Trigger Warning: Emotional Abuse, Self-Mutilation
So what does this have to do with The Ugly Stepsister? Whose stepsister am I talking about and why is she ugly? Well, in most tellings of the Cinderella story, the main character has a mean, ugly stepsister. Nobody really gives her much thought when hearing/reading/watching the story. We’re mostly focused on Cinderella and her journey. We give almost no thought to the fruitless journey of the stepsister. We forget that she has goals and life aspirations. She has ideas on where she wants to end up in life.
The ugly stepsister ($USS$ for short) is the daughter of a gold digging aristocrat. Her mother ($USM$), presumably after bleeding her last husband dry, sets her eyes on another wealthy aristocrat, the father of Ella. $USM$’s goal is to live comfortably and secure a nest egg for her daughter. Her new husband is bled dry physically and financially, leaving behind Ella to deal with $USM$ on her own.
Ella is merely an obstacle. $USM$ doesn’t want Ella to inherit her father’s estate (or what’s left of it). She wants it for herself and her daughter. $USM$, being the master manipulator, slowly nudges Ella out of the picture. The years go by and people have forgotten about Ella, the aristocrat’s daughter, and now only know Cinderella, the poor servant girl who can’t seem to quite make $USM$ happy but is kept around supposedly out of $USM$’s compassion. Meanwhile, $USS$ is fighting her own battle. $USM$ is ultimately a narcissist. She has her “golden child” and “scapegoat”. You can guess which is which.
Being the “golden child” is not as fun as it seems. While Cinderella is learning that the world is cruel and unyielding, $USS$ is learning that to be loved, you have to perform, play a part, and be a shell of your true self. Nobody will love the real you. Nobody cares about the real you. The only thing people care about is what you can do for them. She sees the example of Cinderella and how she was punished for daring to be herself, for daring to ask for unconditional love and affection. Seeing Cinderella’s position taken away, $USS$ is quick to play the role as happy daughter from a wealthy family lest the same happen to her.
It’s really a sad life for both the true daughter and the stepdaughter. Both are being abused although in vastly different ways.
When the invitation for the ball comes in the mail (or by courier, or carrier pigeon, etc), they both react in regards to their upbringing. Cinderella dreams of a one night escape but does not, in any way, shape, or form, expect real lasting change. She puts together some scraps from old dresses and manages to look somewhat decent for the occasion. She has no thoughts of even looking at the prince, let alone touching him or talking to him. The whole time, she is being punished with extra chores for daring to have a desire outside the four walls of “her” estate. You can read “Midnight Again” for more details.
At the same time, $USS$ brushes up on her acting skills. She needs to play the part of a beautiful, cultured heiress worthy of the royal hand. She buys the most elegant gown and the most glamorous shoes she can find. She works on her elocution. She practices the most modern dances. She gathers intel on possible competition. Remember, love is a competition. Especially when you’re basically the same as the next dame. And, to them, the prince is just the same as any spoiled royal brat that only cares about a pretty face and good hips for breeding. So it’s really only fair that they play along.
When it’s time to leave, they have molded and trimmed their personalities and individuality to be a perfect princess for the prince. All regardless of what they want or like or how they feel and totally without regard to the feelings of the man they want to seduce. The prince is just a means to an end. They don’t want love. They really want power and security. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a terrible wish to have but ultimately destructive when it means manipulating the feelings of a flesh and blood person.
You can imagine their shock and confusion when a new “contender” enters the arena, I mean, ballroom. Anybody who is honest with themselves knows there is only a handful of well-connected, manicured women of noble descent who are a good match for the prince. This woman walks in with a gown that outshines the most elegant of the elegant and crystalline shoes that sparkle like twilight. Remember that this is Ella who everybody has forgotten about. If there was anyone that the competition shouldn’t have worried about, it was Cinderella. Cinderella! The servant girl who tended the sheep and maybe was a little too scrawny, with a vacant face most days, and was always covered in pig shit and soot.
The prince is immediately enamored. He dances with her and her alone. The rest of the girls are seething. All their preparations were for naught. It’s all down the drain for a stranger that has never shown her face in court or society in general. If only they knew the true transformation that was beginning in this girl’s heart. For Ella, it’s not a transformation that takes away her soul. It’s a transformation that reveals it. She’s put no work into this at all. She’s paid no money, taken no classes, made no connections to be there. She’s not even looking for the prince. He’s the furthest thing from her mind. She doesn’t even realize who she’s dancing with!
However, midnight comes along. Fearing great punishment from the mysterious woman who brought her there, she flees. The other girls’ relief is short lived when the king and prince call off the rest of the dance to find her. After everyone is gone, they find the crystalline shoe.
The news spreads. The prince is looking for the owner of the shoe. The shoe is custom made. It will only fully fit one girl’s foot. The palace guard is going home to home having all suitable women try on the shoe. Most women have given up on the idea of marrying the prince so they try on the shoe with a morbid curiosity. However, one family has not given up. $USM$ and $USS$ are determined to fit $USS$’s foot in to that shoe. I’m sure if they had Google, they would have researched foot binding. But they can’t predict whether the foot will be too big or too small.
In at least one version of this story, $USS$ is cutting off her toes and heel to fit in this shoe. She literally has no concept of individuality and uniqueness. She completely misses the point. She’s thinking, “Fit the shoe and win.” She’s thinking that if she makes this one last sacrifice, she’ll get love and security. The prince, however, is looking for that face, who has a hint of recognition when she sees the shoe, who looked so exhilarated to be dancing and having fun. A face that doesn’t look like the person behind it is on a mission.
As we all know, Cinderella fit the shoe and also had the other shoe. Depending on what version you read, $USS$ suffers many different fates, from living as a spinster to becoming Cinderella’s servant to having her eyes plucked out by a bird. I’d like to think Cinderella forgave her and counseled her on what she learned from her own journey. And, after a few years, $USS$ became a little less ugly and a little more her true self and found someone to share her life with. I’d also like to think that $USM$ learned the roots of her control issues and and received love and security from her daughters.