Rebel Narratives: Cinderella
A story mapping exercise
- A young woman trapped in an abusive environment glimpses the promise of escape, if only for one night.
- ‘Not for you,’ says the world.
- Usually in life it ends here, but instead we get the first of what George Saunders calls Things I Couldn’t Help But Notice, in the form of an intervention by a person calling themselves The Fairy Godmother.
- Rules are joyfully broken and the young woman is transformed into a fairytale princess. She WILL* go to the ball! (*Terms & Conditions apply.)
- So it’s off to the palace and before long she’s dancing with a handsome prince and having the time of her life.
- Inevitably, the clock strikes 12, and those Terms & Conditions kick in.
- Life is fucking awful, worse for having tasted SUCH RICHES.
- Again, the story could end here, but no: a ‘magic slipper’ appears (Things I Couldn’t Help But Notice №2). Before it all gets too silly, we’re given a believable character-based action. It seems our prince has a romantic streak, or at least he doesn’t like to be denied, so he goes looking for her — armed with the aforementioned magic slipper.
- Except (complication), he still thinks she’s a fairytale princess. Because that’s what she presented. What’s going to happen when he discovers she’s a liar, a fraud, a nobody?
- It gets worse (escalation) because the rules of this world say they can’t be together anyway. Everything is against them.
- Now, we have a choice. In the fairytale, the prince finds his lady and (ahem) his Magic Slipper fits. She gets her escape by transforming into a REAL princess. Happy ever after.
- If we were to switch to Russian Realist mode, the prince might still find her and his slipper might still fit, but it wouldn’t be magic and the world would destroy them. He might lose his position and they would be shunned by society and end up dying in extreme poverty.
- Or, how about this one: The ‘prince’ (who may be a prince, but could also be a player) is defiant or lucky, or both, and he finds his ‘princess’. He declares his love but, having learned from her mentor The Fairy Godmother, she lays down a few Terms & Conditions of her own. First, she can’t possibly be with him while he’s a prince and she’s in bondage. The power imbalance would kill off any possibly of a healthy loving relationship based on mutual understanding and respect. So to stand a chance, either her place in this world must shift, or his. He could choose to heroically slum it at her level, but would he? And in any case wouldn’t it smack of poverty tourism? Does he attempt to ‘turn her into a Lady’ and in doing so enslave her all over again? Once we start to unravel it, there’s a lot of story here to work with; story that the conventional telling of the story (the one we all know) misses. And that maybe reveals something about how dominant narratives drown out the possibility of considering another side, an unheard perspective.
- We can still wind up with a version of the fairytale, maybe redressed as a Rom-Com, or we go down the route of Realism (Russian, Magic, Social…) As storytellers, we have options, always. Even if we think we’re dancing on a pin, incarcerated by cliché, patriarchy, capitalism, clients, managers, markets, funding committees, social fucking media—we’re making choices, that’s what we do. And whether it’s a fairytale or a Unicorn, an episode of Sex and the City or a John Lewis ad, we have the choice to either accept the dominant narratives we’re given, or try to unpack them, decode the patterns, and maybe even change them. (But Terms and Conditions still apply….)