What if Cinderella Wasn't Straight and White?

Victoria Law
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Victoria Law is a voracious reader and freelance writer who frequently writes about gender, incarceration and resistance. She is also the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women

The cover of Cinder

Two recent young adult books remix the classic Cinderella tale.

In Cinder, the familiar glass slipper story is set in a dystopian future Beijing 126 years after World War IV has ended. Cinder’s author, Marissa Meyer, is white. Meanwhile, Chinese-American author Malinda Lo award-winning 2010 retelling of Cinderella, Ash, takes place in a kingdom that resembles a fairy tale Europe.

What do these choices say about each author? How do their ethnic backgrounds affect their retellings?

Let’s start with Cinder. In the book, the remaining war-torn countries on Earth have united in a shared commonwealth. No wars have been fought since, but a deadly plague ravages the world.

Sixteen-year-old Cinder is a cyborg living with her stepmother Adri and her two stepsisters, Peony and Pearl, in New Beijing. She has no recollection of her old human life before the surgery that saved her from death but changed her into a cyborg. Like the original Cinderella story, Adri’s “care” under her stepmother consists of Adri berating Cinder and having her work so that the family, left penniless with her father’s death, has income. Legally, as a cyborg, Cinder is Adri’s property to do with as she pleases.

Unlike the traditional story, Cinder is a gifted mechanic. She is so talented that Kai, the Commonweath’s prince, seeks her out to repair his broken android. Even in the far-away future, however, Prince Kai assumes that the renowned mechanic Linh Cinder (remember that in China, the last name precedes the first) is a man. He is slightly astonished to find a teenage girl instead.

In addition to cyborgs being property, there is also the government-instituted cyborg draft, which selects cyborgs to become research subjects as scientists attempt to find a cure for the plague. None of the cyborgs survive this research. When Peony is stricken with letumosis and carted off to quarantine, Adri “volunteers” Cinder for plague research (incidentally collecting the gratitude payment offered to families who volunteer their cyborgs).

In the palace, Cinder encounters Prince Kai again. Unaware that she is a cyborg research subject, he asks her to the upcoming ball. Despite her growing attraction to the prince, she declines. Cinder fears that, once he learns that she is a cyborg, he will reject her. Although becoming a cyborg saves the lives of severe accident victims, the procedure renders them outcasts.

While Cinder is set in New Beijing, Meyer leaves Cinder’s ethnic identity unclear. Instead, Meyer focuses on Cinder’s body parts that have been replaced by metal and circuits, such as the too-small foot she is replacing when she first meets Prince Kai, and her inability to blush or cry. No description is given of her remaining human features, so readers are left to imagine Cinder’s ethnicity as they please.

Although Malinda Lo’s Ash is not a dystopic novel, I was intrigued by the contrast with her retelling and Meyer’s Cinder.

Lo, who was born in China and raised in the U.S., sets her tale in an imaginary kingdom that greatly resembles fairy tale Europe. Aisling, or Ash, is barely described. Her stepmother and stepsisters are not either, but with names like Lady Isobel, Ana and Clara, it is not a stretch for readers to imagine them as white, like the usual fairy tale depictions. Few of the characters are physically described. Is this Lo’s device for allowing readers to imagine the characters as they need them to appear?

In Ash, love is not limited to heterosexual love. At a Yule celebration, two women stumble away from the dancing, holding hands and kissing. No one bats an eye at them; instead, they are pulled back to the festivities. Ash herself explores her growing attraction to the King’s Huntress. Her only reason for hesitation is the difference in their classes. In Lo’s once-upon-a-time land, people are free to love one another regardless of gender. As Lo said in an interview with After Ellen, she wanted to create a fairy tale world—and that meant a world free of homophobia.

Given that Ash has an LGBT twist, I wondered whether Lo felt pressured to keep her characters racially ambiguous. Indeed, she’s talked about being concerned that pitching a book to publishers that centers on an LGBT twist and a main character of color wouldn’t go over well. 

“I kind of envisioned Ash and Kaisa as being Asian. I describe Kaisa as having dark hair and green eyes, so she couldn’t be fully Asian, but she could be half Asian. And Ash as well. I didn’t describe it specifically partially because I thought the gay thing was going to be enough of a problem. I didn’t want to add race on top of that so I didn’t make the race obvious. I did tell my editor. She did know that I envisioned her as Asian and the book cover, I’m happy to say, does not exclude that possibility.”

As both a mom and reader of color, I would love to see YA books with LGBT protagonists of color. (I don’t think I read a single book with an LGBT protagonist of color when I was a tween or teen.) Lo’s follow-up novel Huntress (which I have yet to read) clarifies the Huntress’s Asian background, draws on Chinese culture and has an LGBT theme. My guess is that Ash’s success has given Lo more freedom to explore race and culture as well as sexuality in her follow-up novel without having to battle it out with her publisher.

Meyer, on the other hand, places her story in the far-off future, but keeps the romance heterosexual. Did that allow her more freedom to reenvision and racialize her characters? Meyer has stated that her original influence for the character of Cinder was Sailor Moon. I’m not sure what to think about the publishing world accepting a book set in futuristic Beijing written by a white author influenced by Japanese manga. (To be fair, Meyer is not the only white author to set a book in a reenvisioned Asia. And, unlike some of her fellow writers, she doesn’t butcher the culture in doing so.)

Finally, for us readers and writers of color, especially the younger ones for whom these books are intended, how do these racial representations (or lack thereof) influence how and what we write for our futures?

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8 Comments Have Been Posted

Sounds interesting. If you

Sounds interesting. If you want another great take on the story, I suggest the game, Cinders. It gives the player the chance to give Cinder a more assertive path and makes the step-mom and sisters into more delightfully complex characters. You can play her like a manipulative bitch, have her marry someone who isn't the prince or even try poison the stepmother.


You write: "’I'm not sure what to think about the publishing world accepting a book set in futuristic Beijing written by a white author influenced by Japanese manga."

Well...get sure. I want to know the answer to this. I'm a white writer living in one of the most multicultural cities in the world (Vancouver, BC). My neighborhood has just been renamed "Little Saigon".

Were publishers to reject what ended up being a bestseller based on the race of the author? Are we calling this appropriation? Let's talk about this frankly. It needs to come out into the open.

thanks for pointing out the unfinished thought

Reading your comment, I realized that I forgot to actually *write* the 2nd part of that thought, which is:

"I'm not sure what to think about the publishing world accepting a book set in futuristic Beijing written by a white author influenced by Japanese manga while the Asian-American author felt that she had to keep her characters racially ambiguous in order to attract a publisher."

I'm definitely not calling this appropriation (and certainly hope that I haven't coming across as doing so). One of the observations that writers and readers of color, particularly those who write/read sci-fi, have made again and again is that white writers often shy away from writing characters of color, claiming that they don't know how to or lack the experience to do so. But then they write about aliens and sentient robots and other things that they also have no personal experience with while, at the same time, making their protagonists (if not all of their human characters) white.

I would definitely *not* discourage you or any white author from writing characters of color in your fiction. It's definitely disheartening to read a book and not see a single (identifiable) character of color. At the same time, please do your homework about the culture and heritage of the people you are writing about so that you don't fall into stereotypes or mix up one culture with another. (I've read recent books by white authors who rely on the same old stereotypes of Chinese people that D.W. Griffith used for his 1919 film "Broken Blossoms." I don't think that those contemporary writers are consciously racist, but in the 2000s, I think that it's completely unacceptable for white writers perpetuate tired and untrue stereotypes of people of other cultures and races.)

Oh, and just to make clear, I'm not saying that Marissa Meyer falls into that category (of perpetuating racist stereotypes). I'm raising a question about the nature of the publishing industry in which one writer (who is white and influenced by Japanese manga) can set her book in futuristic Beijing while another writer (who is Asian) feels that she needs to downplay race and ethnicity in order for her book to be published.

Would love to hear your and others' thoughts on why this might be. If you're part of the publishing world (or are a writer with experience in the fiction publishing world), I'd especially love to hear your experiences around writing race/ethnicity in novels.

Thanks for taking a look at

Thanks for taking a look at Ash! I admit I've been waiting to see anyone compare Ash and Cinder and I think this is the first I've seen. :)

Regarding this point: "while the Asian-American author felt that she had to keep her characters racially ambiguous in order to attract a publisher." --> I just wanted to note that this is what I felt BEFORE I got published. That was when I did not really know much about publishing. Now that I've written four novels and am beyond my pre-publishing concerns, I don't feel that way anymore.

I think it's more complicated now. I think that while many publishers are actively looking for diverse content to publish, that doesn't mean they'll put a lot of marketing behind it. A book with wonderfully complex minority characters could be published and die by simply not being carried by Barnes & Noble.

Finally, if you'd like to read more about why I envisioned the characters in Ash as looking Asian but did not describe them that way, you should read this post: http://www.malindalo.com/2010/03/asianness-or-the-lack-thereof-in-ash/

thanks for clarifying that

I'm so glad you don't feel that you might need to keep your characters racially ambiguous to attract a publisher anymore.

I also am looking forward to reading <i>Huntress</i> once I get through this stack of dystopic books sitting on my desk & waiting for me at the library. Having just come back from visiting family in Hong Kong, I'm definitely feeling a yearning for books set in Asia (even if it is a once-upon-a-time Asia). I'm hoping that my daughter will also want to read it to see (perhaps for the first time in her life as a reader) a queer Asian girl protagonist. (I'm actually trying to think of YA books with queer Asian girl protagonists and can't think of any. I certainly never came across any as a tween or teen reader.)

Off the topic of <i>Ash</i>, I just wanted to say that I love love love your story "Good Girl" in <i>Diverse Energies</i>. It's the first piece of fiction that I'd ever read by you and was what prompted me to read <i>Ash</i>.

I hate to be that person who bursts bubbles, but...

As much as I enjoyed reading <i>Cinder</i> (and the sequel, <i>Scarlet</i>, is even better), I didn't get the impression that Cinder's ethnicity was intended to be ambiguous. Yes, Meyer focuses on Cinder being a cyborg, but she also makes sure to mention on more than one occasion that Cinder was "adopted from Europe." This isn't to say that she's clearly described as the blonde haired, blue eyed Cinderella of Disney, but I think it does indicate that Linh Cinder is positioned as an outsider in New Beijing both because she's a cyborg and because she's not Asian. You can extrapolate this further from plot twists that I won't get into here for spoiler reasons.

The racial politics of <i>Cinder</i> were actually the one thing that I didn't enjoy about the book. In addition to a missed opportunity to have a non-white Cinderella clearly described as such, there's also the fact that Queen Levana (queen of the people on the moon and the "Evil Queen" character in the books) is described as being so beautiful, it hurts Prince Kai to look at her—and yet the specifics of her beauty scream of Western beauty standards, as though even in New Beijing, that's the ideal.

While as a reader I tend to be a big fan of ambiguity, I find myself growing increasingly weary and wary of authors whose books are diverse only if one chooses to interpret them that way. Particularly grating are the frequent descriptions of "olive skin," "tanned skin," etc., which can be interpreted as non-white while allowing these (generally white) authors to walk back that interpretation if and when their books get picked up for screen adaptations that cast white actors.

It's great that there's a growing consensus that YA lit needs to be more diverse, but it would be even better if we didn't have to wonder and deliberate about the race of so many characters. I think the more authors who clearly articulate that yes, this character is not white, the less we'll see readers reacting with surprise and/or outrage when their Default to White biases are challenged.

"And, unlike some of her

"And, unlike some of her fellow writers, she doesn’t butcher the culture in doing so."

Um... were we reading the same Cinder? That book was one giant ball of cultural appropriation (on top of terrible world building/storytelling).

This review does a good job of going through the most problematic elements of Cinder: http://noveltoybox.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/review-cinder-lunar-chronicl...

Thought it was worth pointing

<p>Thought it was worth pointing out that Cinder actually <em>is</em> a WOC – on <a href="http://www.marissameyer.com/faq/">Marissa Meyer's FAQ page</a>, she says Cinder is "a mix of many races...<span style="color: #484f51; font-family: 'Terminal Dosis', sans-serif; font-size: 13px; line-height: 19px;">Tan skin, brown hair, brown eyes." Apparently she gets asked this question a lot, and she even has Mew Azama and Shay Mitchell as her dreamcasts for Cinder.</span></p>

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