Cinderella’s Glass Ceiling

Everyone is familiar with the tale of the secretly virtuous and beautiful girl who lived in some unique misery, until a handsome prince rescued her from all her troubles and took her to live happily ever after.  As an adult, one can see that these stories are simply that, stories.  But what about as a kid?  What impressions do these fairy tales leave on a young audience regarding one’s  ability to move upward in society from working class to the elite?

In Keywords for Children’s Literature the word class is defined as “an order or distribution of people according to their several Degrees,” (48).  These Degrees can refer to either social position and status, or economic power and wealth.  In most cases, especially in children’s literature, these two Degrees are strongly related. They work together to create one superior class and classes that fall below their dominancy.  Children’s literature emphasizes that an individual can move to a higher class though “personal merit, virtue, and hard work,” (50).  Take the story of Cinderella; this young, beautiful woman is forced to live with and serve for her evil step-family.  She has no economic resources, and she her status in society is near the bottom.  However, through her astonishing virtue she is able to make the prince fall in love and take her away from the gloom of her old life, moving her working- class to upper-class.


But what children’s literature leaves out, perhaps for it’s harsh reality, is that hard work and dedication does not always lead one to achieving her dreams.  Society has created several attitudes and factors that keep the class system immobile.  The term “glass ceiling” refers to the unofficially acknowledged barrier that keeps minorities from advancing professionally and socially.  In the United States, there are a considerable amount of unearned privileges afforded only to those born with white skin.  Being in the right family can guarantee a health, safety, education, and opportunities in the workforce.  From limited representation in the media, to racial profiling by cops; IRS audits; and potential employers, people of minorities face institutionalized attitudes that impeded their social mobility.

Children’s literature is notorious for their stories of the underdog who surprises everybody and comes up on top.  In many ways these stories are inspiring and shed light on hard work and self-sufficiency.  But what they leave out is the fact that this idea of upward class mobility easier for some than others.  Factors such as race, ethnicity, and religion that do not match those of the upper-class are deemed inadequate and are characterized as an inferior status.  It takes a lot more for people who fall in these groups to overcome this institutionalized discrimination and work their way to a higher class.

8 thoughts on “Cinderella’s Glass Ceiling”

  1. I think children’s literature does mention the hard work or a tough theme in a novel or book but very vaguely. I think you are right saying that for instance class mobility is not as easy as it looks. To me children’s literature needs to be inspiring for children, but often distorts reality and makes everything seems quite easy, as in Cinderella. She simply dressed up and then was able to marry into the upper class, and the reality of the situation is often left out of the book. Perhaps by doing this we encourage children to have false hopes for the future, or little work ethic.

  2. This is such an interesting take on the story of Cinderella. I have never looked at it from the angle of it being unachievable. Although I understand what you’re saying, I do know some people who have found great success despite their humble beginnings. Keeping some of the true stories of low class people achieving success in mind, what do you think it took for them to get past the “Glass Ceiling”? Aside from this, what circumstances do you think allow for social mobility, seeing as not every low class person runs into the “Glass Ceiling” issue?

  3. I definitely agree with what you wrote. I think that children’s literature is often soft, and does not include harsh realities of life. But I do think that there is something to be said for not including harsh realities in children’s literature. I think fairytales are meant for young children to believe in things, and to provide them with a sense of imagination. I think if children’s books included terrible things and events, and were about the harsh realities of life, they might lose their sense of belief, and maybe lose their love for reading (because as a child, who wants to read about the harsh realities of life, keep your innocence while you can right?) But I think that there definitely should be more instances of hard work in children’s literature. There is a princess, Tiana, in Princess and the Frog, where she works really hard and saves her money to start her restaurant she has been dreaming of. I think that is a better example for children, and I think it does exist in some examples of children’s literature.

  4. Hi Brenna,

    I think you do a great job of pointing out that the storyline of upward mobility and virtue in children’s novels leave out the intersection of race and religion with class entirely. This made me think of the American Girl novels we’ve read so far and the reasoning behind not positioning (virtually) any girls of color in a historical time period in which they would have to reckon with white settlers and oppression as a citizen. We see Kirsten’s family work hard to create a new life for themselves in the wilderness of the midwest, yet, as adults we know that a different ‘kind’ of immigrant would not be afforded the same privileges, rights, or land that Kirsten’s family is at the time. I’m curious at how the newest American Girl doll positioned Melody in the middle of the civil rights era and deals with the very real stories of poverty and racism. Based on the cover of the book, I have a feeling that they sidestepped the intersection of class and race entirely by making Melody’s family firmly middle class.

  5. I really like this post because it is highly relevant to a class I am taking currently about African Americans in modern society. This class has really been eye opening to me about the lack of social mobility in the United States. The US is infamous for preaching about meritocracy, but in reality impoverished people work hard, labor intensive jobs and have no resources to pull themselves out of poverty. This post is very insightful to that phenomenon, and I really liked how you related it to Cinderella as it is very true that minorities are under represented in most media.

  6. Very insightful analysis! I hadn’t thought about Disney princess stories in that way before. Now as I reflect back on the collection of princess stories , I think it’s interesting to see that even as the company attempts to move away from the original “Disney Princess Model”, race is treated in a very interesting way. Of the princesses who followed the same track as Cinderella, moving from low to high socio-economic status, the majority of the white ones (Snow White, Belle, Ariel, Aurora, etc) do so merely through being kind and having the superficial quality of beauty that makes a prince fall in love with them and thus live happily ever after. However, the POC in the same situation (Tiana, Mulan), find their princes through intense labor and skill and in the end their “happily ever after” leaves them choosing to stay in relatively middle-class situations instead of living in castles. While its difficult to read too much into these stories, I think there are definitely some interesting points to be made and I’d like to see how Disney treats race within their princess stories in the future.

  7. This was such a neat connection and thought! I had never looked at the story of Cinderella, a princess I always strived to be, in this way, of the position she was at in social class and where she ended up. I had also never head of the term “Glass Ceiling”, and you brought up such a good point. Reaching higher levels of achievement and social status can be difficult for people because of different races, ethnicities and religions, these goals are somewhat unattainable. I think this subject is something that is seen more in literature geared at an adult audience, but they should have it be more prevalent in children’s literature, to broaden their knowledge on aspects of society like this, and give them this perspective at a young age. I know from personal experience if I had known more about white privilege and racial disparities, I would have been able to have been able to see the world differently than I did when I did not know about it.

  8. I definitely agree with you. I also think that the notion of a prince coming to save her- and that being her only means of escape is a complete disservice to young girls. Not just in Cinderella- this narrative is constantly used in children’s literature. While this was undoubtedly true in years past (a good example would be the society during Little Women), the notion that only a man can “save” a woman is completely outdated- and children’s literature needs to begin to reflect this as well.

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