James DeutschJames Deutsch ’70 is a curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (residents of the DC area and summertime visitors will recognize the Center for Folklife as responsible for the massive outdoor festival on the Mall each summer which highlights cultural traditions from 2-3 countries or American regions every year).  In connection with Disney’s release of yet another version of Cinderella, he examined the continuing hold that the story has over us, in a piece at Smithsonian.com. It’s a nice piece, and fairy tales in general (and Cinderella in particular, aside from its metaphorical meaning in the context of athletic tournaments) have been badly neglected here at EphBlog, so here are some highlights:

Dozens of [] filmmakers have borrowed elements of the tale, starting as early as 1899 with a French version directed by the pioneering filmmaker Georges Méliès. And perhaps the best known is the 1990 Pretty Woman, a retelling of both Cinderella and George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, starring Julia Roberts as Vivian, who is magically transformed from rags to riches.

The appeal of Cinderella extends not only to filmmakers, but also to folklorists and early collectors of folktales, such as the Brothers Grimm—Jacob and Wilhelm—who included the story of Aschenputtel (Ash Girl) in their well-known German collection, Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales), first published in 1812. Charles Perrault included a similar tale even earlier—under the title of Cendrillon (Cinderella)—in his French collection of tales, Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passé, avec des Moralités: Contes de Ma Mere L’Oye (Stories or Tales from Time Past, with Morals; Tales of Mother Goose), first published in 1697. Going back even further, folklorists have traced the story to 9th-century China, in which Yeh-Shen overcomes an evil stepmother, thanks to a golden slipper that transforms her rags to beautiful clothes and enables her to marry a wealthy king.

Deutsch rightly links the enduring popularity of Cinderella to its association with basic premises underlying American society:

she is able to rise out of ashes and cinders to achieve a position of wealth and stature. This is the same basic story that fuels what some call “the American dream”—a belief that you too will rise to the top because you have the requisite pluck and need just a little luck—such as a pumpkin coach or a prince who finds you at long last with your glass slipper in his benevolent hand. This belief is reinforced by actual rags-to-riches cases, from Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln to Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and . . . yes, even Walt Disney himself…

Similarly, the story of Cinderella tells us that virtue is rewarded and evil is punished… Not only is virtue rewarded, so too is action. Cinderella is not a passive wimp who simply wishes upon a star. She makes things happen through her fortitude, perseverance, and wise decisions—albeit with some help from a magical fairy godmother. In similar fashion, Americans regard themselves as can-do people who take the bull by the horns, not letting the grass grow under their boots on the ground. By the way, all of those proverbial expressions are wonderful illustrations of folklore at work in the contemporary world.

Aside from presentations of “Into the Woods” by Stephen Sondheim ’50, is Williams doing its part to help American Cinderella stories? Notwithstanding the conventional wisdom, that top colleges and universities need to do more to recruit and admit low-income applicants (i.e. candidates with “the requisite pluck” but needing just “a little luck”), EphBlog has made the case that high-ability, low-income applicants are not underrepresented at Williams, that legacy candidates are not given excessively favorable treatment, and that, if Williams were to try to toss more “luck” in the wind, more honesty regarding graduation prospects would be required.

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