Once upon a time there was a young woman with two simply awful step sisters and one even more awful step mother. It was an awful experience for this young woman to live with these awful people, and one day these awful people went to a not-awful ball without the girl. How awful! Suddenly, however, a not-awful fairy godmother appeared and gave the girl an incredibly not-awful dress and and even more not-awful shoes. The girl then left her awful home to go to the not-awful ball, and soon found herself dancing with the very not-awful prince. Awful and not-awful stuff happened in the time after the not-awful ball, and eventually the not-awful girl married the not-awful prince and they lived a not-awful ever after.
If you don’t recognize this story I’ve told, I’m disappointed in you. If you do recognize it, then you would be able to tell me that it is the story of Cinderella and her rise from poverty. Now consider the fact that you have never heard the story of Cinderella told in the way in which I told it. It is likely that you’ve seen the Disney film Cinderella, and possibly its sequels, or perhaps you’ve seen the musical by the same name created by Rodgers and Hammerstein, either on stage or as a film. A search for the term “Cinderella” on IMDB pulls up 200 results of media relating to the fairytale, and a simple Google search shows 136,000,000 results.
This, my friends, is a rather dashing example of rhetoric as an ecology. The tale of Cinderella was first documented in 800’s AD China, and told the story of a young girl who received wishes from a 10 foot golden fish. Variations of the story have been found across Asian, Middle Eastern, and European countries, each incorporating their own culture into the story. Most recently we saw the release of Disney’s 2015 live action film Cinderella, portraying beautiful gowns, glass slippers, and a fairy godmother, clearly portraying a far different interpretation of the tale than was created 1200 years prior.
Within those 1200 years, then, we saw the development of hundreds of thousands of variations of the fairytale. The story was documented, translated, illustrated, performed, acted out, sung out, and referenced, each time by an individual who experienced it unlike anyone else.
Try writing out the story of Cinderella yourself and see what happens.
What influences your portrayal of the protagonist? Did you use a specific style of writing? How long or short was it? Perhaps you played around with gender, sexuality, race, location, or slang. Your portrayal of this fairytale is something new and exciting, something founded in old and shaped by your experiences. Now you can be Google search number 136,000,001.
This is what Jenny Edbauer refers to when she suggests the term “rhetorical ecology” to help define rhetoric. Rhetoric, in Edbauer’s mind, is something of a shape-shifter, changing based on the influences around it. The fairytale, in the context of a rhet
orical ecology, becomes more than just a story. The tale of Cinderella becomes something of a state in which an individual not only reads the story, but is part of the 1200 year old conversation regarding the story. Think of it as Cinderelling, or to Cinderella, the process of reading, writing, performing, ext, being involved with the story of Cinderella. Every instance of it shapes the ecology of the story and your experience with it. Rodgers and Hammerstein heard this story and decided to create a musical from it. Julie Andrews brought the character of Cinderella to life in a TV movie musical production. My High School show choir preformed a piece from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella as part of our opening number. My mom loved our show and the costumes we used. each of these examples took place within the rhetoric revolving around the tale of Cinderella, each shaped by varying influences.