So Disney is returning once again to that old standard, the story of Cinderella, doing it over but with live action this time. And therein lies a semiotic tale.
Because the Cinderella story provides a very good occasion for teaching your students about cultural mythologies, and the way that America’s mythologies often contradict each other. In the case of Cinderella, one must begin with the fact that it is a feudal story in essence, one in which a commoner is raised to princess status, not through hard work but through a kind of inheritance: her personal beauty. Such a narrative very much reflects the values of a time when social status was usually inherited rather than achieved.
Thus the fact that the Cinderella story (and don’t forget Pretty Woman) has been told with popular success again and again in post-feudal, bourgeois America, is significant. As I noted in my blog on Frozen, what makes the reprise of such stories meaningful is the way in which they contradict the bourgeois mythology that links social status with hard work—something that sociologist Max Weber called the “Protestant Work Ethic”—while simultaneously contradicting the American mythology of social egalitarianism.
In effect, we find a striking contradiction here between ideology and desire. Most Americans, I believe, would still claim a powerful allegiance to the ideologies of hard work and of social equality: those mythologies are very much alive. But at the level of desire, Americans flock with their children, again and again, to feudal Cinderella stories that neither challenge a world of princes and paupers nor question a happy ending of social status achieved through . . . small feet.
Widening the cultural-semiotic system in which the Cinderella story functions, we can see that America has a lot of high cultural literary productions that openly challenge the ideology of the work ethic, but from a very different angle. From The Rise of Silas Lapham to The Great Gatsby, The Rise of David Levinsky to An American Tragedy, we find tales of the corruptive effect of social success achieved through effort. The pursuit and possession of wealth in these stories is presented as spoilers of what America should be about.
So, we have a tradition of high cultural questioning of a crucial American mythology (an “American Dream” achieved through hard work), and a string of highly profitable low cultural appeals to glamorized feudalism (and don’t get me started on The Lord of the Rings, a story that I adore but which is, nonetheless, one long paean to the divine right of kings).
But it gets even more complicated when we bring gender codes into the analysis. Because it is no accident that the feudal fantasies involved in the Cinderella story invariably involve girls and women as the rising protagonists, while the literary critiques of the money-corrupted capitalist always involve men. So from a gendered point of view, all these Cinderella narratives are telling the little girls who are taken to see them that what they should work on is their personal beauty and personality, and some “prince charming” will take care of the rest.
Little boys, on the other hand, are being told, in effect, to ignore the warnings of Fitzgerald and Dreiser, because what matters for men is to achieve princely (meaning moneyed) status. In short, the most conservative of gender coded behaviors are being promoted through the endless reprising of the Cinderella story, and this matters a lot at a time when the most probable real-world avenues to economic success in America involve hard study and hard work in technical disciplines that are traditionally coded as male.
It’s the same old story.