a villain but as a young woman who is not as lucky as Celaena to be able to escape the confines patriarchal power places on girls in the story’s universe. In fact, it is her suitor, Duke Perrington, who urges her to put bloodbane in Celaena’s drink and who lets her take the fall for the crime after it fails to kill the heroine—even further, Duke Perrington is later revealed to have been using magic to manipulate Kaltain’s emotions. The power of patriarchy, exemplified in the duke, has overtly fostered Kaltain’s jealousy of the female competition, nudging this storyline into a critique of a society that encourages women to view other women as rivals. Rather than delivering women from “women’s wrath,” the man in this case is shown to play an active role in creating the environment that engendered that wrath.

Evil Matriarchs

Monstrous mother figures are just as much a staple of the canonical “Cinderella” tale as jealous, ugly stepsisters, and often shown to be worse, since they have more power over the heroine. These mother figures are made even more monstrous by contrast with “good” figures who grant Cinderella’s every wish and guide her toward marriage. In Perrault’s version it is the fairy godmother; in the Grimms’, the little bird, who represents the dead mother’s spirit. A “good” mother, according to these tales, is selfless, with no personal desires whatsoever but to please her virtuous daughter and secure her social advancement. But the “bad” mothers are usually also concerned with pleasing their daughters and securing their social advancement (which is one of the main differences with “Snow White” type tales, in which the “bad” mothers are purely selfish). What sets “good” and “bad” mothers apart is that “good” mothers have “good” daughters whom they can help succeed without crushing other women’s daughters—in other words, the competition.

Interestingly, both Cinder and Throne of Glass do away with the “good” mother altogether. Neither novel has a single example of a positive mother figure—or even a positive older woman who has anything but a very minor role. Jeana DelRosso emphasizes that Disney films with female leads in particular tend to have an absent mother, often replaced by an “evil stepmother.” In fairy tales, according to Jerelyn Fisher and Ellen Silber, “it is not angelic but demonic images of the mother that prevail.” Frances Nadeau seems to think removing the mother in YA fiction “allow[s] the daughter more freedom to face and solve problems on her own”—according to her, the mother/daughter bond “often inhibits a daughter from establishing her own identity.” However, the overwhelming number of bad parents—specifically bad mothers—in fiction, especially fiction descended from equally mother-damning fairy tales, may help to reinforce age-old ageist misogyny.

Linh Adri, the Cinder’s guardian or “stepmother” in Meyer’s novel, is an expansion of the traditional evil stepmother of “Cinderella” tales: she is characterized by her socioeconomic status and desire to improve it for herself and her biological daughters. Her stinginess is a recurring motif. The first mention of her in the novel is when Cinder remarks, regarding Iko, the android: “I suspect a programming error, which is probably why my stepmother got her so cheap.” Adri offhandedly suggests selling Cinder and her android friend off “as spare parts.” Adri’s riches-to-rags narrative motivates her throughout the story. Cinder notes that Adri “lost her smile” after the death of her husband, which also led to a loss of “their old house, the one with the garden” and of their higher socioeconomic status. Adri’s attempts at restoring or improving their family’s socioeconomic status hinge on finding a husband for her older daughter, Pearl, and she keeps Cinder as a ward primarily because Cinder’s work as a mechanic generates income.

Perhaps because of Adri’s economy-based outlook, Cinder’s view of her relationship with Adri—and what can be inferred of Adri’s view of her relationship with Cinder—is one of property and ownership rather than love or even family. Early in the novel, Cinder notes that she “belong[s] to Adri as much as the household android.” Adri completely disregards Cinder’s consent and humanity when she turns her over to plague researchers as a test subject in exchange for monetary compensation and as retaliation for her younger daughter Peony’s infection, for which she blames Cinder. Eventually, Adri also makes good on her threat to sell Cinder off as spare parts, selling Cinder’s prosthetic foot to pay for Peony’s funeral. Though the view of cyborgs such as Cinder as less than human is not exclusive to Adri in this futuristic society, some other characters (Peony, for instance) who know she’s a cyborg don’t treat her as an inferior. Adri’s relationship with Cinder is determined by the older woman’s desire for economic power (Cinder’s value as a source of income, either by her work or by the sale of her prosthetic limbs) and by resentment over the loss of her previous economic power, which came about just after Cinder’s adoption.

Western society fears and disdains older women, especially widows. The patriarchal and heteronormative politics of marriage result in women competing with each other over resources; older women are considered both useless, unable to provide resources or children, and monstrous, taking resources away from younger women. Cinder is “sure her stepmother ha[s] never worked a day in her life.” Adri’s apparent uselessness, coupled with her tyrannical rule over Cinder—her source of income—places her neatly within this antiquated, ageist, and sexist stereotype of the villainous older woman, perhaps even more so than the evil stepmothers of other “Cinderella” tellings.

But Adri is not the only major villain who also happens to be an evil stepmother in Cinder—the Lunar ruler, Queen Levana, threatens the Eastern Commonwealth where Adri threatens Cinder’s personal fulfillment. Queen Levana borrows from the stepmother in the canonical “Snow White”: “They said she had forced her stepdaughter to mutilate her own face because, at the sweet age of thirteen, she had become more beautiful than the jealous queen could stand.” Queen Levana uses a sort of mind control in order to manipulate her appearance, making her look like a “perfect woman,” whose “greatest secret” (the fact that she’s not physically perfect) Cinder discovers during their final confrontation. Queen Levana uses her beauty glamour as a way of controlling others, but the female beauty ideal has been well-established as a means of societal control over women; as Baker-Sperry and Graueholz point out, “those women who seek or gain power through their attractiveness are often those who are most dependent on men’s resources.” In fact, Queen Levana, though much older than Cinder and Kai, is intent on marrying the prince, positioning her as both the female competition and a woman dependent on men and their validation of her beauty to maintain power. Cinder’s revelation that “It really is an illusion. You’re not beautiful” is the final drop for the queen, who immediately tries to murder Cinder. Even in this futuristic society in which heroines can be mechanics with greasy stains on their foreheads, Queen Levana still depends on her beauty in order to maintain her power.

Unlike the evil stepmothers in canonical fairy tales, who are active in contrast to the heroine’s “good girl” passivity and therefore cast as the villain, these evil women are set against an active heroine who must defeat them and remove them from their positions of corrupt power. Fisher and Silber say of fairy tales that they “offer readers no imaginable female ally. Indeed, the ‘triumphant’ exclusion of adult female character in the final narrative frame signifies a ‘happy’ return to male dominion.” However, the fairy tales they speak of are rooted in the culture in which they were compiled and popularized by the Grimm Brothers and Charles Perrault; the world of Cinder—both in its futuristic society and in the novel’s cultural context—does not seem to advocate male dominion and in fact celebrates Cinder’s growth into a position of power. Why is this allowed for Cinder but not for the older generation of women?

In Throne of Glass, the older generation of women has hardly any presence whatsoever. The character of Phillippa may be viewed as on the role of the fairy godmother in that she helps Celaena get to the ball, but in this version she is Celaena’s servant and her role is limited to finding her a gown and mask and following Celaena’s plan to fool the guards. The queen, Prince Dorian’s mother, is only a nag who wants Dorian to marry an eligible young lady and “attempt[s] to ruin [Dorian’s] dreams and ideals”; if there is anything more to either of them, the readers never find out in this novel. Elena, the mysterious ghost of a queen from times past who gives Celaena magical protection and guidance on several occasions, is half-Fae and ageless, described as “youthful,” which aligns her with the younger generation despite her wisdom and knowledge. Nehemia, who is Celaena’s age, plays more of a mothering role to Celaena than anyone else in the novel, nursing her back to health after she is injured and giving her a name “to use with honor, … when other names grow too heavy.”

Is it Really a Problem?

Julie Just, in her article for The New York Times, argues that parents have become more two-dimensional and worse at parenting in recent YA fiction. Author Sara Ockler responded on her blog, arguing that “the best YA lit” is “that which resonates most authentically with the intended reader,” meaning that teenagers often have a poor opinion of their parents, and that YA fiction is only reflecting this perception. This matches Bruno Bettelheim’s view that the evil mothers in fairy tales are only projections of children’s “unconscious, hostile fantasies about their mothers.”

Ockler also emphasizes that the story is the teen hero’s story, and so it’s expected that the other characters would be less fleshed out, less relatable. Nadeau similarly argues that when the mother is removed from the daughter, either physically or emotionally, it allows “the daughter more freedom to face and solve problems on her own,” which helps the girl establish her own identity separate from her mother. In addition, Taubenheim explains that, in this stage of development, “the adolescent... switches her/his loyalty from the family to the peer group,” which sheds light on why female peers are more important than mothers for these heroines (and perhaps for their readers, too).

The problem, however, is not that Cinder faces evil matriarchs (there are cruel women in positions of power in the world, and it can be affirming to teens to read about heroes who face similar problems) or that Celaena has no significant older women to look to for guidance and positive identification (which is doubtlessly the case for many teens as well).

The problem is that these novels continue the long tradition of “Cinderella” tellings in perpetuating the vilification of older women for the anachronistic crime of being “seemingly unable to contribute to the economic life of the family” and not meeting the requirements of the feminine ideal of beauty and youth.

The problem is that there are no examples of positive older women in either of these tales and the heroines are shown to follow the outdated Freudian model that normalizes “good” girls rejecting their mother figures.

The problem is that young women’s options are wide open: they can be badass assassins, brilliant cyborg mechanics, rebel princesses, misguided rivals, annoying little sisters, enigmatic magical guides—and older women’s roles are reduced to witches, bitches, or nothing at all.

The problem is that these novels do not exist in a vacuum and are perpetuating a culture of ageist misogyny wrapped up in feminist empowerment.

Works Consulted

Primary Sources

Cinderella. Dir. Geronimi, Clyde, Hamilton Luske, and Wilfred Jackson. Prod. Walt Disney. RKO, 1950. Film.

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. “Cinderella.” The Classic Fairy Tales. New York: Norton, 1999.

Maas, Sarah J. Throne of Glass. New York: Bloomsbury (2012)

Meyer, Marissa. Cinder. New York: Fiewel and Friends (2012)

 

Secondary Sources

Baker-Sperry, Lori and Liz Grauerholz. “The Pervasiveness and Persistence of the Female Beauty Ideal in Children’s Fairy Tales.” Gender and Society 17.5 (2003): 711-726.

DelRosso, Jeana. “De-Tangling Motherhood: Adoption Narratives in Disney’s Tangled.” The Journal of Popular Culture 48.3 (2015): 520-33.

Fisher, Jerilyn and Ellen S. Silber. “Good and Bad Beyond Belief: Teaching Gender Lessons Through Fairy Tales and Feminist Theory.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 28.3/4 (2000): 121-136.

Just, Julie. “The Parent Problem in Young Adult Lit.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 4 Apr. 2010.

Nadeau, Frances A. “The Mother/Daughter Relationship in Young Adult Fiction.” The Alan Review. 22.2 (1995).

Ngai, Sainne. “Jealous Schoolgirls, Single White Females, and Other Bad Examples: Rethinking Gender and Envy.” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies. 16. 2 47 (2001): 177-229.

Ockler, Sara. “The REAL Problem in Young Adult Lit.” Sara Ockler. Sara Ockler, 5 Apr. 2010.

Tatar, Maria. “Introduction: Cinderella.” The Classic Fairy Tales. New York: Norton, 1999.

Taubenheim, Barbara Wiese. “Erikson’s Psychosocial Theory Applied to Adolescent Fiction: A Means for Adolescent Self-Clarification.” Journal of Reading 22.6 (1979): 517-22.