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What the Rise and Fall of the Cinderella Fairy Tale Means for Real Women Today

It is often thought that fairy tales live on because they express unchanging truths about the human condition. Cultural historians might question this. These stories shift and evolve, refracted through the values of the societies that retell them.

The story of Cinderella has mutated through time, from 17th century France to the present, though some would trace it back even earlier. But it has not always been equally popular—and the narrative’s rise and fall offers a unique window into what our culture expects of and for women.

Few moments in Cinderella history can compare to the 1950s in North America and Britain. The story’s cultural dominance at that time in part reflected the phenomenal success of Walt Disney’s animated Cinderella, in 1950. But the story was already being retold in countless children’s picture books, romance literature, and in ballet and theater performances in the late 1940s. The CBS Rodgers and Hammerstein version of Cinderella, screened in 1957, attracted what was then the largest TV audience in history. Julie Andrews played Cinderella—neat as a new pin and not remotely servile.

References to Cinderella proliferated in popular culture and were widely used to sell consumer goods. Shell Petroleum used an image of a fashionably dressed Cinderella exiting her pumpkin coach in an advertisement of the 1940s, Revlon lipstick boasted a new lipstick in a “Cinderella pumpkin” shade of orange, and Coty packaged perfume in a faux glass slipper.

Why did the story have so much resonance in the late 1940s and 1950s? “Rags to Riches” stories had long appealed in North America. In postwar Britain, a weariness with rationing and austerity helps to explain women’s delight in transformations and the idea of release from domestic drudgery. Both a Royal Wedding (1947) and the coronation of the young Elizabeth II (1953) fueled dreams of fairy-tale romance, golden coaches, dreamy dresses and sparkling crowns.

Most of all, the idea of a girl meeting her prince, marrying young and living happily ever after chimed with the dreams of many young women in the 1950s. The age of marriage was falling in both the United States and Britain and it became common to think of oneself as “left on the shelf” if not married by 21. This was the message purveyed in a rash of new romance comics and magazines aimed specifically at young women, with titles such as Young Romance and Young Love. By the early 1950s there were some 150 similar titles on the newsstands. Cinderella Love was one such example. It featured stories with titles such as “Rustic Cinderella” or “My Prince Charming,” and gave advice on finding and making sure of Mr. Right. Young men didn’t always see eye to eye with their female counterparts on the issue of early marriage, these titles told their readers, but might be baited with the promise of sex. There was something predatory about this, on both sides.

Read entire article at TIME