When I pick my March Madness bracket, I hope for Cinderella stories. Every year, I choose my winning teams through the lens of one incredibly precise question: which team’s name is more fun to say? For all the flaws of this strategy, it often predicts surprises more effectively than the experts. This year, my system forecast the journey of St. Peter’s, the first fifteen-seed team in the bracket’s history to reach the Elite Eight. I didn’t exactly understand the future, but at least I knew a little more than the experts, and that was reward enough for me. Soon commentators, fans, and even I started to dress St. Peter’s success in a familiar metaphor: a Cinderella story.
Men’s basketball, oddly enough, is one of the few spheres where a comparison to Cinderella still feels flattering. Perhaps because Cinderella has been a defining story for women (and rarely men) for centuries. In recent years, the “Cinderella” story has become a story for women to rebel against, not one for women to reenact. You probably know this line of thinking well: Cinderella teaches women to stay in abusive situations; dreaming is the only way to escape the problems of your life. Cinderella teaches women that beauty is goodness; your looks are the best way to prove that you’ve chosen the right path for your life. Cinderella teaches women to wait around for a boy to rescue them; romance is the ultimate goal of your life.
Before I can ever defend Cinderella, I must admit that I agree with many—maybe even most—of her attackers. The world has far more interesting stories to tell than the same old sentimental narrative. “Cinderella” has been dethroned. Thank goodness.
Still, somehow, even though I know all the critiques, “Cinderella” is a story I find myself craving. Just look at my watchlist for sick-or-sad days: 2004’s A Cinderella Story with Hilary Duff, 1997’s Cinderella with Brandy and Whitney Houston, 2015’s Cinderella with Lily James; if nothing else, 1998’s Ever After with Drew Barrymore. Some people might dismiss those films as guilty pleasures, the Little Debbie cupcakes of my media diet—simple, sweet, and absolutely atrocious for my health. But I believe Cinderella stories deserve more than that sort of pat, sheepish acknowledgment.
In trying to explain myself, I think of a character who would probably hate to be linked to Cinderella: Jo March of Little Women. In one quiet, heartrending scene in the 2019 film adaptation, Jo sits in the attic with her mother and grapples with her longing to be loved.
“Women have minds and they have souls as well as just hearts. They’ve got ambition and they’ve got talent as well as just beauty. I am so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it! But—I’m so lonely.”
Jo’s speech starts as a conversational version of Louisa May Alcott’s words from the novel Rose in Bloom, but screenwriter and director Greta Gerwig added the four words at the end: But—I’m so lonely.
“I heard exactly how [actress] Saoirse [Ronan] says it in the movie in my head and I started weeping,” Gerwig said in a later USA Today interview. But—I’m so lonely are the words that made Gerwig sob, and they are the words that make me want to cry alongside her. Jo expresses the hard questions at the core of romance and identity: is it possible to be independent and interdependent, at the same time? Especially—even—as a woman?
Cinderella’s critics have often begrudged the character’s lack of individual identity: first Cinderella is the daughter of a loving father, then the servant of her cruel stepfamily, then the wife of an adoring prince. Her context determines her actions, and her beauty is the signal of her value, the marker of worth that even cinders cannot hide. But evaluations like this often ignore the real value of having one’s worth acknowledged by a wider community. Beauty should absolutely not be the only way we recognize value. Still, by focusing our conversations so narrowly on self-worth, we underestimate the importance of love and acknowledgement to those who have been hurt and misused and forgotten. Individuals can understand their own intrinsic value, despite the words of others, but no one wants to live a life where they are never told that they are loved. That is the thrum of so many civil rights movements; that is the heartbeat of the downtrodden and oppressed. Sometimes we need to hear the echoes of Mary’s song like earthquakes rather than tremors, when the kingdom turns upside down and lifts up the humble.
Near the end of Ever After, the Cinderella retelling I love best, Danielle turns to her stepmother and confesses a bold, horrible truth: “You are the only mother I have ever known. Was there ever a time, even in its smallest measurement, that you loved me at all?” Her family—the people who were meant to be her first experience of love—have given her only crumbs of affection, earned through work and drudgery. And in the end, she is just a pebble in their shoe, someone to be discarded and forgotten as quickly as possible.
In my favorite retellings, the Cinderella characters aren’t just rescued out of their horrible homes by a prince—the unloved are gradually surrounded by a community that values them. The mice, the fairy godmother, maybe a sympathetic stepsister, then even the prince understand that Cinderella’s place does not determine her worth. We the audience know that—even if the prince rejects Cinderella—she will still be supported by the people around her. The prince’s love is a symbol of the person Cinderella always was, and if the symbol fades, her worth will remain.
If you are retelling a story, you should know why that work feels worthwhile to you. Before the words release, before the curtain rises, a storyteller needs to ponder what motivates them to resurrect the past for the present. We audience members must not be far behind, asking questions, wondering where exactly these plotlines are directing our hearts and our hopes. The fullness of life is plural rather than singular, and so is the fullness of storytelling. I will keep defending Cinderella—flaws and all–as I keep finding the ways the story still shimmers with truth. But I hope, too, to sometimes leave Cinderella behind, abandoning the sentimental fairy tale for the true human story still waiting by the fireplace.
Courtney Zonnefeld graduated in 2018 with a degree in writing. She currently lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she works for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. In her free time, she enjoys reading, baking, and saving up for more herb plants. You can usually find her wandering a farmer’s market, hunting for vintage books, or browsing the tea selection in coffee shops.