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Malice is in the Eye of the Beholder

We all know the story of Cinderella, the classic fairy tale of rags to riches. But I’m sure most of us have never stopped to think about why this story continues to be read to children around the world, the complexity of the characters, and the social messages that you can extrapolate from it. The illustrations alone in Cinderella: An Art Deco Love Story retold by Lynn Roberts and illustrated by David Roberts, tell a compelling story of a battle of class, gender and belief systems.

The social themes underlying the art deco version of Cinderella are important to take note of in analysing the characters, because it is the underlying socio-cultural themes that reveal their complexity. In interpreting the characters motives and actions, it becomes clear that Cinderella and her step-family are far from moral opposites because they are ultimately pursuing the same agenda by the same set of cultural rules and norms.

Briefly speaking, Cinderella: An Art Deco Love Story is set in a society in which women are objects whose value is determined by the men in their lives. They are not valued for their hard work or intelligence, but as a physical manifestation of a man’s material wealth. Therefore women are concerned with men, beauty, and fashion, as they play an important role as signs of class distinction and social status. The material objects in the illustrations are important signs of this relationship.

This thinking object evolved out of a previous thinking object based on Cinderella: An Art Deco Love Story, titled How much is Cinderella’s father to blame for her situation? which provided students with a framework to analyse the moral ambiguity of the father character.

Because of the complexity of the imagery, it makes rich material for students to analyse as an exercise in visual literacy. The resource we have developed allows them to critically explore the subjective truths we are presented within the story of Cinderella, of a narrative of good vs. evil,  by asking ” How malicious is Cinderella’s stepfamily?” and “How much is Cinderella to blame for the bad situation she finds herself in?

A framework for the analysis of the images is provided. It allows students to address these questions and look at the ambiguity of Cinderella and the stepfamily’s characters – characters whose morality is usually assumed. Life is never as simple as good vs. bad. The question is why and what makes them behave the way they do, and how is this information conveyed in the imagery and constructed through interpretation.

I’m aware that is this is a visual analysis thinking object – without the illustrations – (for some reason copyright prohibits me putting the book online). But due to the pervasiveness of the story of Cinderella I hope that it provides you with an interesting idea of how to critically analyse imagery with students, in encouraging a subjective interpretative process.

Please feel free to post any feedback you may have regarding this thinking object as a resource. And if your work at NZCER you are welcome to borrow a copy to look over with the thinking object.

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  1. | #1

    Those students’ discussions sound fascinating. I just have one question:
    how do you pack a trampoline? ;)

  2. | #2

    Hi Rachel,

    We’ve used “How much is Cinderella’s father to blame for her situation?” with teachers as part of Lifelong Literacy project which explored the intergration of key competencies and reading. We found that the question posed was one that really got the kids talking, and was particularly effective at prompting them to draw on their prior knowledge – anything from their life, their friends’ lives, and the lives of people in the news. Here is what some of the kids said about Cinderella’s father’s level of blame. (Note that these quotes come from kids with widely differing levels of decoding ability):

    “He’s an in-between parent. He’s flawed – he’s an adult.” [laughs]

    “I think he’s forgetful and he lives in a bubble, but there’s goodness in him. [At the end] I think he sort of popped out of his bubble and realised what had happened…because, look, on this page he’s making sure Cinderella tries on the slipper.”

    “[Adults are] not necessarily forgetful. My grandparents are 78 and they always remember stuff like to pack the trampoline.”

    “His decision to marry the stepmother was hasty. He had only known her for two weeks!”

    “He only wanted her to try on the shoe so she would marry the prince and they would end up super rich.”

    “He was probably lonely and wanted a new wife. It’s like [name]’s mum, she took her boyfriend back because she was lonely – he’d had an affair.

    [It’s not] like Nia [Glassie]. She [Nia’s mother] knew what was happening with her boyfriend. He [Cinderella’s father] probably doesn’t know all of it.”

    “Maybe he thought marrying someone with two daughters would make life better for Cinderella?”

    We have also used the Cinderella Thinking Objects as part of a mini conference for teachers and principals involved in an Extending High Standards project in Tauranga. It was great to get their feedback beacsue so often we publish resources and never know what teachers think about them. In essence, the feedback told us that teachers need more of this kind of deep analysis of text – analysis teachers just don’t have the time to do.

    We have started to plan a series of resources like the Cinderella Thinking Objects which will again pose questions and analyse the written and visual texts of picture books. They will be published next year.

  3. | #3

    This thinking object sounds really interesting. Have you worked with any teachers to try it with their classes? I would love to hear what sorts of conversations it’s elicited with students, and what teachers think of this kind of approach to teaching about or through critical visual literacy?

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