Books, Critique, Diversity, Feminism, Gender, Race, Transphobia

Teaching Diverse Lit: Cinderella meets New Beijing

We are fully immersed in the era of adaptations. Fiction fans need not wait more than a week to hear that a favorite novel or comic will soon to make its way to the big or small screen. Old television shows and movies are earning reboots left and right. Stories are getting second and third chances in new mediums (Or even in the same medium. We see you Spiderman.) and storytellers are getting the opportunity to put new and more diverse spins on familiar tales—like Ava DuVernay and A Wrinkle in Time. Adaptations, at their core, are all about choices. What do you keep? What do you discard? What do you change and what do you update? As someone whose storytelling and teaching methods were built around literary adaptations, and who advocates for diversity and representation, it’s a great time to dig into this type of work.

Cinder, Marissa Meyer, Macmillan, 2012

Note: Spoilers for Cinder below

Marissa Meyer’s debut young adult sci-fi novel and Cinderella adaptation, Cinder, was released in early 2012, a year that solidified the popularity of fairy tale screen adaptations like Once Upon a Time, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Grimm. Meyer’s adaptive choices are strong ones: she relocates the story to an East Asian setting and pushes it forward into the futuristic city of New Beijing. She raises the stakes by weaving in the addition of a rapidly spreading, deadly plague and adds new, off-world antagonists in the form of the deadly Lunars. These reworkings aren’t window dressing; each change to the source fairy tale creates conflict for Cinder’s cyborg mechanic Cinderella, who is a more resourceful and hardened iteration of the original character.

Adaptations As Teaching Moments

Most teachers will tell you that, especially for the first few years in the profession, you teach how you were taught. In my case, I was taught that the choices made for an adaptation were always important to note, but the critical analysis lies beyond noting the simple mechanics of changes made. The meat—the good stuff—is in examining the impacts of those choices on the narrative. What do we gain through Meyer’s updated fairy tale? What are the new challenges and opportunities that weren’t there before, and how are they addressed?

Meyer’s Cinder takes place in a dystopian future one hundred and twenty-six years after what the novel calls World War IV, a war so brutal that it resulted in the unanimous joining of the remaining countries to form a global alliance. Cinder, the titular character, is a teenaged mechanic and cyborg girl living in New Beijing, a large city in the Eastern Commonwealth, the empire that includes what remains of Asia. Meyer has explained that she made this change to the traditional fairy tale’s setting in order to bring the story of Cinderella full circle; in her research of the origins of the Cinderella tale, the original story was first recorded in 9th century China. References to East Asian culture in Cinder begin in the very first chapters when characters are referred to with Chinese honorifics (like -shifu and -jie). But the references don’t stop there: main characters eat using chopsticks; the Emperor’s palace architecture includes pagodas and Buddha sculptures; jade statues decorate formal imperial palace rooms. While Cinder later explains (at the far end of the book) that Eastern Commonwealth culture is an amalgamation by necessity of several Eastern traditions due to the reformation of the region after the war, I still found these littered and varied references uncomfortable. For example, the reader may recognize culturally Japanese details (Cinder’s step-mother’s kimono, for example) next to culturally Chinese allusions without any reference to their respective sources. Unfortunately, this plays into socio-political and cultural misconceptions that still thrive today that suggest that East Asian cultures are homogenous and/or interchangeable. It would have been nice for Meyer to provide her explanation about the amalgamation of cultures a bit earlier in the narrative, but it’s hard not to celebrate the presence of these specific details and the homage to the source story.

As much as I enjoyed the shift in cultural landscape and setting, the related shift in racial diversity was sometimes unclear and harder to appreciate. This book exhibits what I consider “light touch” racial diversity.  Novels earn that distinction when I can apply a number of “it can be assumed” statements to the story. For example, it can be assumed that humans living in this region of the planet are primarily of Asian descent. It can be assumed, given the setting and history of the book, that many of the characters described as having dark or black hair with dark eyes are primarily of Asian descent. But assumptions are not the same as assertions. Cinder’s ethnicity is so unclear—is she of Asian descent? Is she Caucasian?—that fans of the book have headed to forums to discuss and debate the possibilities. To further complicate things, plot revelations in the latter half of the book reveal aspects of Cinder’s heritage that add to the confusion about her ethnicity for the reader. Meyer herself has responded by posting character concepts on her blog and sharing inspiration images on her Pinterest board in order to help clear things up. She says that Cinder is “mixed ethnicity—Asian/Caucasian?” Again, this isn’t explicitly stated in the text and the author’s own question mark-ended statement doesn’t imbue confidence.

I would much prefer the suggestion of racial diversity in our fiction over an explicit focus on white, heterosexual characters. Suggesting diversity may create an opportunity to bring attention to ideas about race and a diversity of experiences that some readers may have not otherwise considered. That being said, as a POC reader, there’s nothing more satisfying than reading a book and knowing, without equivocation and without online forums filled controversy, that my protagonist looks like me. If I were teaching this book and unpacking this aspect of the adaptation, I’d focus on the ambiguity as a point of discussion and resist any attempts in the classroom to de-race the characters. The ambiguity of Cinder’s heritage would not prevent me from asking the discussion questions that I really want to ask, which are: What happens when our fairytale princesses are not white? What happens to the story of Cinderella in particular, if she is a woman of color?

Othering Via Biotechnological Status

In Cinder’s future, advances in biotechnology have made cyborg surgery and androids commonplace, while human attitudes of prejudice and injustice have shifted to relegate those who have undergone surgery as second-class citizens in society. Cinder has no memory of the accident that destroyed almost a third of her body or of the surgery that replaced her limbs and parts of her brain with advanced technology, metal, screws, and bolts. As a cyborg, Cinder is considered subhuman at best and property at worst, with her opportunities to earn income or gain social mobility capped by prejudice. The opening scene of the novel is the fifteen-year-old protagonist replacing her prosthetic foot, fitted for an eleven-year-old, with a new foot fitted for her current size and growth; she had not been afforded ongoing upgrades by her prejudiced step-mother guardian and did not have the money herself to purchase replacements. There are mentions of those who have chosen to undergo surgery, but who then take strides to “pass” in society in order to avoid discrimination. The narrative also includes Cinder’s regular protests and contentions that she did not choose to be a cyborg, that she did not choose to become part-machine. She did not choose to save her own life as a child, but she wants to live—and live freely—now. Meyer’s choice to include a cyborg social justice narrative is no stranger to tropes of the genre, and yet it’s a nice addition to a growing body of speculative fiction that seeks to recast and reframe current day injustices.

The specific inclusion of anti-surgery and anti-modification fueled hatred in Cinder, for me, echoes the anti-trans hatred that can be heard circling in both micro and macro discourses today. Meyer insists both through Cinder and other characters, that prejudice against humans whose bodies are not the bodies they were born with combined with a specific aversion to surgery are the foundation of oppression and inequality in New Beijing. On this point, there is no ambiguity. The frustration, the pain, and the injustice is not reserved solely for Cinder but applied to an entire off-screen population. Meyer’s inclusion of this type of hatred would be an excellent entry point for lit teachers who want to draw attention to the connections between social oppression, bodily autonomy and body modification, and body prejudice. That being said, if I were teaching Cinder, I would want to seek out additional resources and narratives to more specifically address gender in the classroom.

Cinderella as Maker

The biggest triumph of Meyer’s adaptation is Cinder herself: a primarily self-taught teenage mechanic whose inner monologue and brain-computer interface supplies almost all of the STEM and technological jargon in the book. It’s incredibly refreshing that Cinder is the most technical character in the book. The very first interaction Cinder has with her love interest, Prince Kaito includes the prince assuming that “the greatest mechanic in New Beijing” must be “an old man.” Cinder is forthright, practical, strong-willed, and consistently covered in machinery grease. I never face-palmed at her decisions, questioned her reasoning, or felt that she was a damsel. Prince Kaito is in need of rescuing far more than Cinder ever is, and it’s a super satisfying twist on old fairy tale tropes. In fact, Cinder is her very own fairy godmother. By the end of the book, she has created her own carriage out of discarded parts, from diligent research, and through careful management of her time and resources. Her work is what brings her to the ball and no one else. Hilariously, she doesn’t leave her shoe behind at the end; instead, she leaves her entire foot. (Cyborg, remember?)

While Cinder has been out for some time, Meyer has continued to build on the world as The Lunar Chronicles series, which includes three additional novels, short stories, and a graphic novel. The second book in the series is Scarlet, based on Little Red Riding Hood. She continues to adapt and reframe our fairy tales with strong female princesses, including a Black Snow White in the fifth book, Winter. While teachers in the classroom may not always be able to choose the novels in their curricula, Cinder presents a familiar story with a variety of great entry points for discussion about cultural and gender representation, class, identity, and body politics.