A friend of mine once told me: “You’re lucky. You have your boyfriend who’s with you here and you can plan your future together- your life looks so concrete.”
That statement simmered with me for quite a while. Yes, sure I have a boyfriend and yes, we are currently renovating a dream house- but does that really make me luckier? I’m sure that my friend did not intend to question women’s independence and I’m pretty certain that I caught her at a vulnerable moment then. But still- to me, it’s quite concerning that you need to have a boyfriend in order to start planning your life. Do women still wait for a partner before they really aboard on their journeys? Are we still waiting for the prince on the white horse to be taken out of the dull limbo that precedes the true fun in life?
This discussion takes us to what psychologists call “The Cinderella Complex”. It’s one of the many psychological syndromes observed in women and essentially describes women’s fear of independence. Sounds scary to any girl bosses out there but according to Colette Dowling and psychology, it is a thing.
The name obviously traces back to the fairy tale of Cinderella. It specifically centres on Cinderella’s passive character which I discussed in last week’s blog post.
Colette Dowling argues in her book that numerous women bear this Cinderella facet inside of them- herself included. According to Dowling, most women are ready to drop all of their individual ambitions as soon as they can enter the domestic space. Like Cinderella, women wait for an external force or human to change their lives. In other words, women still wait for their men or their fairy godmother to be financially and emotionally saved.
Dowling’s inspiration for the book came from her own experience. She is a divorced mother of three daughters and for years, she was in charge of her family. After some years, Dowling fell in love with a new man and once again, she went down the feminine spiral of dependence. With her children and her new partner, she moved to the country side. She gave up on her own writing and instead, typed the manuscripts for her partner. Of course, this domestic imbalance led to a huge fight in which Colette was forced to face her own fear of independence. This epiphany of some sorts kicked off her writing and research which came to fruits in her book The Cinderella Complex, published in 1981.
I would love to boldly state that the time span of over thirty years gave us women some time to get a grip on reality and take over our own pumpkin coaches. I think that social media has played a huge role in raising awareness and fostering women rights’ movements. Platforms like Instagram or Twitter help to share daily affirmations to embrace women’s independence and diverse living situations.
However, Cosmopolitan also existed in the eighties and according to Dowling, the feminist affirmations were similar to the ones that are propelled on Instagram today, which spread the credo: “I can be sexy and successful at the same time” (Dowling 175).
Does this mean that in 2018, women’s fear of independence is still looming at the back of our minds?
Such an observation is certainly shocking, to say the least. Of course, I wanted to find some proof AGAINST this rather sad conclusion and I raced through Dowling’s book for evidence that women are at least less inclined to depend on external forces.
- Women communicate tentatively
One big point of evidence that the Cinderella Complex is still part of women is the way we communicate:
“communication in general is difficult for women whose self-esteem is low and who harbour an inner wish to be taken care of. Some women get confused, forget what they wanted to say, can’t find the right word, can’t look people in the eye. Or they blush, or stutter, or find their voices getting quavery. Or they have trouble sustaining the line of an argument the moment someone disagrees with them. They may become flustered and tearful- especially if it’s a man doing the disagreeing.”
Moreover, women’s speech is tentative, they often end their sentences with questions or in questioning intonations that express some hesitance. And indeed, when I closely pay attention to the way I communicate, I notice that I often end my sentences in questions, with some hesitance in my voice. It’s a terrible thing to notice and it even diminishes my credibility. Of course, I don’t want to come across as over-confident or rude, which in my opinion also expresses uncertainty, but still, if I have something important to say then I don’t want to question it before I have even fully expressed it.
- Women don’t take credit for their accomplishments
Another symptom of the Cinderella Complex is that we fail to take credit for our accomplishments. Dowling says that women tend to negate their success, but when it comes to failure, they “leap at the opportunity to take responsibility for” it (188). If I look at the women around me, myself partly included, I often observe that it’s almost shameful to talk about your success. It’s either a source for jealousy or it’s just not worth discussing- almost taken as granted that you should succeed. Also the way we measure success has become highly problematic.
- Tearing their partners down
A final symptom that I think still applies to today is the ambivalent state of women in relationships: there is the tendency to either subordinate oneself to their partner, portray oneself as smaller than the partner OR to tear them down by complaining about the clichéd behaviour of one’s partner. This rant of complaints take place on a superficial level and does not force women out of their “girlish disillusionment” to take action (144).
And still, I think that we have at least improved in some ways. If anything, we stay away from big generalizing claims today, like the one made by Dowling in her book.
Yes, a lot of these signs of behaviour are still present in women today. But I think that on the one hand, it is a bit discrediting women and putting down their rich inner lives. Also dependency in itself needs a clearer definition in my mind, for some women might feel dependent on their partner if they stay at home and look after the kids, yet on the other hand, other women might feel independent from some other pressuring expectations. Especially today, a strand of belief tends to applaud women who choose career over family and pity the ones that don’t- which again, is not the right way to go.
Reclaim your independence by listening to your gut!
I think that Dowling’s own conclusion is a great starting point to conceive of our inner Cinderella. Dowling writes that freedom and independence should be developed from within. This can only happen for women, but also for men if we pay close attention to ourselves- or as Dowling puts it: “by leaving no stone unturned in examining your motives, your attitude, your ways of thinking about things” (196).
If you feel the urge to paint, even though you’ve never painted in your whole life- why go ahead take out that brush, colour and paint! If you feel like dancing even though you’ve come to believe that you can’t even hold your balance while tying your shoe laces- screw that mindset and start dancing. It’s important to shut off from time to time what those around you scream, deem or believe you should be doing- whether that be your Instagram feed, society around you or your step-mother and step-sisters.
And if you want to turn a pumpkin into a coach, well it’s always worth trying– who knows, your independence might even help you to defy science.