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Seeking Cinderella: A Brief Glimpse of the Evolution of Fairytales

Lethologica's picture

           Throughout the ages fairytales have existed, teaching children and guiding them through the difficult process of growing up. The fairytale, the story told to children to make them behave, or learn some valuable lesson or value, or even simply to keep them busy, might be considered a staple for many (if not most) cultures. However, despite this inherent similarity between every single fairytale, this genre is by nature incredibly fluid, easily changing in form and content from culture to culture, and time period to time period. In the hands of the numerous authors who have shaped them, fairytales springing from a single core theme have told vastly different stories, fulfilling different purposes, having different outcomes and teaching different lessons and values depending the culture involved. To put it simply, fairytales, as a whole, are constantly evolving to reflect the needs of society. This process of evolution can be seen in the contrast between any two fairytale traditions, but I believe that one of the best examples, and perhaps one of the easiest to see, is the contrast between the two very popular traditions of the Grimm Brothers and Disney. Sharing several core fairytales and being popularized in two vastly different societies, the two traditions are perfect to compare; by juxtaposing the two different versions of fairytales such as Cinderella, and Snow White, as well as others, I believe one is able to chart the changes in the fairytale according to cultural pressures, and in turn pinpoint the expectations and values held by the societies the fairytales belong to.

            Of all of the stories that the Grimm Brothers and Disney shared, the one story that was the most different in its two incarnations was Cinderella. The only things truly common to the two individual stories are the name, and some of the basic plot points and characters. In both stories there is a beautiful girl, who is forced into servitude by her wicked step-mother and step-sisters and eventually is miraculously able to attend a royal ball where she meets Prince Charming and lives happily-ever-after, after passing ‘trial by shoe.’ However, that is more or less where the similarities end. The Grimm version of the story is much harsher, and very much more bloody than the version that Disney puts on screen for his audience. The Grimms’ Cinderella lacks the fairy-godmother, adoring animals and singing mice of Disney, as well as compelling idea of the easy happily-ever-after where the kind, meek, and down-trodden girl is whisked off her feet by Prince Charming with a little help from outside forces. Instead, the Grimms’ version of the fairytale shows a situation where the little cinder-girl has to work hard for her just deserts, triumphing through extreme perseverance and piety. This shows that the ideals concerning women were vastly different in the Grimms’ and Disney’s cultures. Both societies obviously put great stock in the ability to keep house, but the Grimms’ society desired hard working and pious women, while Disney’s society desired the passive, compassionate women, the perfect little housewives. Beyond this difference in the way the stories progress, there is also one other shocking difference: there is a part of the storyline in the Grimms’ version that is completely neglected by Disney, where the step-mother forces the step-sisters to mutilate themselves in order to wind the prince’s favor, and then are further mutilated as punishment. This adds a whole other dimension to the fairytale, where the ‘wicked’ parties are punished for their ‘wicked’ ways. By including this section of the story, the Grimms not only teache the children through the good example of Cinderella, but also through punishment received by the bad examples of her step-family. I believe that is difference may simply be due to the desire in Disney’s society to shelter the children; a story in which two girls cut off parts of their feet and are only caught out in their deception due to the blood leaking out of their shoes, and then later get their eyes pecked out by birds would have been considered to gruesome and violent by the majority of the population.

            Snow White is another example of how the values and expectations of the societies differed, yet it also serves very well to exemplify the differences in the purposes of the fairytale in those societies. While Snow White does not display quite as many variation between the two versions as Cinderella does, it is notably different is several aspects. Most importantly, Disney shifts the story’s focus from the struggle between Snow White and the Queen, the focus in the Grimms’ story, to what is done to Snow White, what she suffers. Snow White, as told by the Grimm Brothers, has much more psychological depth. It exhibits the struggles of a child stuck between pre-adolescence and adolescence, while at the same time expressing the issues that can be caused by narcissism, both in children and in parents, Freud’s theories of oedipal desire, the child’s position in the family, and the importance of a girl’s monthly bleeding. It might comfort the child in regards to any distressful feelings they have in regards to their parents, as well as impress upon them the fact that this tumultuous period of their lives will eventually end. The way that Disney styled the story neglects most of this, whether purposefully or not. In contrast to the psychological and educational usefulness of the Grimms’ Snow White, Disney’s seems to be a commentary on the ‘modern’ woman of the time, focusing on the princess’s drudgery, and willingness to work hard on the housework. It seems, more or less, to be little more than entertainment. It would have been enjoyable to watch, uplifting during the Depression, but without the deeper psychological uses that the Grimms' version may have had ascribed to it. Therefore it only stands to reason that Disney's version of the fairytale would be much lighter, without quite as many assassination attempts, or all of the gory details that the Grimm version has. It would have made no sense for Disney to include the true resolution of the conflict between Snow White and the Wicked Queen that the Grimm Brothers included in their version, where the Queen is punished for her actions against Snow White by being forced to dance to death in hot iron shoes. This would serve no purpose, and in fact might only be disturbing. In the end, the fairytales must follow the needs of the society, or it simply will not survive as a popular story. As the cultures of the fairytales change, either through age or movement, the fairytales either evolve, or they die out.


Works Referenced


Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: the Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991. Print. 


 Cinderella. Dir. Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske. Perf. Ilene

Woods, Eleanor Audley, Verna Felton, Rhoda Williams, James MacDonald. Walt

Disney Masterpiece Collection, 1950. Videocassette.


Grimm, Jacob, Wilhelm Grimm, Maria Tatar, and A. S. Byatt. The Annotated Brothers

Grimm. Boston: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004. Print.


Tatar, Maria M. The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales. Princeton, NJ: Princeton

University Press, 1987. Questia. 16 July 2009 <>.


O'Neill, Thomas. "Guardians of the Fairy Tale: The Brother's Grimm." National

Geographic - Inspiring People to Care About the Planet. 1999. July 2009 <>.


Radley, Becky. "American History - 1950-1959." Lone Star College-Kingwood Library

Home Page. 2008. July 2009 <>.


Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Dir. David Hand. Perf. Adriana Caselotti, Lucille La

Verne, Moroni Olsen, Roy Atwell, Pinto Colvig. Walt Disney Masterpiece

Collection, 1937. Videocassette.


Sutton, Bettye. "American History - 1930-1939." Lone Star College-Kingwood Library

Home Page. 1999. July 2009 <>.






Serendip Visitor's picture

views on fairytales effectiveness

how do you think fairytales have effected the youth? and do you think it was efficient to change the original grimm stories to ones that advance childrens imagination and life expectations? (this is for a research paper)

Serendip Visitor's picture


How did your research paper go? I would be interested to see it.