Cinderella as Superhero: How the Timeless Heroine Keeps Casting Her Spell


Cinderella and her prince in the 1950 animated feature

As our younger daughter and I danced through the door after an early screening of Kenneth Branagh’s new live-action version of the fairy tale Cinderella, my husband observed, Cinderella is for girls, what Superman is for boys.” Are the fairy-tale heroine and the superhero really comparable? After all, Ms. Glass Slippers has a much longer, more complex history than Mr. Guy in Tights.

In the ninth-century when Chinese scribes first recorded the folk tale of a Cinderella-esque woman, it was already an ancient story. The first known version involving a Greek slave girl beloved by the pharaoh, dates back to Egypt in 7 B.C. (In that one the footwear is sandals, not glass slippers.) There are 345 variants of the tale, including the familiar ones by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm. It feels as though there are almost as many movies, ranging from Georges Méliès’s Cendrillon (1899) to Branagh’s enchanted and enchanting new version starring Lily James (Downton Abbey) as the poised, put-upon orphan and Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) as the prince blind to her raggedy clothes and attracted to her spirit.


Lily James in the new ‘Cinderella’

Is it because of the universal appeal of Cinderella’s tale that storytellers are drawn to it as irresistibly as the prince to Cinderella? When Husband made the Cinderella/Superman parallel, I took that to mean girls love the magical powers of her external transformation just as boys love Superman’s powers. But to reduce Cinderella to dress and shoes, as many do, is like reducing Superman to phone booth and cape.

It’s true, Cinderella has an image problem with men. Some, like my own Prince Charming, shrug her off as “girl stuff.” Yet why would a story told and retold from time immemorial appeal only to one gender? Consider Jerry Lewis’s gender-swapped Cinderfella (1960) about a persecuted young man with stepmother issues and a comely princess who thinks he’s all that.

Isn’t Cinderella an Everyteen who manages her grief for her parents and her sibling rivalry with her stepsisters with a healthy sense of self-worth? In Branagh’s version, nicely written by Chris Weitz, Cinderella is armed with courage and kindness, making her impervious to the barbs and bitchery of stepmom and stepsisters. Well before Cinderella says yes to the dress and her fairy godmother’s fashion intervention, the prince is bewitched. It’s her internal qualities that attract him. And isn’t the prince a change agent whose passion for Cinderella leads him to resist the arranged marriage his parents want?

To be fair, Cinderella has always been a thorny subject for social critics and feminists. In his 1943 book, Generation of Vipers, Philip Wylie griped of Cinderella that all it takes is a “good-looking man with dough [to] put an end to the onerous tedium of [her] making a living.” The Cinderella Complex, Colette Dowling’s 1981 self-help book, outlined the conflicts women had with independence and suggested ways to overcome them without depending on a husband for economic support.

Cinderella certainly hasn’t always been so enlightened in movie versions. In the 1950 animated Disney adaptation, she represented so-called traditional femininity at the height of ’50s family values. In more modern variations, she’s often more of a material girl. Jennifer Lopez as the glam chambermaid in Maid in Manhattan (2002) and Julia Roberts as the world’s most wholesome streetwalker in Pretty Woman (1990) are both transformed by upscale duds. In Maid, the prince is idealistic political hopeful Ralph Fiennes; in Woman, he’s corporate raider Richard Gere who calculates it’s more cost-effective to hire an escort than have a relationship. (The low point of modern movie Cinderellas may be when Gere tells Roberts, “We both screw people for money.”)


Richard Gere and his Cinderella, Julia Roberts, in ‘Pretty Woman’

Yet Cinderella, the character and the story, is stronger than her critics and has often defied easy stereotypes. As early as 1939, the effervescent Mitchell Leisen film Midnight depicted a Cinderella-esque Claudette Colbert as a chorus girl rejecting the nobleman for taxi driver Don Ameche. In other retellings, like the TV musical Cinderella (1997) with Brandy and Whitney Houston and the revisionist Ever After (1998) with Drew Barrymore and Dougray Scott, Cinderella exhibits a feminist independence of mind. Note that Barrymore’s fairy godfather is that man of art and science, Leonardo da Vinci, not some Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo babe with a wand. Another revisionist version, Martha Coolidge’s 2004 The Prince and Me, has Luke Mabry as a modern-day royal from Denmark who falls for pre-med student Julia Stiles and agrees to delay marriage until she gets her M.D. In that one, it’s the prince who’s marrying up.

Whether she’s helpless and powerless or decisive and empowered, audiences love Cinderella. With their egalitarian couples, the more recent adaptations give equal time to Cinderella and the prince, addressing both genders. What my husband calls “girl stuff,” I call “people stuff.” So did the late child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, who wrote, “One of the overt messages of the various Cinderella stories is that we are mistaken if we think we must hold on to something in the external world to succeed in life.” That, I think, applies to everyone, no matter your gender or age. And that’s the thing about Cinderella: She’s resilient and endlessly adaptable.

Photo credits: Walt Disney Pictures, AP Photo/Disney, Jonathan Olley