Fetishism in Cinderella and the Impotence of Prince Charming

October 15, 2016

Written by Cara Burgio


X-ray of bound feet, China. (Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons License)

“Foot and shoe fetishism is widely believed to be the commonest type of fetishism existing today” claims sexologist Paul Gebhard in his article ‘Fetishism and Sadomasochism’ [Sex Research: Studies from the Kinsey Institute]. Despite being the most common sexual fetish of the body podophilia is still met with revulsion and unease by most. The history of the foot fetish can be traced back to 9th century China and the practice of chánzú, more commonly known as foot-binding. Considered a form of female oppression by Western cultures, the Chinese believed this ‘mutilation’ to be a source of rectitude and held those women with bound feet in the highest esteem. The narrowing of the feet through the process of pressing the four little toes under the ball of the foot and moving the heel forward, breaking bones so that the arch formed a high curve and created a deep cleft in the sole of the foot, gave the effect of a high-heeled shoe. Their tiny feet were a sign of beauty and femininity, reflected in the small delicate (and crippling) movements with which these women would walk. The erotic ideal was termed the “Golden Lotus”, a mere size of 3 inches.

Whilst aspects of the Cinderella narrative can be traced back to Ancient Greece, the closest version of the story has been attributed to the Chinese tale of Ye Xian (c. 890AD) where a young woman loses her golden slipper during a New Years festival. The slipper is then found by the King, who is so roused by the contours of the especially tiny slipper that he falls in love (with it) and claims he will marry its wearer. The story places great emphasis on the size of the foot, the implication being that Ye Xian has been through the process of foot-binding to an extent that her foot is extraordinarily small. The small gold shoe itself is enough to create desire in the heart of the King, and he is so overcome by his instinct that he proclaims he will marry the woman to whom the shoe belongs before he has ever met her. It is transparent that the source of his passion is a libidinal fascination with feet.

The traditional story of Cinderella as it is widely known today, was published for the first time by Charles Perrault in 1697. In this adaptation the Prince decides to hold a ball over the course of two nights, in which he invites all the women from across the land to attend and vie for his affection. The golden slipper is substituted for a glass shoe, and rather than send his officers out to find her, the Prince himself sets out on a journey to fit the glass shoe on the foot of every maiden until he has found Cinderella. The other well-known version of the tale is the Brothers Grimm adaptation, published in 1812. The most notable difference in this appropriation is the return to a golden slipper and the inclusion of the gruesome act of both step-sisters mutilating their own feet. In both these adaptations, there is no reference to the size of Cinderella’s feet except to say that her feet are smaller than that of her step-sisters. However, like the tale of Ye Xian, the merits of feminine virtue are intrinsically tied to the value of small beautiful shoes and/or feet.

Whilst it is evident that podophilia was already widespread in eastern countries since the rise of the T’ang Dynasty (c. 618AD), the origin of its overt emergence in the west during the 18th century is widely debated. Michel Foucault in his History of Sexuality: Volume One notes the industrial revolution, with its emphasis upon sexual repression and Victorian prudishness, as the catalyst for perverse sexualities. Historians Stephen Kern [Anatomy and Desire] and Philippe Perrot [Fashioning the Bourgeoisie] both comment on the potential consequences of bourgeoisie puritanism during the early 19th century, attributing the concealment of the female body so effective that men became aroused by even the slightest sight of an ankle. Kern remarks that “the high incidence at this time of fetishes involving shoes and stockings further testifies to the exaggerated eroticism generated by the hiding of the lower half of the body”, whilst Perrot adds that “in the 19th century, female bosoms and behinds were emphasized, but legs were completely hidden, distilling into the lacey foam of underwear an erotic capital, the returns of which could be gauged by the cult of the calf and the arousal caused by the glimpse of an ankle”. These accounts are inherently flawed and misleading with full length skirts being a part of fashion for centuries. A more logical approach might be to accredit the emergence of the foot/shoe fetish with the spreading commercialization of sexuality due to the industrial revolution that united dense and diverse populations of people together, resulting in attitudes towards sex and sexuality becoming lax and generalized. Regardless, the fetishisation of feet and the shoe became markedly overt during this period – by no means the implication being that it did not exist prior to this time.


Black Patent Leather Fetish Shoes 1973. These shoes have a 7-inch stiletto heel and are a size 11. (Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons License)

The sexual symbolism of the shoe and the foot transverses across all cultures. As a fetish object, both possess bisexual qualities. The shoe itself can function as a phallic substitute, whilst a phallic foot being inserted connotes intercourse. With the foot, a pointed big toe can also be a phallic substitute, a high-arching cleft a yonic symbol (both functions greatly accentuated in the practice of chánzú). The fetishist can engage with the foot in two ways, as an exercise in sexual arousal or as an element of the aesthetically pleasing; however, the emphasis of both is that beauty is deeply connected with the foot. As Valorie Steele points out, “some fetishists worship feet and shoes [while] others want to punish them by forcing them into shoes that are beautiful but also painful and crippling” [Fetishism: Fashion, Sex and Power]. The characteristics of the shoe make it easy to associate with female desirability. Accentuated by high-heels, the shoe corrects a woman’s posture, creating tension in the lower half of the body which emphasizes the hips, buttocks and calves, simultaneously arching the back and elongating the legs. The association of the high-heeled shoe in contemporary society with promiscuity and prostitution automatically positions the woman as a sexual object.

Research into sexual fantasies reveals striking gender differences, with the arousal of men placing greater emphasis on the visual. The nature of a ‘fetish’ has been bound by psychoanalysis to phallic symbolism and male castration anxieties. The first theorist to formally document the nature of perverse sexualities was Richard Krafft-Ebing in his work Psychopathia Sexualis in 1886 who described fetishism as “the association of lust with the idea of certain portions of the person, or with certain articles of female attire”. Here he describes sexual desire as belonging to the object, not the person to whom the object is attached. As evident in the tale of Ye Xian, the King has no regard for any other features of the woman except for her shoe and its partnered foot. Freud believes the fetish to be a substitute for the phallus,  more specifically “for the woman’s phallus that the little boy once believed in and… does not want to give up” [Fetishism]. The woman represents for the male the threat of castration, and so the man must provide his partner with a substitute to act as protection against this threat. The fetish object, needed for arousal, can be embodied by anything – a piece of clothing, a specific part of the body, or the female sexual partner herself. Steele further contributes to the idea of the male fetish, claiming that performance anxiety explains why fetishism is so prevalent in male fantasies – a man’s impotence is harder to conceal, therefore he uses the fetish to create his own reality, to create his own eroticised space of power and control which he then uses to transcend reality. (She punctuates her story with an account of a man who could not have sex with his wife unless he hid a pair of boots in the bed.)


Disney’s Prince Charming and Cinderella. (Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons License)

The significance of the Cinderella stories is twofold: 1) the femininity and merit of Cinderella is tied to her feet and, 2) the desire of Prince Charming is libidinally bound to them. Cinderella is a woman who has been subjugated by her family, whose only virtue has been hidden inside of a pair of shoes. Her small and beautiful (we assume) feet are established as the signifier of all other qualities, such as honesty, discipline and kindness. They are the only article of clothing that does not either disappear or disintegrate after midnight. They allow the Prince to recognize her as a desirable partner and sub-sequentially free her from her life of servitude and elevate her from house servant to queen, a position that is suited to her nature as indicated by her delicate feet.  As Hilary Radner points out in Free Enterprise and the Marriage Plot, narratives in the 18th-19th century emphasized virtue as being the best quality in a wife, whereas the tales of Cinderella “return us to a feminine model in which appearance is again fundamental” in which the foot plays the role of entire female body. In the tale told by the Brothers Grimm, the step-sisters were “girls who were beautiful and fair of face, but vile and black of heart”. There is no mention of physically unattractive feet except to say that their feet were larger than that of Cinderella. So desperate were these women to prove that they were good ‘marriage stock’, that one willingly chops of her toes while the other removes a portion of her heel so that they fit into Cinderella’s lost shoe. The shoe indicates the ideal standard to which a female should be held, her moral virtue and sexual attractiveness, and those who are “black of heart” have no hope of ever achieving this, signified by their large, bloodied and disfigured feet.

Not only does the tale of Cinderella fetishise feet by placing aesthetic value upon them, but for Prince Charming the foot and the shoe are a sexual fetish, objects of desire represented through visual means. The significance of Perrault’s glass slipper should not be so readily dismissed, for the nature of the material is significant to the construction of Prince Charming’s libidinal nature. The glass shoe, not only restricts the movement of its wearer, but encourages voyeuristic behavior. The appearance of Cinderella’s foot is coded for strong visual and erotic impact. She is transformed through the scopophilic male gaze into a sexual icon, her foot displayed for the enjoyment of men. Prince Charming is a man who could have any woman in the kingdom. His inability to find a wife may be indicative of a problem he has with the female sex which would aptly explain his fetishistic disposition and penchant for shoes and/or feet. Out of all the women, he chooses the one whose femininity is expressed in terms of a shoe, the threat of her sex replaced by a fetishised object. The extent of Prince Charming’s sexual quandaries is present in the nature of the narrative itself. It is he who embarks on a quest across the land, trying the shoe on the foot of every maiden he finds and thereby handling their feet, the lowly nature of the foot itself allowing him to avert himself from the threat of their female look. As David Fisher speculates, “the search for the owner of the improbable glass slipper was a con job, a ruse to let the Prince indulge his foot fetish by fondling as many women’s feet as possible” [Legally Correct Fairy Tales]. Logically, the chances were some of these women had a similar sized foot to Cinderella so the attention then becomes directed to the foot itself, a specific foot with which Prince Charming is libidinally fixated upon. This object holds the investment of his erotic power, that is, the manifestation of his desire that would set him free from the threat of his own impotence and affirm the woman, Cinderella, as his sexual object – happily ever after.


Cara Burgio is the Media Officer at Trinity College. Her interests include horror, muay thai and heavy metal. Her Masters thesis focused on Italian Arthouse and American Exploitation cinema of the 1960s and 70s and explored the affinity between sadomasochistic sexualities and Fascist power.



One Response to “Fetishism in Cinderella and the Impotence of Prince Charming”

  1. […] beach read: Anti-Social Personality Disorder in commercial fiction by Susan Karpasitis and Fetishism in Cinderella and the Impotence of Prince Charming by Cara Burgio, who respectively consider emergent psycho-literary approaches to texts that address […]

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