Cinderella: No Restraints

Interesting discussion in my class on Wednesday. The book under discussion was a sentimental novel/autobiography by an African-American woman (Harriet Wilson) writing in the 19th century about black indentured servitude in New England. The point of the book is that racism existed in New England in the 1800s, which is the sort of thing that upsets people who are surprised by that sort of the thing. (They aren't surprised that there was racism, they are surprised—shocked, shocked—that their high school history teachers simplified the North v. South conflict by telling them that the North was free of slavery/racism before the Civil War. These are also people who believed their teachers in high school. One of the weird aspects of college is that my professors keep trying to DISMANTLE and FIX my wrong-headed assumptions, but I don't make those sorts of assumptions so they just get aggravated, and I just get tired.)

Wilson's book actually posed a problem for abolitionists in the 19th century; New England abolitionists rather collectively despised it for detracting from the "real" problem. And they had a point. It's hard to read Wilson's book and then to read Franklin Douglass' Life and still feel that her problems should be addressed first or instead of. I suppose in a perfect world, the abolitionists would have said, "Yes, I understand. There are problems that need to be fought in our own community even as we are battling horrors elsewhere." Yeah, I'll remember to mention this approach to the next avid environmentalist I meet.

Anyway, the part of the discussion I want to talk about is the ineffectualness of the men in the book. The strongest character in the book is the evil stepmother. The men goop around and utter platitudes, but they don't do much. As one student pointed out, this is a convention of sentimental novels, and I have a theory about it. In order to write about strong women, in a period in time when they had few legal rights (comparatively), the first order of business would be to dispose of the men. This is also the first order of business in many fairytales. And it is the first order of business in the Narnia books. That is, if you have a set of people (women, children) who are restricted from grand, old adventures by social conventions and restraints, the first thing you do is get rid of the restrainers. Or, to be less chauvinistic, the fixer-uppers. You can't have Cinderella exhibiting strength by enduring her stepmother if everytime the stepmother opens her mouth, hubby tells her to put a sock-in-it.

Speaking of which, I once flipped the story of Cinderella in my head, all the male parts female; the female parts male, and the first problem I had was, "Why doesn't he leave?" It wasn't that I thought Cinderella couldn't leave; I was reared by a feminist. It was that Cinderella staying was far more acceptable (even if wimpy) to the culture of the time than for Cinder-bob to stay. I mean, after all, Cinder-bob could go join the army or go fishing or get some inheritance and go buy land or fight for his inheritance in the courts. He might end up like Jack the Beanstalk but still, he had options. But Cinderella, unless she pulled a Shakespeare-girls-dressed-as-boys-going-into-the-woods stunt could be a milliner, a governess or a prostitute. And how unfun are those employment options! (If she had more money, she could be a courtesan, but the whole point of the story is that she doesn't. A little later on timewise, her solution would be to write emotionally charged novels, marry a vicar and die from consumption, but Cinderella was a tad earlier than the Brontes.)

Anyway, for a truly wonderful Cinderella tale about a pro-active, modern Cinderella, check out the picture book Cinder Edna by Ellen Jackson.


No comments: