Linda Holmes examines what we mean when we talk about Cinderella:
There’s very little that’s common to every variant of the story, but in general, you have a mistreated young woman, forced to do menial work, either cast out or unloved by her family. She has an opportunity to marry well and escape her situation, but she gets that chance only after being mistaken for a higher-status person, so she has to get the man who may marry her to recognize her in her low-status form, which often happens either via a shoe that fits or some kind of food that she prepares.
Holmes notes that Marian Roalfe Cox had documented 345 variations of Cinderella — back in 1893.
Since then, we’ve come back to Cinderella repeatedly, making movies that retell the familiar story with small variations. The glass slipper can be a cell phone; animals may understand speech; the fairy godmother might be Da Vinci.
But in a broader sense, it often feels like Cinderella is the story of all overlooked, underappreciated protagonists:
If it’s just a rescue of a deserving underdog from an ordinary life and delivery to an extraordinary one, then The Little Mermaid is Cinderella, and Pretty Woman is Cinderella, and — to be honest? — Captain America is Cinderella. Lots of our current stories are. What is a fairy godmother, after all, that isn’t also present in the idea of being bitten by a spider and gaining the ability to climb buildings? What is that pumpkin coach but … the Batmobile?
(I was going to quibble with The Little Mermaid; she was already a princess from the start. But when you look at the story from when she shows up on land, it does track.)
To me, a useful delimiter for the modern Cinderella is the hero’s initial situation and values. “Have courage and be kind,” says the 2015 Disney Cinderella at least ten times in the film. By staying true to her mantra, she escapes her terrible plight and lives happily ever after. The new movie has pumpkin coaches and polymorphed mice, but to me it’s the hero’s journey from ashes to palace that most makes it Cinderella.