08 October 2011

The changing Cinderella in Fables, Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love, and Cinderella: Fables are Forever

I recently co-authored a paper with Dr Rebecca-Anne Do Rozario titled "Fairy Tale Heroine or Fables Superspy? Finding the Real Cinderella," looking at the changing representation of the Cinderella character in early fairy tales and the Fables comic book series. Rebecca and I co-presented the paper at Tights and Tiaras: Female Superheroes and Media Cultures, a recent conference run at Monash University by the Sidhe Literary Collective. Most of the material I contributed to the paper concerned the representation of Cinderella in Fables, and I had originally intended it to be a predominantly positive discussion of the character's evolution in the main Fables title, with brief mention of Cinderella's first spin-off miniseries, titled Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love. However, with the publication of the character's second miniseries, Cinderella: Fables are Forever, which published its sixth and final issue only weeks before the conference, the paper had to take on an entirely different flavour. Although it is our intention to work the conference paper into a proper article, I wanted to write a short rant on my thoughts concerning Cinderella's recent representation in Fables and the problems that surround her second miniseries. Oh, and spoilers abound in the tirade below...

Covers for Fables #22 and Fables #51

The ongoing comic book series Fables, created by Bill Willingham in 2002, tells the story of a community of fairy tale characters, or 'fables', living in a spell-protected area of New York City called Fabletown (although non-human fables live further out of the city in The Farm). Cinderella's first brief appearance is in issue 2, where she's seen taking sword-fighting lessons from the nefarious Bluebeard. We discover that she's a spy for Fabletown when she returns to take center-stage in issue 22, titled "Cinderella Libertine". Although she plays the part of a self-pitying princess who lives a carefree life as the owner of the Fabletown shoe store The Glass Slipper, she is in fact a spy working for Fabletown's sheriff, Bigby (the Big Bad Wolf in human form). Unfortunately, Cinderella's role in this story isn't terribly empowering - she quite heavily sexualised (as you can see on the cover above) and her primary spy skill is seduction (which she uses to test the loyalty of a man named Icarus Crane to Fabletown), with little else in the way of character development. Furthermore, at the end of the issue Bigby tells her to wait in the car while he 'deals with' Crane himself (read: bludgeons him to death). Cinderella's return in issue 51, "Big and Small," sees an important development in the character, as she is portrayed as much more independent, assertive and resourceful as she oversees diplomatic negotiations between Fabletown and the giants of the Cloud Kingdoms.

Covers for Fables #71 and Fables #72

The height of Cinderella's portrayal by Willingham, however, comes in issues 70 and 71 of Fables, in the two-part story "Skulduggery." In this story, Cinderella must rescue Pinnochio from the clutches of the evil Adversary and return him safely to Fabletown. Throughout "Skulduggery" we find a more resourceful and ruthless Cinderella, one who's not afraid to get her hands dirty and doesn't need anyone else to come along and deal with matters for her. The focus on fashion and shoes in these issues harks back to her popular fairy tale and does not come at the expense of her being a fantastic, kick-ass superspy. The character's super-human strength and endurability combine with her centuries of spy training to solidify her status as a true superhero. Her iconic slipper also becomes something of a chevron for Cinderella, appearing on all of her outfits. It was these issues, written by Willingham and illustrated by the ever-brilliant Mark Buckingham, that saw me come to love this character - a true comic book superheroine.

Covers for Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love #1 and Cinderella: Fables are Forever #1

Cinderella has since received two spin-off miniseries, each comprising six issues written by Chris Roberson and illustrated by Shawn McManus. The first of these, Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love (2010) was quite a decent spy story, although it lacked some of the awesome ass-kickery of "Skulduggery". The character also appears much less 'superheroic', with little reference to her super-human strength and endurance, and her slipper chevron nowhere to be seen. Roberson's influence clearly comes more from Bond films than a desire to modernise a fairy tale heroine or create a great female superhero, with the witch Frau Totenkinder becoming Cinderella's Q, and the handsome prince Aladdin becoming the equivalent of a Bond Girl (and Cinderella's love interest).

The real problems come in the second miniseries, Cinderella: Fables are Forever (2011). As though the cover of the first issue (above) wasn’t bad enough, Cinderella spends a large portion of the first few issues in some state of undress, reducing many of her appearances to mere fan service. The series’ big bad is Dorothy Gale (of Wizard of Oz fame), a deadly assassin with a longstanding rivalry with Cinderella. In the pursuit of Dorothy, Cinderella allies with Ivan Durak, an old acquaintance, who ends up saving her life time and time again. Cinderella herself is remarkably inactive for a lot of the series (she spends most of the present-day storyline in issues 4-6 tied up) and at times is even incompetent (such as standing dumbstruck in the line-of-fire of a deadly monster in issue 3). Even her final defeat of Dorothy is due as much to luck as anything else. I could go on, ranting about things like Cinderella's constant references to Bigby and his rules of combat, apparently asking herself "what would Bigby do?" at every turn, but I have to get on to the biggest problem in this series...

The absolute low point of the series comes in issue 5: first, Ivan (whom the readers now know to be evil) gives Cinderella large quantities of wine laced with drugs. Ivan and Cinderella then have sex, after which Cinderella loses consciousness, later waking to find herself bound to a chair. Dorothy then appears and reveals that she was Ivan all along, a transformation she achieved using her magic silver slippers, and which she did with the sole intention of 'tricking' Cinderella into sleeping with her. Needless to say, Dorothy's impersonation of Cinderella's acquaintance in order to deceive her into sex, not to mention the use of alcohol and date-rape drugs, is rape on multiple levels (being both date rape and rape by fraud). To make matters worse, in issue 6 Dorothy repeatedly boasts over 'having her way' with Cinderella, taunting her mercilessly (and sickeningly). Dorothy’s acts, however, are never acknowledged as rape in the series, and are instead treated so casually that it becomes little more than a joke or 'plot twist'. Roberson drastically fails to deal with the horrific rape and abuse of Cinderella in a serious way. Aside from a couple of references to not wanting to think about it and feeling a little ill, Cinderella just seems to brush off the events of the previous night and has almost forgotten them by the end of the issue.

Dorothy taunts Cinderella in Cinderella: Fables are Forever #6

In our paper, Rebecca and I concluded that the same problems seem to permeate representations of Cinderella in both fairy tales and the Fables universe. The Grimm brothers, Perrault, and eventually Disney, all took a character who was active, resourceful, intelligent and self-sufficient in her early fairy tale representations (see Basile's "Cenerentola" and D'Aulnoy's "Finette Cendron") and turned her into a passive princess – a damsel in distress. Unfortunately we find the same patriarchal trappings creep into the character’s recent comic book incarnation as well. Cinderella goes from being a powerful and independent superspy in issues 70 and 71 of Fables, to a rather average spy in her second miniseries - a depiction only worsened by Roberson’s flippant portrayal of sexual abuse.

Looking to the future, perhaps we can find a glimmer of hope in the upcoming Fables spin-off, Fairest, which will comprise a series of story arcs focusing on different female characters of the Fables universe, with each arc having different writers and artists. Hopefully Fairest ends up portraying women better than the latest Cinderella miniseries (although Cinderella's arcs will apparently be written by Roberson again, so I'm not holding out much hope for those stories). Whatever happens, surely it couldn’t be much worse than Willingham’s other Fables spin-off series, Jack of Fables, with its intolerably chauvinistic protagonist (side note: in a humorous moment in the series, the fourth Wall sister notes that if you remove the spaces from the title it becomes jackoffables). Hopefully Fairest will follow in the footsteps of "Skulduggery" and instead of presenting the female fables as passive damsels, return to the core of some of their earlier fairy tales and turn them into the powerful women – the superheroes – they ought to be.


  1. Firstly, great post! I look forward to seeing the full argument appearing in a journal!

    Secondly, date rape in a comic that appropriates fairy tale characters - that's, well, disconcerting to say the least. While I hope there was some backlash from fans over this storyline, I wouldn't be entirely surprised if it was more or less "forgiven" or overlooked because the rape was revealed to have been perpetuated by a woman (only pretending to be a man) and therefore not considered to be really rape at all.

    In my opinion the biological sex of the perpetrater doesn't have any bearing on whether a rape occured or not--the only determining factor being consent; however, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwitch argument about the gendered differences between homosoical to homosexual relationships did pop into my mind when reading about the "magical" (and not in the romantic sense) encounter between Cinderella and Dorothy.

    Sedgwith argues in Western culture there is a rupture in the continuum between male friends and male lovers, but that no such break exists for women. That's why two men holding hands codes them as a gay couple, whereas the romantic relation between two women holding hands is much more ambiguous--are they friends? Are they lovers? Where's the line when it comes to women?

    Perhaps that is why the rape of Cinderella is treated so flippently. Becuase both participants are actually women, the encounter can be dismissed a harmless girl-play.

    Dorothy's domineering stance, aggressive expression and phallic pointing finger clearly announce her "masculinity", but her biological sex may still be the card her authors can play to get away with writing rape into their storyline.

  2. I think you're absolutely right, Emma. The gender of the perpetrator is entirely beside the point - Cinderella was still raped - but perhaps it does go towards explaining why it's not taken seriously in the comic and isn't acknowledged as rape.

    However, I recently discovered that a very similar thing happened in an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man (#603, 2009), in which a shape-shifting supervillain called the Charmeleon assumes the identity of Peter Parker and seduces his female house mate. So there we have another recent case of rape by impersonation that's not recognised as rape in the comic (or even by the comic creator when directly questioned about it!). http://io9.com/5358396/spider+mans-villains-not-rapists-says-creator

    I've also read a few blog posts by Karen Healey on a similar issue in Green Arrow, where the male protagonist is drugged and raped by a woman, but it's never recognised as such (in fact, it's later referred to as him being promiscuous and cheating on his partner!). http://girl-wonder.org/girlsreadcomics/?p=49

    Unfortunately it seems that these highly problematic attitudes towards rape aren't all that uncommon in comics (nor other popular media, I'm sure).