Cinderella’s glass slipper is at least partly to blame for the trope of women’s obsession with shoes, but this blog isn’t about women and shoes; it’s about women and secrets.
This past summer in my other life as a master’s student, I found out that the Cinderella story we know isn’t the original one. Since then, I’ve been a little obsessed. Discovering that this iconic story isn’t what we all assume jarred me, because the premise underlies so many of our social habits.
Seriously. Think about it. The story cycle has engendered everything from Disney franchises, to bestselling novels and adaptations, to movies like Pretty Woman, to our very lexicon (“that’s a real Cinderella story” we say about anyone with a positive reversal of fortunes). So, get this: evidence suggests that the prototypical Cinderella was actually a story of the denigrated and lost feminine, a story that demonstrated how the restoration of the feminine principle could have profoundly positive social effects.
The Cinderella story appears in every major culture around the world and has been told in thousands of iterations; scholars cite it as the best-known and best-loved fairytale of all time, so it deserves our attention. What’s more, lessons about the obscure origins of this fairytale princess inform the business world and can teach us about the importance of diverse leadership.
Fairytales and our working lives are much more interconnected than you might think. Fairytales are the first, and among the most powerful, narratives we learn as children. They socialize us by providing guideposts for appropriate behavior and success in life. They also establish and reinforce gender roles that suffuse life and work.
Social psychologists argue that while all human beings have the capacity to develop individual behaviors, men are usually rewarded for exhibiting “masculine” traits while women are rewarded for exhibiting “feminine” traits.
|“Masculine” Characteristics||“Feminine” Characteristics|
|Boldness, rational wisdom, individualism, risk-taking, virility, leadership, aggressiveness, assertiveness, competitiveness, materialism, ambition.||Creativity, intuitive wisdom, gentleness, empathy, sensitivity, compassion, tolerance, deference, passivity, service, benevolence, solidarity with others, compromise, negotiation.|
These traits are frequently underscored in fairytales and have bled into the world of work. In her book, Lean In, Facebook CFO Sheryl Sandberg notes that feminine characteristics are not rewarded or valued at work (or much at all, economically). She provides examples of how women exhibiting “masculine” traits are often punished or scorned, citing the negative correlation between success and likeability for women (while the opposite is true for men).
Harvard’s IAT and the research it has engendered demonstrate that most of the global population associates men with leadership and women with helper roles, and suggest that this dramatically affects the performance and potential of the workforce. That’s right, I said dramatically. And as someone who’s been taught to despise adverbs, I don’t use the word dramatically lightly. These biases have been blamed for women dropping out of the workforce in high numbers, for women receiving lower salaries for the same work, and for women failing to reach leadership positions despite comprising equal or greater numbers of college grads for decades.
PwC’s Global CEO Survey found that today’s CEOs most admire leaders that are strategic, innovative, adaptable, and decisive. However, another survey conducted recently by PwC Russia on female leadership, found that women cite noticeably different qualities as being important in leaders: passion, a sense of humor, sociability, and the capability of bringing out the best in others. Compare this list with the “masculine” and “feminine” traits above, and you’ll see a clear dichotomy that pervades both business and fairytales.
In Cinderella the desires of the protagonists are clear. The girl wants to marry the prince. The boy wants to rule the kingdom. Said differently, success for men means power, success for women means marriage, and each should develop “masculine” and “feminine” traits to achieve these things.
This has been the dominant master narrative of Cinderella (and other fairytales) for thousands of years.
Or has it?
The common thrust of the Cinderella story is benign: our heroine is forced into servitude until her godmother intervenes and the prince falls in love with her and they marry. Sounds innocuous, so what secrets lurk in the early versions of the tale?
Well, the earliest European versions of Cinderella, (published prior to Charles Perrault’s massively popular version immortalized in Contes de Ma Mere L’Oye or Tales of Mother Goose) little resembles the one that we’d recognize today.
The original fifteenth and sixteenth century stories present a markedly different character arc. They emerge from Provençal France, the native country of the Langue d’ òc and the troubadours; they derive from a very unique and well-established culture that held feminine characteristics in high regard, manifested through social mores and religious practices.
As patriarchy achieved hegemony in Europe, the secular and non-secular authorities persecuted the people of Provence, murdering them en masse for their beliefs. Socially, religiously, and politically, the voices of the Langue d’ òc people were silenced.
But their beliefs survived in the fairytale of Cinderella. Folklorists believe that fairytales are a means to keep alive truths too dangerous to express openly. Fairytales are a safe vehicle to transmit beliefs and historical events by persecuted minorities because they’re ignored by the social elite.
There is historical evidence that the original Cinderella tale emerged from this Langue d’ òc subculture as a conduit to tell the story of their suppression and to preserve their belief in the sacred feminine, or, said differently, in the equal importance of feminine and masculine characteristics to human well-being.
Here is some evidence from the earliest iterations of the Cinderella stories that will surprise you – they reinforce the conclusion that Cinderella was a channel to preserve a story too dangerous to tell at the time of their violent persecution:
(1) Cinderella is not a rags to riches story, but a restoration story. The earliest Cinderella is not a peasant who climbs the social ladder but rather a worthy princess who has been denigrated and exiled by relatives. This was the metaphor for the subversion of feminine characteristics by a powerful patriarchy. The restoration of the sacred feminine to its rightful place next to the sacred masculine brings harmony back to the land. In a work context, this might be the equal importance of assertiveness (“masculine”) and compromise (“feminine”) in molding a more sustainable, innovative work culture, and an environment where individuals’ unique strengths can flourish.
(2) The prince and Cinderella have a mutual need for each other. In the early stories, the prince grows gravely ill when separated from Cinderella – in fact, he approaches death. This serves as the proxy for excessively prominent and warped “masculine” values that were tearing society apart at the time the tale came into being in Medieval Europe – most notably, avarice among the powerful of the day which created war and hardship for the common folk. In the original story, only Cinderella can cure the prince, and it’s their harmonious union at the story’s end that heals the kingdom. Thus, what feminist critics have missed in their critique of Cinderella as a man-seeking maiden is that the prince is seeking his lost counterpart with equal fervor.
(3) Cinderella rescues herself, first. In the early versions of the story, Cinderella is often persecuted not by a stepmother but by a father (analogous to a persecuting patriarchy) whom she must escape from. Cast out of her home, Cinderella demonstrates shrewdness, resourcefulness, resilience, and industriousness. She seeks and finds work as a maid to support herself and uses canny disguises to avoid detection by her pursuers before encountering the prince. She also makes suggestions to her godmother about how to best circumvent her captors.
There are some powerful implications for business and diversity in this lost history of Cinderella.
First, the obvious: we must make the effort to look deeply at a thing (or indeed, a person) to understand it; the salient characteristics that appear to us on the surface (our blind spots and first impressions) often don’t correspond to reality – and such mistakes are costly. In business and in every day life, we must value differences enough to explore complications to achieve real insight into personal, social, and business challenges.
Second, the Cinderella restoration story could be replicated in leadership models by rejuvenating feminine characteristics through economic incentives. Studies show that emotional intelligence and diverse teams raise profits, so why not reward employees for managing people well, and for valuing difference in every day behaviors? Why not, in fact, privilege those skills as much as profit-making for a longer term view of success?
This recalibration of leadership competencies has already begun in light of the financial crisis, where an overemphasis on risk-taking and round-the-clock work had disastrous consequences. Research demonstrates that businesses maximize employee potential, innovation, and capital gains when led by a people with a wide spectrum of attributes, talents, and behaviors.
PwC’s CEO Survey listed the leaders who current CEOs most admire. The survey contained a notable outlier in the top ten. Among the cowboy politicians, iconic CEOs, ruthless tech scions, and formidable military generals, one person’s name stood out as noticeably different: Gandhi. A leader, who, like the others achieved paradigm-shifting change, but who used vastly different personal strengths to do so, “feminine” strengths, such as compassion, and pacifism.Both society and business could benefit if we learn from the original Cinderella, and restore the feminine characteristics aside the existing masculine ones to broaden leadership models. What if little girls and boys were raised with this alternative Cinderella narrative? The socialization process would slowly be altered. Perhaps tales such as Disney’s Brave are already beginning to explore these alternatives and in my opinion, this suggests we’re moving in the right direction.
Wishing you all a magical week.