may_lily: (an angel among us)
may_lily ([personal profile] may_lily) wrote2013-04-20 05:05 pm

Cinderella and the Twelve Dancing Princesses

From my tumblr.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses is a fairy tale that bothers me. In the Grimm version, there’s no indication that the princesses are doing anything wrong. In fact, there’s a suggestion that they’re trying to uncurse a group of princes, who remain cursed at the end of the story.

There are other versions in which the princesses are dancing and having sex with devils (e.g., The Three Girls). But even then, the devils aren’t doing anything to anyone else. In other stories, the lover is a giant (The Seven Iron Slippers) or a troll (The Princess with the Twelve Pair of Golden Shoes) or a Moorish prince (The Moorish Prince and the Christian Princess), who once again isn’t hurting anyone.

Sometimes, as in The Princess with the Twelve Pair of Golden Shoes, the lover has enchanted the princess. Often, though, she seems to be dancing of her own free will. Several versions involve willing older sisters and a reluctant younger sister. The older sisters are executed by their father when their secret is revealed.

The two negative consequences of the princesses’ dancing for other people are the endless worn-out shoes and the executed investigators. And yet it never occurs to the king that he could just stop buying shoes, and he’s the one who demands that failures must die. There is a version (The Twelve Dancing Princesses from Andrew Lang’s Red Fairy Book and a couple of near-identical Romanian versions) in which the princesses kidnap the investigators in order to have partners to dance with; this is the only variant I know of in which the princesses are actively harming people.

I read The Twelve Dancing Princesses as a tale of the oppression of women. The princesses are going out, having fun and having sex without the knowledge or permission of their father. He can’t stand that they have a secret, and once their activities have been revealed they cannot be allowed to continue. By the end of the story, the route to the magic world is gone and the independent princesses are repentant or dead. The king has regained control over his daughters and the investigator has his choice of wife. Masculine authority has been reasserted.

This is why I really like the Barbie adaption of The Twelve Dancing Princesses. The magic land is a haven from their scheming guardian, the dancing a relief from the strict control they are under.

Contrast this with Cinderella. Cinderella desires to gout out dancing (or to church, to see and be seen) for the fun of it. She goes, sneakily, against the orders of her guardian, and lies about it afterwards. She uses magic (even, sometimes, communing with the dead) in order to get to the ball. The worn-out slippers are the evidence of the twelve dancing princesses’ ‘wrongdoing’ and leads to them being discovered and prevented from going back. But while Cinderella’s slipper does lead to her discovery, she is rewarded, not punished.

Cinderella is certainly not without its flaws from a feminist perspective. Still, when I compare these two stories, I feel that Cinderella is about gaining freedom, but The Twelve Dancing Princesses is about losing it.

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