Contemporary Cinderella: Inner Changes and Transformation Make a Modern Princess
by Erin Dionne
Let’s get this out in the open: I’m not a girly-girl. I was never into Barbie, my favorite color is blue, and growing up I played Star Wars and Dukes of Hazzard instead of My Little Pony or Strawberry Shortcake. Although I love to buy lip-gloss, I tend to forget to wear it and I only own one pair of heels. And tiaras, wands, and wings? So not me.
So how in the heck did I end up writing a modern fairy tale featuring a beauty pageant?
Truly, it’s all Celeste’s fault. Celeste is the protagonist in my novel, Models Don’t Eat Chocolate Cookies (Dial, 2009). She’s overweight, under-confident, picked-on, and left out—and, thanks to her aunt, unwillingly manipulated into entering a beauty pageant for chubby teens.
Celeste’s journey is all about transformation. Adolescence is a time of transformation; we develop our roles in friendships, family relationships, and as members of society. We grow and change and try those roles on, which makes for fascinating stories. And so I found myself writing about a character on the cusp of those changes in a twisted Cinderella tale that features a pageant instead of a ball.
Now, Cinderella stories have been re-imagined a zillion different ways (most recently in the exquisite Ash by Malinda Lo), but they share some basic tenets. Traditionally, Cinderella must be transformed for the Prince to see her as worthy: from cinder girl to belle of the ball, housekeeper to domestic goddess. She is good and true and just on the inside—especially in comparison to the dark and ugly stepsisters so caricatured in the Disney version of the story.
But even with her virtue, Cindy needs a leg up in order to attend the soiree and achieve her destiny: her clothes and station don’t reflect her inner regal nature and good heart. That personal worth must be mirrored by her external appearance in order for her to claim her place at the Prince’s side, and for him to see her for who she truly is.
But what if Cindy is in junior high and is kind of brainy and meek and forfeits control to those around her? It’s going to take more than just a pretty dress and a ticket to the dance to help her out. And what if she’s a modern gal who doesn’t need—or want—a prince? Then what do you do?
This contemporary princess is in need of a major makeover: a full-on transformation from the inside out. And middle school fairy godmothers are hard to come by. Instead of flitting in via a waving wand or sparkling fairy, the vehicle for change is self-definitition. Sometimes, that self-definition comes about only as we reject that which we’re surrounded by.
For Celeste, the HuskyPeach Modeling Challenge was what she needed to push her to develop as a person. She doesn’t want to be part of the pageant, and as she rejects what she believes the HuskyPeach stands for, she figures out who she actually is. Additionally, as the pageant-related humiliations mount, Celeste learns resiliency and finds that embarrassment can foster unexpected inner strength. So my contemporary Cinderella relies on willpower instead of wands and friends instead of fairies.
Megan Frazer’s debut, The Secrets of Truth and Beauty, deals with similar transformative themes. High schooler Dara struggles with identity and reclaiming the talent she’s buried under her weight. An English class project and then a talent competition are catalysts for her changes.
In both novels, the inner growth that the characters achieve is profound. Thanks to their experiences, their worldviews change, their personal and familial relationships are altered, and they view themselves differently. In Models, Celeste’s external changes are mild: a dab of lip-gloss, a small amount of weight lost—but she’s discovered who she is, which will carry her far beyond the boundaries of the story. And with that discovery, she sees herself for the first time as attractive: her inner worth reflected in an outer beauty that she never before acknowledged. It’s kind of ironic that it’s the hated beauty pageant that allows Celeste to blossom, but most princesses don’t get to choose their pumpkin carriage or glass slipper—they just have to go with what fits.
So, yeah. I wrote a princess-y book. One with makeup, and dresses, and a bit of sparkle. But one where the “princess” saves herself: she stands up for herself, discovers her self worth, and finds confidence.
My sneaker-wearing, Star Wars –loving self is pretty proud of that.