"The meanings of Cinderella are as elusive as her origins. Whatever the symbolism of the various parts of the story may be found to be, whatever emotions and significations may be attached to slippers and fishes, helpful animals and dead parents among the cave people in south China in the ninth century, the spinning of the yarn, the daydream which we call fairy story is organized by the central situation presented near the beginning, the emotions growing out of the fact that here is a small girl who was loved fondly by a father that died and is now being mistreated by her stepmother." {11}

R.D. Jameson
Cinderella in China
Cinderella: A Folklore Casebook

2. Leave

At the core of a Cinderella story is the configuration of the step family. The girl left in their care becomes subservient, demoted, degraded. She has been set-up for failure: her tasks too overwhelming to accomplish, she is forced to live and work in sub-human conditions. She sleeps in the cinders, identifies herself with death. The grungy smudge of ashes marks her as one in mourning. Cinderella becomes an outsider and we identify with her through our own experiences of loss, humiliation and enslavement. Cinderella's real task is to find a way to upgrade her position, some way to alter her status.

Graphic designers struggle to redefine their role, to relocate their identity in the food chain of print and new media publishing. In the story of Cinderella, the rejection and exile of the protagonist establishes her as an outsider to the family system. This status of outsider is an interesting one for graphic designers who straddle several camps. Aligning themselves with both commercial workers and bohemian artists, designers long for something more. Will assuming a new name, like “project manager” or “information architect” be a way of altering the status of the graphic workhorse? Design often leverages and employs the signs of the outsider’s language. This is one way to attract attention, to speak for an “othered” population, to create sympathy for a cause. Design uses the visual vocabulary of the outsider as a tool. These signs are manipulated, to capture the attention of a numb audience, activating their repressed empathy as well as their appetite for the exotic. As the outsider sensibility solidifies into style, it gradually loses its original meaning, its function morphing to fit a new use. Subway graffiti becomes high art, Hip Hop culture becomes corporate graphics, grunge typography becomes the sentimental motion graphics in a tv ad for all terrain vehicle... Things change. Meanings shift.

We seek in the fairy tale the aura of authenticity lent by folk culture. We project onto cultures, especially ones which we know the least about, a kind of simplistic purity. Once blinded to contradiction and complexity, this imagined purity may be harnessed for various purposes. Early modern painters did this in their embrace of primitivism. Graphic designers also do it, adopting the superficial look of outsider imagery in an attempt to create a fresher, more honest, visual style. This appropriation of the aura of authenticity is both troubling and tempting. I confess: I am seduced by the exotic object and have trained my own hand to render the faux-naive.

Yet culture is always a messy mix. And design springs from the crossroads of multi-culture, where stories and imagery are passed across borders with viral ferocity. Any investigation of a specific culture’s graphic media must also include the threads of influence outside/inside that culture. It must acknowledge that culture is never simple, never pure, but as shifting and corruptible as a fairy tale in the mouth of its teller. There is the story of Cinderella and the story of many Cinderellas. We’ll never know which one came first or which is the truest.

Cinderella - A Folklore Casebook offers essays written by scholars of the fairy tale that span a century and explore multiple versions of the tale from multiple cultures. Alan Dundes who edited the casebook makes this claim for Cinderella:
The tale of Cinderella is one of the best-known stories in the Western world, and its popularity has continued unabated into the twentieth century. Insofar as it concerns the relationships between a girl and her sisters or stepsisters, as well as a girl and her mother or step mother, it has had special appeal for women. It is not surprising, therefore, the the two major comparative studies of Cinderella were both written by female folklorists." {12}

Alan Dundes
Cinderella - A Folklore Casebook

These early works in the field were impressive undertakings. Marian Roalfe Cox published her comparative study of three-hundred and forty-five variants of Cinderella in 1893. In 1951, the Swedish folklorist Anna Birgitta Rooth published her doctoral thesis based on seven hundred versions, titled The Cinderella Cycle. Rooth was interested in identifying the separate forms of the Cinderella story, distinguishing subtypes of the basic tale via a rubric. In 1961, Stith Thompson published his revision of Antti Aarne’s tale type index. Often referred to in fairy tale studies, the Aarne-Thompson index categorizes the Cinderella tale variants as 510A: Cinderella; 510B: The Dress of Gold, of Silver, and of Stars; and so on.

Scholars look at the tale through the lens of their particular discipline.
Bruno Bettleheim’s psychoanalytic readings of the tale came out in his 1977 book, The Uses of Enchantment. These Freudian interpretations of the tales have been widely critiqued, yet the assertion that fairy tales are useful tools for working through psychological issues symbolically persists. Perhaps it is that fairy tales speak the same language as dreams. The folklore casebook includes Ben Rubenstein’s Freudian look at Cinderella and Marie-Lousie von Franz’s Jungian reading of The Beautiful Wassilissa, (one version of the Russian Cinderella tale).

Literary theorist, Jack Zipes has contributed much to our understanding of fairy tales and their social history. He questions the potentially slanted interpretations that psychoanalysts exert upon these tales for their own purposes. Zipes illuminates the broader social context of fairy tales, stressing their diverse uses and meanings over time. Zipes reveals how these tales have been retooled and exploited by their various tellers in books ranging from Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion to Fairy Tale as Myth, Myth as Fairy Tale. His work is crucial to any social examination of the fairy tale, and informs my own investigation.

The internet provides rich resources for scholars interested in comparing versions of what may be the world’s most told tale.

Cinderella LINKS

Buried among the world’s heap of Cinder tales, you will find the Russian version, in its multiple incarnations. It is often told as the tale of a girl called Vasilisa and her encounter with the powerful hag Baba Yaga. I first crossed the story of Vasalisa (the spelling varies in nearly every tale) in a version by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. Estes crafts fairy tales in both literary and oral form. A cantadora and a psychoanalyst, she puts fairy tales to medicinal use. They are unabashed in their Jungian agenda. Verging on the evangelical, she is a true believer in the power of story. Once I got past the unfortunate title of her feminist tale-retellings, Women who Run with the Wolves, I found the book revealing and soothing. I didn’t mind that its intent was to heal and to nourish. I was especially captivated by her story of Vasalisa, partly because it was both: strangely familiar and unfamiliar. It was obviously a very old tale, yet I had never heard it as a child. For me, it contained the "shock of the old".

Subject: Re: Vasalisa Project
Date: Tue, 11 Sep 2001 13:45:09 -0700
From: Caroline Hamilton

I was drawn to Estes' interpretation of the doll as intuitive homunculous {13). I was also titilated by the witch in the tale, Baba Yaga... such a frightening composite:
this grandma-beast.
And that hut, turning on its chicken legs! They were as creepy and irresitably surreal as a dream.

The fairy tale became a transitional object for me, as I navigated paths in my own research. Its plot wove issues that resonated with my investigation of new media design. Designers are in the business of crafting interfaces that substitute for other humans, and in turn lead to other humanly connections. Websites provide resources so that people can find information, contact their long lost loves, feed their needs and their desires. The accessibility of these resources depends largely on the success of the interface design. Is it a thing to be trusted...or will the person merely click away somewhere else... lost and discouraged?


Graphic design takes the form of an illuminated and animated letter for the Netscape web browser’s interface.
The “N” hearkens back to the ornamental letters of the incunabula, borrowing conventions from book design. But comets streak across its animated surface, telling us that it is active. We know that it is not alive, yet it moves! It is working its magic for us.
The N becomes our travel companion. If things get dicey we can always return safely to where we once were with a click to the browser’s button. Netscape’s desktop icon has the reassuring presence of a lighthouse. Literally. This image cliche is probably not an erudite nod to the experimental fiction of Virginia Woolf, still it functions quite effectively as homing pidgeon. Humans seem to need these objects outside the self, to soothe and orient, especially on journeys into strange new worlds.

The story we tell, goes this way and that way at once. By illuminating our subjective experience, we may reveal something much larger. Design mediates this detail view with the arching overview. New media designers offer participants a map to the labyrinth and personalized tour guides to its complex story within. The designer struggles to achieve a balance between opposing perspectives: mediating personal voice and public information, the specific goals of the client and the sweeping needs of the consumer.

The designer is a trickster, a storyteller, who uses a forked tongue to get the job done.