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Analysis / Cinderella Plot

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Cinderella Plots are unique, in that the plot of Cinderella is so familiar to most of us that the story doesn't suffer too much if the basic plot is altered or shortened. Variations are perhaps even more common than just playing the story completely straight, which means that the audience is expected to know the story at least on a basic level in order to understand what's being referenced. However, as a result, the story can be broken down into "essential elements" and "optional elements".


The essential elements aren't required to be present in every take on the story, however enough of them need to be present for the story to even qualify as a Cinderella one. For example, a character might have an abusive stepfamily, but if there's no ball, no prince, and the story takes place in a Zombie Apocalypse, it's probably not a Cinderella Plot. These essential elements are:

  • A Cinderella. It may seem obvious, but Cinderella herself is an essential part of these stories, as the tale is about the character and her struggles. She's a slave to her cruel stepfamily, but in addition, she's also kind and beautiful, and often good at several things, such as dressmaking or singing. In a lot of variations, the stepfamily's abuse of her stems from jealousy and the fear that she'll steal their attention and love interests. If it's a modern take, she'll also be unpopular at school, targeted for being a working girl with nothing expensive to her name.
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  • The Stepfamily. There's a Wicked Stepmother, who is almost always the main villain of the story, and stepsisters. Usually there's two sisters, however some adaptations condense things and only have one. The stepsisters are, in most cases, just as evil as their mother and deserving of the karma they'll often receive. However, some adaptations make one of the sisters sympathetic or even heroic, giving Cinderella an unlikely ally. The family also sometimes owns a business, such as a restaurant, which they'll have Cinderella work at.
  • The Prince, who is Cinderella's love interest as well as a character of relative status and wealth in comparison to her. Sometimes she and the prince will meet and become friends well before the rest of the plot kicks in, or sometimes it's Love at First Sight. Modern adaptations will often make the prince a celebrity of a sort, or sometimes even just a more popular classmate.
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  • The Ball, or an equivalent party, thrown by the prince. The stepmother will forbid Cinderella to attend, even if she has all of her chores done, if she's legally required to go. The Cinderella will attend anyway, but in disguise, and wind up dancing with the prince. However, she'll have to run away by midnight thanks to a deadline, magical or otherwise, and will leave something behind...
  • The Glass Slipper, or a similarly personal object, used to identify Cinderella. The prince will take what she leaves behind and use it to find her, but not before trying his luck with the people pretending to be her- including her stepfamily. Early versions used fur slippers, which was later changed to glass. Modern takes will use something more personal than footwear, such as a music player.

Notably, the essential elements are subject to a lot of variation. As long as the basic elements are in-tact, it doesn't matter if, say, the slippers are actually a special necklace, or if there's an extra stepsibling, or even if the prince is just some jock from her school. Because these elements are practically required by the story, there's a little leeway as to how they're presented, and the story won't fall apart at the seams if these ideas are played-with in some way.

In contrast, the optional elements, if they show up at all, are usually always played the same way. Even if they're given a twist, it's usually not something major, and the most common variation is to just not use them at all. These are:

  • A living father. While some of the more popular versions kill him off, others keep him around. His antagonism depends on where the work is made. French tellings will usually have him as a drunkard or a merchant, who's lack of attention or presence means he's never around to protect her even if he wanted to. German tellings will usually have him as an antagonistic character, who joins in with the stepfamily tormenting the Cinderella. Russian tellings usually portray him as much nicer than French and German tellings, and keep him alive as a non-antagonistic character, but he is too weak-willed to stand up to his wife, who has taken the power away from him.
  • A Fairy Godmother, who is responsible for helping Cinderella get to the ball. In some versions, it's Cinderella's own deceased mother who helps her out, but the basic role remains the same regardless.
  • Animal friends, who help her around the house and act as companions for her. This is more common in fantasy versions, where the Cinderella is otherwise isolated. Modern versions tend to give her friends, at least one, who can fill this role instead, or will at least be moral support to keep things from getting too bleak.
  • In addition, some stories add extra antagonists. In modern versions, this is usually a school Alpha Bitch, who acts as a romantic rival with more competence than the stepsiblings have. This can help add conflict that isn't specific to her family life.

Some other common variations are:

  • Setting the story in the modern day. As discussed elsewhere, having the story take place in a more realistic environment can change a lot of the details without ruining the basic plot. While the stepfamily's abuse can occur regardless of the setting, giving it an update means that she'll also be attending school and living a life outside of her home. The prince is usually a celebrity or a kid from school, and the Cinderella plot will be balanced with her going through relatable issues- such as school bullying, finding a career, or saving money.
  • Cutting out parts of the plot. Kid's shows will often focus more on the ball part and entirely ignore the stepfamily part. This keeps it from getting too dark, while still having enough recognizable content for audiences to know what's being referenced. It also often comes with a Be Yourself aesop, especially if the Cinderella didn't have to disguise herself in order to go to the ball and be accepted. Conversely, a story about a kid learning to live with a new stepfamily might instead focus on the stepfamily plot, usually ending with the lesson that their new family does love them.
  • And some stories altogether just parody the idea. The characters might be aware of the tropes at play, especially if they're stuck in a fairytale world via magic or dreams. Characters who are already established in the show will be sorted into specific roles, and in general it might be pretty tongue-in-cheek. Of course, any story can be parodied, but comedic versions of the Cinderella story are common enough to be notable.

The characters themselves aren't immune to changes, either. Cinderella can either be a kind-hearted Damsel in Distress type, or a snarky Cool Loser who's actively trying to escape their bad situation. The stepfamily can be competent, bumbling, or a mix of both, and the stepsiblings in particular can run the gamut from "annoying" to "heartless". The prince is less subject to variation, but he can sometimes be a Jerk with a Heart of Gold who initially overlooks Cinderella as a result, an out-and-out Nice Guy, or somewhere in the middle.

In all, the plot is broad enough of a concept to allow for alterations and unique twists without sacrificing the familiar. It's a story that can be played with in a variety of ways, by a variety of storytellers, for a variety of reasons, and yet is still recognizable as being Cinderella.