Cinders and Fantasies of Womanhood

Gabe is an LKAS PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow who studies the Fantastic in single-player video games with a focus on affect, parasocial interaction, and reader reception theory. They are a co-organiser of the Game Studies at Glasgow reading group, Vice Editor of Press Start Journal and a member of the Games and Gaming Lab and the Centre for Fantasy and The Fantastic at The University of Glasgow.Follow the author on TwitterMore about the author

Once upon a time, we believed fairy tales were escapism: harmless and inconsequential – comforting. We retold these stories without realising that these fantasies are a form of placation, used to lull us into an enchanted sleep and to accept things as they are. But the spell is waning. Issues of representation have entered mainstream media discourse and we are waking up to the knowledge that all stories, and the ways that we tell them, are inherently political; even the most fantastic of these are based in, and are expressive of, our lived realities. It, therefore, falls to critics often deplored as feminist killjoys (Ahmed, 2014) to deconstruct one story at a time so we may guide our storytellers towards creating fantasies we want to see, rather than those we wish to escape from. Fairy tales are particularly suited to tracking shifting social values, as analysing the changes to their familiar narratives can offer insights into how these values have transformed over time. The visual novel Cinders (MoaCube, 2012), a modern retelling of Cinderella, is a prime example of how the adaptation process modifies fairy tales in a way that is expressive of, and influenced by, the current cultural climate. The visual novel is positioned by developers as a progressive critical fairy tale that enables the Cinderella character greater autonomy within her story. However, as postfeminist critics observe, the modern archetype of the strong, independent woman, fails to be entirely emancipatory. The traditional fantasies of submissive womanhood entrapped by domesticity are less prominent, but have been replaced by new fantasies of autonomy that gloss over issues of institutional sexism and perpetuate the myth that all women can be equal if only they make the correct choices. This paper will analyse Cinders through the lens of feminist theory to consider whether it offers an emancipated version of Cinderella, or contributes to the perpetuation of modern fantasies of femininity present in postfeminist media.

Charles Perrault’s ([1698] 2009) “Cendrillon,” commonly known as Cinderella, is a rags to riches story about a young woman who escapes from her abusive stepfamily and is elevated from poverty by her marriage to a prince andthe aid of her fairy godmother. The character Cinderella, an embodiment of that which is traditionally feminine, has become a discursive vehicle for “telling the story of the specific gender debates in our recent feminist historical moment” (Crowley and Pennington, 2010). In other words, each adaptation of the character as well as the public and critical reception of those retellings is expressive of changing cultural perceptions of femininity. Via the changes made to Cinderella’s character, any adaptations express a stance about what she, as a symbol of femininity, represents in a modern context. Depending on the values of the storyteller, Cinderella adaptations may follow the tradition of critical tales inspired by more revolutionary second-wave feminist values, or they may enter into a postfeminist context that offers a more conservative representation of femininity.

The figure of Cinderella has been divisive; its reception highlights oppositions present in feminist thought: namely the conflict between second-wave and postfeminism. Fien Adriaens (2009) describes second-wave feminism’s stance as “the idea that femininity and feminism are oppositional, mutually exclusive and that the adoption of one of these identities (feminine or feminist) can only be achieved at the expense of the other.” This positions second-wave feminism in critical opposition to “Cendrillon” as well as conservative retellings such as Disney’s 1950 film Cinderella. Indeed, critics have argued that fairy tales portray women as “weak, submissive, dependent and self-sacrificing” and that by example this encourages young girls to “adopt these desires, which are deemed appropriate within patriarchy” (Parsons, 2004, p. 137). Such critiques of Cinderella and the type of traditional femininity she embodies have also been carried out in creative practice via critical retellings such as Emma Donoghue’s (1993) “The Tale of the Shoe”, Stephen Sondheim’s (1986) Into the Woods by), and the poetry of Nikita Gill’s (2018) Fierce Fairytales—all of which subvert, deconstruct and reformulate the traditional narrative. Postfeminism, on the other hand, is not a unified school of feminist thought, but a response to second-wave feminism that surfaces  as “contradictory, pluralistic discourse that is mainly located in the academic context of television and cultural studies, in the media context of popular culture and within consumer culture” (Adriaens). Postfeminist media represents “a backlash against feminism where a celebration of neoconservative, traditional values becomes prominent” (Adriaens). It also generally attempts to represent modern women in a way that is empowering, but instead of escaping outmoded fantasies of womanhood, postfeminist media merely reformulates them, dresses them up in a suit, and presents a new fantasy as the lived experience of modern women. A Cinderella retelling in this vein would likely remain truer to the fairy tale’s conservative depictions of femininity without necessarily intending to.

The cultural significance of Cinderella is in part what inspired the creation of Cinders. Tom Grochowiak, game designer and co-founder of indie collective MoaCube describes Cinderella as a story that “strongly affects the way we see our world” (Lien, 2012), implying that he wanted the game to contribute to the legacy of the fairy tale. The visual novel is certainly skilfully put together and won multiple commendations upon its release, such as best artist and soundtrack of the year by VNs Now, editor’s pick in RPGFan’s game of the year, and second place in GameZebo’s interactive fiction prize (achievements which are showcased on the game’s Steam page). For those unacquainted with the format, a visual novel is a game with “alternate and intersecting story arcs” (Cavallaro, 2010 p. 1) told using “extensive text conversations. . . generic backgrounds and dialogue boxes with character sprites determining the speaker superimposed upon them” (p. 8). Players progress through the story by making choices at “pivotal ‘decision points’” (Cavallaro, p. 1). These choices determine the narrative’s ending and it is generally “necessary to replay the game several times” (Cavallaro, p. 1) to experience all routes. Cinders is an excellent visual novel: it is a highly playable, beautifully illustrated interpretation of Cinderella with a fun plot and humorous writing. However, as a critical fairy tale it falls short of being revolutionary. Like so many fairy tale adaptations before it, the game has replaced old archetypes of the feminine with new stereotypes characteristic of postfeminist media. Cinders typifies postfeminist ideology by veiling neoconservative values under the guise of emancipation and choice, perpetuating fantasies of femininity that second-wave feminism fought to expose as false.

Cinders has four main plotlines with a total of thirty-eight variant endings. The player can choose to navigate through the traditional romance narrative with the prince or select other love interests, such as childhood friend Tobias, or Perrault the Captain of the Guard. There is also the option to disregard romance and focus on the character Cinders’ relationships with other women, such as her stepsisters, stepmother, fairy godmother, or the wise witch—Madame Ghede. The visual novel format also adds new possibilities to the fairy tale. If we assume that the player makes decisions as Cinders rather than for her, the availability of choice gives the character more agency by enabling her narrative to change according to the motivations the player assigns to her. The introduction of choice to the story is an attempt to update the fairy tale in line with contemporary values, an effort which proved as problematic as the game is intriguing. Choosing to adapt the fairy tale into a format that offers the player choice is a conscious attempt to rehabilitate the Cinderella figure as a woman more in line with contemporary values, changing her from a character who is “docile and sweet” to one who is “an active protagonist who has a personality” (Lien, 2012).

Choice is a valuable narrative resource that gives players the opportunity to experience the story in a way that interests them, however, in accordance with the traditional visual novel style, choices are connected to a hierarchy of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ endings, which means that, understandably, some choices are deemed better than others. This format contributes to some engaging gameplay, but undermines the game’s potential as a critical fairy tale. When the player selects more traditional options they are often rebuked for doing so. For example, if during a conversation between Cinders and her stepsister Gloria, the player selects: “being rescued by a prince doesn’t sound too bad,” Gloria accuses the protagonist of “dreaming about nonsense” and being “useless in the real world,”—despite the fact that in the story, being rescued by a prince is a viable option. Although it could be argued that this is merely one antagonist’s opinion rather than the developer’s attitude, the traditional fairy tale ending can only be unlocked if—when questioned by Gloria—the player selects the option in which Cinders states that she has not been dreaming about a prince saving her and relegates the possibility to one of childish frivolity (see the Cinders wiki for an easily accessible outline of each narrative route in the game).

Cinders, and by proxy the player, has choices, but they are weighted and result in less desirable outcomes should the ‘wrong’ option be chosen. This mirrors patterns McRobbie (2004) identifies in postfeminist media; gender inequalities are glossed over and instead the importance of choice is magnified (p 261). Women in contemporary media are depicted as autonomous subjects in a meritocracy, able to live fulfilling lives, but only if they are “the kind of subject who can make the right choices” (McRobbie, p 261). In Cinders, the player and protagonist only earn a favourable outcome by demonstrating traits aligned with more modern iterations of femininity—taking decisive action rather than being patient or kind in the tradition of the fairy tale. It is only if Cinders makes the ‘correct’ choices that she is rewarded with a position of power, reconciliation with her family, and the prince as her love interest. It is ironic that the traditional, heteronormative fairy tale ending can only be obtained if the traditional qualities of Cinderella are left behind. This perpetuates a narrative of victim-blaming by suggesting that the Cinderella figure could emancipate herself from the abusive home she was subjected to, if only she made the right decisions.

The critique of prior iterations of Cinderella is made explicit in the narrative, which frequently slips into metacommentary to further distance the game from values it deems less progressive. In the visual novel, the player is encouraged to view the Cinderella character as a strong, independent woman at liberty to make choices leading to the correct future. One of the most obvious pieces of meta-commentary occurs when, towards the beginning of the game, the player is given the option to sleep or read a book. If the player chooses the latter, Cinders reads a romance novel that is a thinly veiled stand-in for Perrault’s fairy tale. Cinders describes the story as “a silly one” about a young girl who is treated “like a doormat,” distancing herself from the traditional story by asking, “who writes these things?” (MoaCube, 2012). This critique of more traditional expressions of femininity is common in postfeminist fairy tale retellings. In their 2017 video, YouTube channel The Take consider how Disney’s Cinderella has “become a strawman for the argument that Disney princesses aren’t good role models for girls” (0:24), and in her video essay “Woke Disney,” feminist media critic Lindsay Ellis (2019) observes that Disney’s remakes of fairy tale films fail to “use commentary as a means to examine their past and the films that they are based on, as much as they are using meta-commentary to justify their own existence” (3:24). It is as if modern creators are so afraid of their Cinderella stories being received as outdated, that they overcompensate in an attempt to divorce their story from its past.

Although the narrative of Cinders attempts to differentiate itself from prior iterations of the fairy tale by privileging decisions that lead the protagonist to become a strong, independent woman, the game continues to perpetuate outdated concepts present in traditional stories by implying that not all women are capable of actualising these ideals, and those who are must do so in a certain way. In both the Grimms’ ([1812] 2011) and Perrault’s versions of the story, Cinderella is marked as different from other women: she alone can fit into her abandoned shoe. The slipper does not feature heavily in the visual novel, but Cinders is marked as different, or special, in other ways. The men in the story flirt with Cinders by denigrating other women. For example, Perrault compliments Cinders and tells her that she is “one of the most interesting and beautiful girls” he has met, and the prince proclaims that he needs “a wife who is strong and smart” but doubts he’ll “ever find such a woman,” because noble women are fools. This pattern of flirtation implies that Cinders is special, or “not like other girls” (TV Tropes, 2020). This phrase has become a meme used to express a multiplicity of cultural issues surrounding modern femininity. It is utilised by women (mostly adolescents) to distinguish themselves from conventional femininity in a “reaction against typically feminine stereotypes—that is, makeup, fashion, fitness, and the like” (Luna, 2019). It is also used as a compliment by men mostly “found in young adult and teen stories” to praise particular types of women whilst implying that their “gender is inferior by default” (TV Tropes, 2020). The trope, described as a term used to “simplify the otherwise vast and shapeless experience of femininity in the 21st century” (Lyon, 2019) has been heavily criticised in online spaces. Prominent examples of such criticism include Sarah Z’s (2019) video essay on the subject and a viral comic by artist Julie Hang (2019). The trope has also been ridiculed by online communities such as r/notliketheothergirls (2020) who highlight content in which women express “identity and personality by pressing down others or establishing insignificant differences”. Although a generous interpretation could argue that the appearance of the “not like other girls” trope is an unintentional side-effect of differentiating the protagonist from other characters, its inclusion epitomises a postfeminist mindset.

A comic from Julie Hang. Click here to read in full!

The antagonist of the game, Cinders’ stepmother Carmosa, is another example of how this retelling has attempted to be progressive, whilst unintentionally reinforcing the idea that there is a correct way to be a modern woman. Although the game encourages the player to play the protagonist Cinders as a strong and independent woman, its treatment of Carmosa, implies that being strong and independent in the wrong way—one which diverges from a  more conventionally submissive feminine ideal—comes at a cost. One of the strengths of the game is that Carmosa is given more depth than most examples of the evil stepmother archetype. During a conversation between Cinders and her stepsister Sophia, it is revealed that Carmosa was born to a poor family and that clever social manoeuvring and strategic marriage was “the only way for her to advance up the social ladder” (MoaCube). This backstory provides further context as to why Carmosa would be eager for her daughters to marry the prince. Furthermore, there is an opportunity to improve Cinders’ and Carmosa’s relationship by unlocking the fairy tale ending in which Cinders becomes Queen and learns “to respect Lady Carmosa and her talents and invites her to the Court.” These changes differentiate Carmosa from more traditional depictions of wicked stepmothers by presenting her as ambitious and pragmatic, however, the change has replaced this archetype with a new stereotype, that of the “business bitch”—a trope in which “competent women are often depicted as cold and undesirable group members” (Paludi, 2008, p. 43). It is implied that Carmosa’s admirable qualities were developed at the cost of her social relationships: her interactions with her family are fraught and the witch Madame Ghede states that Carmosa “couldn’t get to [her] position by worrying about who likes her.” This reinforces the idea that a woman’s strength should be tempered and expressed in a way that is deemed non-threatening.

The development of characters beyond their fairy tale archetypes is a welcome addition to Cinders and makes the narrative more interesting, but there are still tensions that prevent the visual novel from being the progressive work it sought to be. Perhaps it is easy to condemn the game because the discourse surrounding representation in media has become more critical in recent years. Cinders predates GamerGate, a 2014 organized harassment campaign directed at feminist game developers and critics like Anita Sarkeesian, who dared to criticise the poor representation of women in video games (see Totilo, 2014 for an overview). Although Sarkeesian was not the original cause of the controversy, the targeting of her channel, Feminist Frequency, served as a catalyst that sparked a moment of cultural awareness in which representation in video games became a topic of wider critical scrutiny. To the game’s credit, the women in Cinders have been made more complex via their backstories, which the player can get to know via dialogue. The presence of conversations between women, about women, means that the game passes the Bechdel-Wallace ([1985] 2008) test, which is a set of questions used to examine the representation of women in fiction—knowledge of which has become more common since the GamerGate scandal. Passing the Bechdel-Wallace test demonstrates that women are represented in Cinders, but the test is hardly rigorous and came from “a little lesbian joke in an alternative feminist newspaper” (Morlan, 2014), as stated by its co-creator Alison Bechdel. The test measures representation but does not scrutinise its quality. The game, which has been so consciously positioned as a progressive, critical fairy tale by its developers, includes tropes without addressing them, further glossing over modern gender inequalities in much the same way as postfeminist media does, whilst perpetuating the divisive narrative that some women and some choices are more acceptable than others.

Good Ending

This publication was supported by the University of Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin/Adam Smith (LKAS) PhD Scholarship.


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