Cinderellas from around the world: Are their tales created with gender bias?
Examining a special collection of children’s literature by Hope Marie Cook
Gender equity in children’s literature is important for educators/librarians and others to be aware of as poorly written books may send incorrect messages to children concerning their ability based on their gender, creating gender stereotypes and influencing their attitudes and behaviors. Because children’s literature and reading is such an important piece of a child’s formative development it is important that educators be conscious of the research about this topic in order to maintain a balanced collection of literature that serves all children. The expression “sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me” is a phrase that many children are taught early in their lives as a means of encouraging them to stand strong against hurtful words that may be spoken to them. But what we don’t warn them against is that language is the primary vehicle through which stereotyping is perpetuated.” (McClure, 1999). This point is a good one as we all know that gender bias can be subtle and the damage is not always obvious. It has been said that there are over 350 variants of the popular Cinderella tale, many with similar plots and others with unique story lines. The Cinderella story that Americans are most familiar with is the traditional French Perault version. What many are not aware of is that when this story was originally published it was meant for adults and has since been censored making it more suitable for children.
This being the case, many writers have taken creative license on this tale and changed it to fit the culture and sometimes to adjust to the changing times. As an academic exercise I wanted the opportunity to formally do a content analysis of the various stories from around the world that focus on the Cinderella theme. I was not sure what I would find as part of my research focused on the overall gender stereotyping in children’s literature that is being reported in the various genres. I do feel that such an analysis is of great significance because it allows us to evaluate the collections and make appropriate decisions about how we will use, or not use, materials that are controversial or bias. This topic also sheds light on some collection development issues that need to be addressed in the hopes that we will continue to improve our awareness of our responsibility to deliver high quality materials to our patrons. Before conducting this study I read all the articles and books that I have listed in the literature review to adequately understand the topic of gender bias in children’s literature. I read about and tried to pinpoint the characteristics that promote positive gender role models as opposed to those that create stereotypes. When I was confident that I had enough knowledge, I read and examined the listed collection of Cinderella themed picture books and made notes on my findings. I had no preconceived ideas about what my research would reveal as I was not very familiar with this genre of literature and was reading much of it for the very first time. I was not aware that Cinderella stories date back as early as 850 A.D. The first recorded tale was a Chinese version called Yeh-hsien written during the T’ang Dynasty.
In this version a young girl is poorly treated by her stepmother and finds solace in the friendship of a fish. When the fish dies, its bones contain a spirit of kindness that transforms the young girl’s life. This first recorded tale has many similarities to others that have been written as they too have a simple plot and the use of motifs. In the many versions that I have examined the story includes a young girl or sometimes a boy, whose mother dies leaving she/he in the care of a wicked stepmother and stepsisters or stepbrothers who are equally cruel. Usually the members of his/her extended family are jealous and petty. In the stories there is usually a gala event that the main character wants to attend but due to her/his limited means magic must be evoked for such to happen. The main character is often discovered by a prince or some other person of royalty and a chance for love is lost after the main character leaves the event prematurely to attend to other obligations. Later the prince or royalty search for the owner of an item that was lost during the event. This is usually a piece of clothing that will bound the couple together. The rightful owner is found and the young couple are reunited and married. (Lieberman, 1972) points out that “marriage is associated with getting rich and is seen as reward for being a patient sufferer, an object of pity.” She goes on to say that what these stories convey is that women in distress are interesting.” It makes sense to me that little girls are generally taught to be sensitive to the feelings of others and, therefore, would be able to “feel” for Cinderella. I’m not sure that this is appropriate as Cinderella seems to play the martyr role which is not what we want to demonstrate or validate as a positive characteristic for young children. It is not okay to be the victim and we should be asking children how an independent Cinderella can get out of her bad situation.
The story of Cinderella is read by children in the United States and in other countries. There are many variations of Cinderella that represent Cinderella though different ethnicities and cultures. Fairy tales are stories that become part of our childhood. The story of Cinderella is read to little girls around the world. In my childhood I was not familiar with Cinderella or the Cinderella variations from the different cultures. When I became an adult and was a caretaker for my small niece who adored Cinderella and always wanted to dress up as if she were going to Cinderella’s ball. I once overheard her playing Cinderella dress up with a preschool friend. As her and her friend put on pretend lipstick she made the remark that they too would find a prince and marry and that it was important to keep their feet small so they could fit into Cinderella’s glass slipper. At the time I just laughed as my niece was so small and the concept coming from her mouth was so mature. I now realize from my readings that the characteristic of Cinderella having small feet comes from the Chinese version of Cinderella, Yeh-Shen. In fact the reality is that it was a cultural tradition that Chinese girls have their feet bound with long strips of silk cloth in order to keep their feet dainty. The bandages were rapped so tightly by elders to keep the foot at a desired size of three to six inches. The tradition banned in 1911 thought to establish a young girl's identity and elevation of status to ensure a good marriage. Today, it is a prominent cause of disability among elderly Chinese women. A poem called Bound Feet that was written by Chinese-American poet Janet. S. Wong drives home the suffering that many endured including her grandmother.
Smoothing her fingers,
Popo shows how, back in China, long ago
they used to roll young girls’ feet,
soaked in salt for softer bones,
rolled and rolled and rolled and tied
in packages of tender meat.
Hearing that, I like my feet.
This poem gave me a greater insight to why the delicate glass slipper was such a significant part of the story. As I watched my niece grow up it seemed her life revolved around a fairy tale. She was always the niece that was in search of the perfect mate
who would shower her with jewelry and wealth. She totally lost the concept that a healthy relationship takes two with lots of giving and equal taking and that both persons are equal in their wants and needs. I didn’t see her go beyond the fairy tale as even now she believes there is someone out there who will sweep her off her feet and therefore she need not work on her own
strengths and weaknesses or build a career to have a stable future. I always wondered if the books with similar needy characters helped to shape her character and make her the person she is or if she was always that person and found acceptance in reading these tales. We all are aware of the studies that tell us that our personal actions or reactions to children influence how they behave or perceive the world around them. According to Gooden, “Books are often the primary source for the presentation of societal values to young children. They are a powerful vehicle for the socialization of gender roles” (p. 89). My niece has some very strong opinions about a female’s role of a wife and mother despite the fact that she had many role models that proved to her that a women’s role doesn’t need to be limited.
When reading the various Cinderella variations there were some obvious features that are similar throughout. Cinderella is always sweet, kind, innocent, and dependent without a true protector such as a mother to assist her when others are cruel. This requires a magical figure or spirit to look over her and guide her through desperate times. She also is a hidden beauty who cleans up nicely when she is afforded attention. In just about every variation that I have read the main character not always called Cinderella loses something that is important to her and when this item is located a love match is made or at the very least her life becomes easier. Cinderella in all of her variations seems to be a victim of circumstances with limited ability to get out of her situation. (Gooden & Gooden, 2001) In their article titled, What if beauty had been ugly? Temple rightfully asks readers “can we really avoid all the stories that show females in limited roles?” My answer to that question is no. I think some children will naturally gravitate towards books whereas the hero is male. For some female children because of their culture and upbringing forfeiting power over to a male is natural because this is what they see on a daily basis. It is all what you are used to seeing and the images and words get put into children’s heads at a very young age.
Reversing such is difficult to do if what they see around them conflicts with what is in literature. Many of these “Cinderella” tales were written by men when women had limited education and career choices. If students are asked to look at these books with a critical eye they will see that much of what they are reading doesn’t fit current times. Women no longer have to wait for marriage to be happy. It is my theory that educators would be more successful with teaching students how to think critically about what they are reading to see if it makes sense to them. Why does Cinderella need a prince or marriage to get out of her situation? Of the books that I read there are very few titles where Cinderella betters herself through education, or by refusing to be treated so poorly. Students should be asked why Cinderella is so passive in her role as a victim. I would also suggest that children have the opportunity to rewrite the stories and be able to discuss alternative endings. Reading and talking about many versions of this tale can help adults and children clarify the power and personal meanings of the story and the oral tradition. After reading these tales it is my thought that Cinderella in her various forms needs to come into the twenty first century. Although I did find some titles that were promising, many were traditional and fell short creating some serious gender stereotypes. In some of the more positive titles the Cinderella character was in control and independent. One of my favorite tales is called Raisel’s Riddle. The main character is a heroine for whom knowledge is as essential to happiness as love. She experiences many of the same problems as the traditional Cinderella, but she handles her difficulties with class and dignity. The character Raisel is intelligent and aware that beauty is internal and that learning is most important. She wins over the Rabbi’s son not because of her beauty, but because of her intelligence. Raisel tell’s the Rabbi’s son that he must solve the riddle before she will take his hand in marriage. The riddle is the following:
“What‘s more precious than rubies, more lasting than gold?
What can never be traded, stolen, or sold?”
“What comes with great effort and take time, but then-
Once yours, will serve you again and again?”
The Rabbi’s son answered “learning.” It is then they live and learn happily ever after. I really like this story for many reasons, one being that it shows a strong young woman who despite her circumstances is confident and proud. I found that by reading this story my developing attitude towards “Cinderella” themed stories was changing in a positive manner. As I continued in my readings I came across a modern day tale of Cinderella called Cinder Edna. In the story the main character relies on herself and not a fairy godmother or magic to get her to the ball. She earns her money, purchases a dress, and catches the bus in order to make it to the ball. She is a Cinder Edna with a can do attitude. I found this book refreshing in some ways but still flawed. In many of the titles that are considered Native American I found strong Cinderella characters whereas despite the character’s strength the ending is not a happy one. The Turkey Girl: A Zuni Cinderella Story is one where the main character is transformed into a vision of beauty so she can attend a religious dance at which many tribes dance into the night. The young girl fails to keep her promise of returning to the turkey cage by sundown and she faces the harsh reality of what happens when promises are broken.
This story has a very good message about honesty and fairness. A similar tale that emphasizes the importance of nature, simple living and respect for the power of the earth and sky is The Rough Face Girl. In this tale a young girl sets out to see and eventually marry the Invisible Being. Due to her honesty and kindness she can see what others cannot. I liked this story because it didn’t focus on beauty. Just the opposite, it was made clear that she didn’t possess any external beauty. In the title Domitila A Cinderella Tale from the Mexican Tradition the main character not only is a wonderful cook, but she also assists in the making of bricks to build their adobe casa, and created intricate designs on the leather-goods produced by her family. When her family home is destroyed Domitila willingly goes off to find work to help support the family. In this story she does marry the governor’s eldest son but also cuts lose the wicked stepmother and sisters. I found this ending to be much more pleasing than many of the other stories whereas the Cinderella character forgives all of those around her who have treated her terribly. The turn the other cheek does not work in some of the stories that I have read as those who have been forgiven don’t have her best interests in mind and conspire to kill the character. A few titles that I almost didn’t read because all were not on my initial list made me realize that the later versions of Cinderella didn’t always have a female in the lead role.
Instead, in the case of The Irish Cinderlad the main character Becan, a poor boy with big feet is belittled by his stepmother and stepsisters, and rescues a princess in distress after meeting a magical bull. While I’ll be the first to admit reading this story was a bit weird for me, especially when Princess Finola set out to find the owner of the big black boot. I guess this tale seemed to me to be more far fetched than the others. In another tale called Joe Cinders the main character is male and called Joe. Joe does all the chores while his mean stepbrothers, Buck, Bart, and Butch Bronco spend their days counting buzzards in the sky. When pretty Miss Rosalinda invites them all to her fall fiesta poor Joe is left at home to watch the cattle. At this point I’m sick of the male versions of Cinderella and look forward to going back to the female version, one that is familiar to me. It is then that I realize the reason the female versions are more appealing to me is because I believe them more. While many of the Cinderella books stereotype both sexes, I find that the stereotypes placed on the female characters are much more restricting and negative. I too have bought into the idea that females want to be rescued by a prince, live a fairytale life and live happily ever after. It is my fierce independence that puts a stop to this type of behavior. While completing this independent study I also learned that I have conflicted emotions about the role of men and their place as opposed to a women’s role. I find myself thinking that only women can nurture and this thought is as incorrect as thinking that only men can be strong. At the very least, I think it is important to recognize that the sexes are very different, but at the same time we need to be careful that in our heads we don’t make these differences stand out as weaknesses.
It is my opinion that many of the Cinderella tales from around the world are created with gender bias and have negative stereotypes of both females and males. It does not surprise me as many of these tales were written by men and reflect the way the public viewed women and their societal roles. Since the invention of the printing press the way little girls and little boys should behave was dictated in children’s literature. The creation of A Little Pretty Pocket-Book entertained as well as instructed the sexes how they should act. Accompanying these books were a ball for little boys and a pincushion for little girls. Until the 1970’s traditional values were encouraged and the lack of female representation was never challenged. According to (Taylor 2003) “Children’s books present a microcosm of ideologies, values, and beliefs from the dominant culture, including gender ideologies and scripts.” Meaning that when children learn to read they also learn about the behaviors expected from them in order to fit in and be accepted. He makes mention of studies that were conducted in the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s of award winning children’s literature and points out that while the early books didn’t have many female characters and the later books of the 80’s only slightly improved as women were now seen, but in stereotypical gender roles.
It was not until the 90’s that women are finally being shown in these books in a more equivalent manner to males. The reality is that gender inequity very much exists in our literature, media, and our daily lives. Despite the Equal Rights Act being passed forty-four years ago and the Civil Rights Act being passed a year later, there continues to be a serious pay gap in what females make in comparison to males doing the same job. It is easy for many, including myself, to conclude that these pay inequities stem from those in power as seeing females as less valuable to the work force. As in children’s literature, males set the tone and dominate the higher ranks of the work force and many compensation issues are determined by this group. This study has given me the opportunity to re-examine my gender beliefs and assumptions. This exercise has also caused me to worry about a preschool collection of titles that I placed in an on-campus preschool library. While I tried my best to find lots of books that were multicultural in nature I worry that some might have gender stereotypes that could be constraining to both genders. All I can do at this point is balance the collection by adding some gender neutral books if they are not already in the collection. I’ll be the first to admit that it is difficult to refuse my niece’s child when she asks if I will attend her Princess Party.
Instead, I want to tell her that I will be at Dora the Explorer’s party as she is more current and doesn’t obsess on the color pink. Just a note of interest in relation to the color pink (Orenstein, 2006) reports “when the color pink was first introduced to the nursery it was considered more of a masculine hue, or a pastel version of red. Blue was thought to be to be dainty as it represented intimations of the Virgin Mary.” The public has never switched from this color representation and this is the reason early Disney heroines were costumed in varying shades of azure. In the 1980’s, he implies, children’s marketing amplified age and sex differences thus causing not only certain colors to be defined as male and female, but also differentiating between the various age groups. He points out this is when we first heard the word “tween.” Disney and the media can really shape how one views the world. I also believe that literature plays a role and can groom us for how we treat others. This may not always be a positive learning experience.
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Cinderella Stories From Around the World
Domitila: A Cinderella Tale from the Mexican Tradition
Jewell R. Coburn/Connie McLennan
A strong family tradition and her mother’s nurturing helps Domitila rise above hardship to eventually marry the Governor.
Adelita: a Mexican Cinderella Story
Adelita is a wonderfully original Cinderella story with warm Mexican colors and designs. It is a colorful rebozo, shawl that disguises Adelita. Incorporates simple Spanish words and comes with glossary of phrases with pronunciations.
Little Gold Star: A Spanish American Cinderella Tale
Robert San Souci/Sergio Martinez
Blessed Mary touches Teresa’s forehead with her finger, and a beautiful gold star appears. With this blessing will she be able to win the heart of the handsome and wealthy Don Miguel?
Little Gold Star: A Cinderella Story
Arcia and her wicked stepsisters encounter a magical hawk. When Arcia is kind to the bird when is awarded with a little gold star on her forehead: but when her spiteful sisters try the same, they end up with donkey ears and cow horns.
A Caribbean Cinderella
Robert San Souci/Brian Pinkney
Told from the godmother’s point of view, it is based on the French Creole tale, set in Martinique. Features French Creole Words and Phrases.
Smoky Mountain Rose: An Appalachian Cinderella
Alan Schroeder/Brad Sneed
Set in the Smoky Mountains Rose loses her glass slipper at a party given by the rich feller on the other side of the creek. The hog acts as the fairy godmother in this version.
Cendrillon: A Cajun Cinderella
Sheila Hebert Collins/Patrick Soper
Set in New Orleans and filled with Cajun-French words and phrases, the story reveals how Cendrillon meets her prince.
The Persian Cinderella
Settareh is not allowed to go to the royal New Year’s celebrations. With the help of a mysterious jug, she is able to go to the palace and meet her prince.
The Golden Sandal – Middle East
An enchanting Iraqi version about a beautiful young girl who is ill-treated by her stepmother and stepsister while her father is away fishing. After she saves a magical red fish the fish helps her attend a henna party of the bride-to be dressed in a fine gown and sandals.
Naya – the Inuit Cinderella
Brittany Marceau-Chenkie/Shelley Brooks
In this Cinderella story from the far North, an Inuit girl lives a traditional life with her grandfather. She needs time to finish her traditional leather clothing in order to attend the Community Feast, but her grandfather needs her for the hunt. Where will help come from?
Sootface: An Ojibwa Cinderella Story
Robert San Souci/Daniel San Souci
Sootface is mistreated by her two older sisters who are lazy. Then a mighty warrior who can be invisible announces that he will marry the woman who can see him. Despite mockery, Sootface sets off to try her luck, never once looking back.
Turkey Girl: A Zuni Cinderella Story
Penny Pollock/ Ed Young
In this variant of the familiar story, some turkeys make a doeskin dress for the poor girl who tends them so that she can participate in a sacred dance, but they desert her when she fails to return as promised.
The Rough-Face Girl
Rafe Martin/ David Shannon
In this Algonquin Indian version of the Cinderella story, the rough-Face Girl and her two beautiful, but heartless sisters compete for the affections of the Invisible Being.
Fair, Brown and Trembling: An Irish Cinderella Story
Trembling, youngest of the three daughters, is rescued from drudgery by an old hen-wife as a fairy god mother, who gives her splendid clothes and a milk-white horse to carry her to church-not the palace ball.
Baba Yaga & Vasilisa the Brave- Russian Cinderella
Marianna Mayer/KY Craft
Vasilisa, with the help and protection of her doll, is able to overcome her ill fate and marry the Tsar. Exquisitely illustrated.
Cinderella – European
This Perrault’s classic tale is still timeless today.
Cinderella, cruelly mistreated by her evil stepmother and stepsisters, is helped by her magical fairy godmother, who sends her off to a ball to win the heart of a handsome prince.
The Irish Cinderlad
Shirley Climo/L Krupinski
Becan, a poor boy belittled by his stepmother and stepsisters, rescues a princess in distress after meeting a magical bull.
Francesca Boada/ Monse Fransoy
Perrault’s familiar Cinderella’s story is retold in both Spanish and English. The dual-language text make this book a useful and beautiful addition to both home and classroom libraries.
Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale Caldecott Honor Book
Mufaro’s two beautiful daughters one bad tempered, one kind and sweet, go before the King who is choosing a wife. The names of the characters are from the Shona language of Africa.
The Egyptian Cinderella
Shirley Climo/Ruth Heller
Rhodopis, a slave girl eventually comes to be chosen by the Pharaoh to be his queen. This is a retelling of an ancient Egyptian legend that mixes fact and fable and brings the age of the pharaohs back to life.
Erica Silverman/Susan Gaber
What’s more precious that rubies, more lasting than gold? Raisel knows. Despite the jealous cook’s cruelty, she rises above adversity and her intelligence shines through. In this Jewish version, our Cinderella is a heroine for who knowledge is essential to happiness as love.
The Way Meat Loves Salt: A Cinderella Tale from the Jewish Tradition
Nina Jaffe/Louise August
The youngest daughter of a rabbi is sent away from home in disgrace, but thanks to the help of the prophet Elijah, she marries the son of a renowned scholar and is reunited with her family.
The Enchanted Anklet: From India
Strikingly presented in the East Indian fashion of saris, golden anklets, goddess festival and Godfather Snake with his magic jewel. Rewritten by an Indian Canadian, this Cinderella story has a western touch.
Anklet for a Princess: India
An updated version of Enchanted Anklet. New illustration highlights the original East Indian version of the Cinderella, Cinduri’s transformation.
The Gift of the Crocodile – Indonesia
Judy Sierra. Illus. by R. Ruffins
Damura is forced into slavery by her stepmother. A friendly crocodile is the godmother who provides the clothes and carriage needed to attend the Island Prince’s banquet where she looses her slipper.
Abadeha: The Philippine Cinderella
Myrna de la Paz/ Youshan Tang
Abadeha is young girl who is forced to perform impossible tasks by her mean-spirited stepmother. Only the Sprit of the Forest and her magic can help Abadeha find her prince. Colorful images of pre-colonial Philippine scenes, costumes, architecture, and folkways vividly enhances the enchanting story.
Angkat: The Cambodian Cinderella
The first English retelling of this ancient tale.
Angkat – our child of ashes endures great wrongs as she seeks to rise above distresses caused by her own family. This heroine not only rises above these wrongs but also must conquer her own mortality to regain her rightful place.
Si Mariang Alimango: Filipino Cinderella
In this flavorful Cinderella, the fairy godmother takes the form of a crab. Besides providing a meal for the family, the crab also rescues Maria by giving her clothes and a carriage to go to the ball.
Yeh-Shen – The Original Cinderella
Ai-Ling Louie: Ill. Ed Young
A young Chinese girl overcomes the wickedness of her stepsister and stepmother to become the bride of a prince. The story is believed to be at least 1,000 years older than the earliest known Western version.
The lovely Jouanah is abused by her cruel stepmother. Through a cow, the spirit of her dead mother takes care of her by giving her pretty clothes to wear to the festival where she meets a handsome young man.
Cinderella and cinder Edna, who live with cruel stepmothers and stepsister, have different approaches to like and, although each ends up with the prince of her dreams one is great deal happier that the other.
Sumorella: Hawai’i Cinderella Story
Sandi Takanyama/Esther Szegedy
A “mango boy” dreams of becoming a Sumotori and he knows he could be one it he had the chance. Be prepared for hilarious surprises as read this delightful Hawai’i style Cinderella story. Hawaiian dialect is an integral part of the story and comes with a glossary.
Nancy Willard illus Jane Dyer
Two magpies befriend Cinderella and help create her dress. They have to decide who will make it, how will it be made and what kind of gown it will be.
The Oryx Multicultural Folktales Series: Cinderella
A Cinderella collection created by experts in folk literature, story telling and education. Features 25 Cinderella stories form around the world, fascinating background material, and high-interest activities.
In Search of Cinderella
Twelve Cinderella stories from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Middle East are summarized and worked into lesson for the middle and upper grades. Features a review, and vocabulary.
Teaching With Cinderella Stories From Around the World (Grades 1-3)
Read, discuss, and enjoy the wonderful, diverse worlds of Cinderella! Capture the magic with this rich collection of activities based on 10 version from China, South Africa, Ireland, the Caribbean, and beyond. Engaging activities to help children compare the stories and learn about different cultures.
Learn about the culture and customs of eight nations within the Cinderella theme. Students can learn different through various activities. Discusses stories from China, Korea, Egypt, Germany, Native American culture, Africa, Russia and Great Britain. Stories not included. For teachers.