Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Cinderella story

Many recent news accounts have referred to the improbable presence of George Mason in the Final Four of the NCAA men's basketball tournament as a Cinderella story. In this recent story, Dan Wetzel extends the metaphor, asking readers to entertain the question, "Why not George Mason?"--that is, why couldn't GMU win two more games and become the tournament champions?

(A side note: Wetzel's piece is a beautiful example of "angle" journalism, as I call it. He seems to have nothing to say other than that George Mason has a chance, though a small one, of winning two more games. Does anyone think otherwise? Of course GMU could win two more! Of course the probability is small! All Wetzel does is call attention to his own expert angle on the issue by emphasizing an improbability. He says nothing that isn't plainly visible in the point spreads or betting odds on the upcoming games.)

But I digress. Wetzel closes his piece by extending the Cinderella metaphor: "Of course, in the original, Cinderella lived happily ever after."

Not necessarily.

(Another side note: one of the most useful and surprisingly accurate tidbits of textual analysis I've ever picked up was the notion that if you want to find a writer's most ideologically loaded and debatable point, look for whatever follows "of course" or "obviously" or "certainly." Unintentional ironies often lurk in those assumptions of consensus.)

There are three problems with this common usage of the Cinderella metaphor.

The first problem is the idea of an "original" Cinderella story. As a near-universal folk tale, Cinderella has no identifiable original version. But this is a nitpick; let's translate "original" to "standard" and use Charles Perrault's version, the basis of most English-language storybook Cinderellas.

The second is the underlying assumption that Cinderella is an underdog who achieves a social standing far beyond what she had reason to expect. Not so much: Cinderella is the daughter of a man with significant class standing--a "worthy man" who has the money and connections to get his stepdaughters to the prince's ball and have them dressed well for the occasion. Cinderella is a high-born woman with immense cultural capital, and her story is one of restoration and moderate rise in status. Arguably, from this perspective, George Mason would have the story least like Cinderella's among the four possible winners of this year's tournament because GMU is a true upstart. The other three teams all seek a restoration of former glories; UCLA's former dominance is too great to make it a true Cinderella, but the slipper fits Florida and LSU fairly well--both programs have made the Final Four, but not too recently, and neither has won a championship.

The third, and perhaps the most important, problem is the statement that "Cinderella lived happily ever after." Perrault's story says no such thing, and his ending is maintained in the modern translations I've seen. Cinderella does seem to be happy, but the narrator does not address her future. Moreover, the established marriages range from grotesquely dysfunctional (Cinderella's father and step-mother) to suggestively creepy (the prince's parents). The story seems to go out of its way to contradict the assumption that people of high station find lasting happiness automatically. Cinderella has her moment, but no more.

So let's enjoy the success of George Mason. GMU is this season's most remarkable underdog story. But even--or especially--if they win the championship, their story will not be Cinderella's.

1 comment:

Ben said...

i haven't read the article you refer to here but i think there are a couple points to make in regards to your discussion of the "cinderella" metaphor. my understanding of the metaphor is based on the NCAA tourney being refered to as "The Big Dance." the cinderella team is the team that is supposed to leave early but sticks around longer than expected. this is probably obvious to you and you may very well just have been talking about the metaphor extended as in the article, but it is a metaphor i have thought about. coincidentally, i worked one summer at a basketball camp with tony skinn.