Ugly Stepsisters


Let’s be honest, Cinderella wouldn’t be the story that it is without her Stepsisters. In fact, the characters of the Stepsisters are as old as the story itself. The oldest variation of Cinderella is the Chinese Ye Xian. The Stepsisters in this story are actually just one half-sister called Jun-li, unlike Ye Xian, Jun-li is ugly and lazy. Eventually, Jun-li and her mother, Jin, meet their end after the warlord that Ye Xian marries banishes them and they are killed by a rain of stones.

Whereas Ye Xian is the oldest recorded variant of Cinderella, the first European telling comes from Giambattista Basile, published after his death in 1634. In this version, Cinderella’s father is a widowed prince and she is in the care of a governess. The Governess makes Cinderella convince her father to get re-married to her. After which, the Governess brings into the family six daughters of her own, who abuse Cinderella and send her to work in the kitchens. However, nothing is mentioned about the fate of her stepsisters after the happy ending.

The first variation in which the stepsisters receive some kind of redemption is the Charles Perrault (1697) telling. In this the younger sister, is described as being kinder than her older sibling. Unlike in Ye Xian, the sisters are considered ugly through their horrible personalities rather than measured by physical attractiveness. But, it’s happy endings for everyone in the Perrault version, as good and sweet Cinderella decides to forgive them both and they marry lords respectively.

cinderella2Of course the Brothers Grimm (1812) variation took the story down a much darker route. Not only is the description of them of “beautiful faces and fair skin, but hearts that were foul and black” much harsher, but the Grimms decided that they should meet a much nastier demise. First, they cut out chunks of their own feet trying to fit into the glass slipper. However the prince notices blood on their stockings and realises they are imposters. Secondly, after rejection from the Prince, the sisters invite themselves to Cinderella’s wedding. Cinderella, furious at this disrespect summons birds to peck out their eyes and faces. Rendering them to a life of blindness and mutilation.

Seemingly, the first adaption of Cinderella to have the sisters as unattractive on the inside and out was the classic 1950 Disney film. Both Anastasia and Drizella are shown as spoiled and arrogant, as well as clumsy and unattractive. However, with the straight-to-video sequels we also see the redemption arc come out again with Anastasia. Even before the supposed sequel to the animated Cinderella, there had been others who have spun their own interpretations of the Stepsisters.

One such adaptation was Ella Enchanted, published in 1997 and was eventually adapted into a film in 2004. This time the stepsisters are called Hattie and Olive, and they first meet by attending boarding school together. They learn about Ella’s particular enchantment and use it to their advantage, bullying and ordering her around. This only increases after Ella’s father’s marriage to their wealthy mother – Dame Olga.

Another was of course Ever After (1998). The eldest stepsister, Marguerite, definitely falls into the Grimm depiction of the Stepsisters. She is beautiful but cold-hearted and spiteful to Cinderella (this time named Danielle). The younger stepsister, Jacqueline, is actually unique in that she is kind to Danielle from the beginning of the film. Without no need to beg for her forgiveness nor is presented with some kind of redemption arc. The only negatives in her personality are that she is meek, no doubt due to life with Marguerite and her formidable mother, Rodmilla de Ghent. Of course, Jacqueline is spared from the same fate as her mother and sister face due to her kindness towards Danielle.

cindrella3Also published only a year later was Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire. The sisters in this are Iris – an aspiring painter (who describes herself as incredibly plain) and her older sister Ruth (who implied to be autistic). In addition to caring for her elder sister, Iris also helps her beautiful step sister Clara (Cinderella) with gaining the attentions of the prince and whilst trying to escape from the clutches of her own mother, the formidable Margarethe. Although Iris does get her happy ending, the novel does end on a rather bittersweet note to say the least.

An interesting thing to note is that the last three media discussed were published or released in the late nineties, in particular one after another. As I was too young to remember (I was born in 1995), maybe there was a distinct theme towards the new millennium of creating alternative interpretations of classic fairy tales.

Although the stepsisters are often relegated to the position of “second-fiddle” due to their selfish nature towards Cinderella, they are still an important part of the whole construction of the tale. After all, without the cruel and callous sisters, how else would Cinderella be portrayed as the kind and virtuous hero? Plus, without the stepsisters getting their just desserts, how would the audience know that the only way to achieve a happy ending is to be like Cinderella? Finally, as shown in the alternative stories, maybe sometimes one makes mistakes and deserves a happy ending just as much as the hero.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Scarlett Grant is a young graduate trying to step into the real world. When she’s not writing for Femnista, she’s focusing on her own blog: Thoughts in 500 Words. She is also an amateur history buff, with other interests in art, film, languages, music and writing.

3 thoughts on “Ugly Stepsisters

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  1. Just to add another example to your list: in the new 2013 Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella on Broadway, Gabrielle takes on the “nice sister” role. She falls in love with a revolutionary and Ella form a bond over their forbidden love interests. From a narrative perspective, it makes sense for there to be two stepsisters (traditionally, two to fail at the slipper and Cinderella as the successful third), but I do have to say that I like the modern distinction between a mean and a nicer one, because we don’t need two antagonistic characters who are essentially the same person.

    Lovely piece, thanks for writing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I didn’t know there was a more recent variation of the “one mean, one nice” stepsister interpretation (I’m not into musicals I’m afraid!) But thank you so much for the feedback and I’m glad you enjoyed it!


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