Most feminist literature seems to argue against the traditional conception of woman as she has been envisioned in the white, middle-class suburban ideal. However, feminist issues extend well beyond this narrowly defined world into the lives of women of color, too, although there are slight amendments as to what is expected. While white women were expected to have servants, women of color were expected to both be those servants and perform these functions within their own homes. Regardless of color or family circumstance, though, it seems all women have been victims of the Cinderella story only to find that life is rarely like it’s seen in the movies. Once they’ve entered into that ‘happily ever after’ world following the wedding (where the story leaves off), women suddenly find themselves managing the household, caring for the children and entirely confined within the boundaries of the husband’s property. While the fairy tale suggests this life will be full of wedded bliss, the reality is all too often a life dominated by the dragon. When this is the case, it is often only with the assistance of other women rather than the knight in shining armor that they are finally able to break the vision of the fairy tale to understand their realities and find a new means of approaching life. This is the case for Cleofilas, the protagonist in “Woman Hollering Creek”, a short story by Sandra Cisneros in which the woman’s progress is followed from the ideological innocent to the female-rescued woman of the modern age.
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Sandra Cisneros’ main character, Cleofilas, grows up watching telenovelas, or soap operas, on TV in which the classic Cinderella themes are evidently played out over and over. This reinforces Cleofilas’ dreams regarding her future once her shining white knight arrives. She understood she would need to go through hardship, but felt her life to this point had been the hardship scene and married life would enable her to enter the happily ever after. In the telenovelas, life was seen to be full of “all kinds of hardship of the heart, separation and betrayal” (220), but a loving woman, always patient and always kind, could expect happiness in the end. “Cleofilas thought her life would have to be like that, like a telenovela…” (226). The Cinderella story exists in some form or fashion in just about every culture of the world. The archetype encourages girls to take on the social roles of a patriarchal society (Welter, 1966). The one thread of truth through all of these tales is that the woman is expected to be at home and submissive and this subservience will win her recognition, love and splendor.
Sad element of the fairy tale
Another sad element of the fairy tale is that it teaches women to be highly mistrustful of other women in the form of wicked stepmothers, greedy step-sisters or other forms of direct rivals. In this deadly competition, the one who is the most obedient and submissive is the one who wins the best prize in the ambiguous form of the ‘happily ever after’. Rob Baum claims “Cinderella serves the female, directing us to similarly anti-social behaviors and antipathetic familial relations: to hate and compete with other females, suffer in silence, and seek rapport with males through the mysteries of flirtation, fashion and marital fitness” (2000). Thus, not only is Cleofilas deluded into an expectation of marriage that is both unrealistic and potentially dangerous, but she is cut off from the only people in society who might understand and help her. Even through the telenovelas, she has been taught to exert all her attention and energy in competing with women rather than the men who oppress them. This is seen as she compares herself against the other women on her street and holds herself somewhat aloof by considering herself either positively or negatively unequal to them. As each and every woman adopts this attitude toward her sisters, she becomes isolated even when she might otherwise reach out for a helping hand.
The spell of the Cinderella story is only broken when the role of the subservient wife comes into conflict with the role of the maternal protector. Cleofilas is willing to sacrifice herself, numbly accepting Juan’s unexplained beatings, as she silently witnesses her neighbors’ troubles. Soledad’s husband leaves without giving her any indication of where or when he’ll return, rumors exist that Juan’s friend Maximiliano has actually killed his wife, and yet these women didn’t leave their husbands and neither can Cleofilas if she wants to received the glittering prize, the ‘happily ever after’. However, Cleofilas gradually loses all misimpressions that things will somehow turn outright. “Now the episodes got sadder and sadder. And there were no commercials in between for comic relief. And no happy ending in sight.” (226). Her final despair doesn’t come until she begins to consider the implications of her husband’s beatings upon the bodies of her young son and as yet unborn child. These fears are well-grounded in scientific research. In homes where domestic violence has been reported against wives, the children are 15 times more likely to have been abused and/or neglected. “Over 3 million children are at risk of exposure to parental violence each year” (McKay, 1994). These children are “three times more likely to have been abused by their fathers” (McKay, 1994). While Cleofilas understands that she should sacrifice her own welfare for the sake of the family, she begins to realize that this ‘someday’ may never happen if it depends on Juan. The maternal instinct to protect her children finally overwhelms her submission to the Cinderella syndrome enough to push for a doctor.
Although there is no indication that Cleofilas openly confesses her problems to Graciela, the nurse at the doctor’s office, Graciela makes it clear that she understood Cleofilas’ position. Graciela explains to a friend how a pregnant woman, presumed to be Cleofilas, came in with bruises all over her body, couldn’t speak English and had not been permitted to call or write home since moving to Texas. This emphasizes the degree to which Cleofilas has been isolated from the rest of the world and the dangerous position she’s in. Reaching out to help another woman in need, Graciela arranges for her friend Felice to give Cleofilas and her son a ride to San Antonio and away from the husband who beats her. It is planned that from San Antonio, Cleofilas may reach her father, who will welcome her and her children home. As they leave, Cleofilas is amazed to discover the degree of Felice’s independence. She completely supports herself and makes her own decision, having selected and purchased the truck she’s driving herself. It is enlightening to Cleofilas to discover “she [Felice] didn’t have a husband” (228) and yet she was doing just fine. As the women crossed over Woman Hollering Creek, Felice lets loose with a great scream that first terrifies, then liberates Cleofilas.
Within feminist circles, this scream is recognized as a scream of liberation, defiance and self-assertion. “We are damaged – we women, we oppressed, we disinherited … We are damaged and we have the right to hate and have contempt and to kill and to scream” (Dunbar, 1969). On her way to a strange city, speaking only Spanish, traveling with a small child, pregnant and unsure of what her future might hold, it might be assumed that Cleofilas would be terrified of what might happen between this moment and the hoped for moment when she is reunited within the safe arms of her family. Her laughter indicates through the help of these other two women her own power to bring about change and the better life she’d always hoped for has been released. While some resigned themselves to their fate, such as the women on Cleofilas’ street, Cleofilas managed to escape this fate thanks to the help of other women willing to reach out. By providing the necessary physical assistance as well as demonstrating the possibilities, Graciela and Felice open Cleofilas’ eyes and clear the airways for Cleofilas to develop her own scream of liberation.
Baum, Rob. “After the Ball is Over: Bringing Cinderella Home.” Cultural Analysis. Vol. 1, (2000).
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Cisneros, Sandra. Woman Hollering Creek: And Other Stories. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.
Dunbar, Roxanne. “Who is the Enemy?” No More Fun and Games: A Journal of Female Liberation. Cambridge, MA: Cell 16, Vol. 1, N. 2, (1969).
McKay, M. The Link Between Domestic Violence and Child Abuse: Assessment and Treatment Considerations. Child Welfare League of America, N. 73, 1994, pp. 29-39.
Welter, Barbara. “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860.” American Quarterly. Vol. 18, N. 2, P. 1, (1966), pp. 151-74.