Don't Use The Term "Cinderella Story" During The NCAA Championship. Here's Why.
The world of sports has a long list of phrases used to describe teams' and athletes' performances, and though some are catchy and cute, others have sexist implications that can't be ignored. March Madness, one of the biggest and most-watched tournaments in the country, kicked off Thursday, which is why it's important to check your sports fever. Just like many everyday sayings, some sports phrases inadvertently promote harmful stereotypes and ideals about women. Which is why you shouldn't use the term "Cinderella story" during March Madness.
In sports, a "Cinderella story" describes a low-ranking team that suddenly and surprisingly performs exceptionally well — essentially, it's the story of an underdog prevailing against all the odds. As a lesser team starts winning and working its way up the ladder, commentators often play on the Cinderella idea, speculating about whether the team will eventually fail and "turn into a pumpkin." (It can't go unsaid that in the fairy tale, Cinderella's carriage turns into a pumpkin — not her — so that phrase doesn't actually make sense). When a rising team's unexpected run does end, it's apparently "struck midnight." In case you didn't notice, every negative situation is described with references to the fairy tale.
The term became common in 1950, the year the Disney movie was released and City College of New York surprised the nation by winning the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship. The team's notoriety was later diminished when seven of its players were named in the nationwide point-shaving scandal the next year, but the term stuck around nonetheless.
According to The Washington Post, this year's March Madness already has a number of potential Cinderellas-in-waiting: Stephen F. Austin, Hawaii, Arkansas Little-Rock, and Virginia Commonwealth. "We love underdogs," The Post's Matthew Giles writes. "Every March Madness, we fall in love with the Cinderella story, the school with a paltry recruiting budget or that lacks the history of the Division I bluebloods that shocks the field and starts a run towards the Final Four." He isn't wrong, but the fairy tale language is problematic.
First of all, the term "Cinderella story" evokes images of the quintessential damsel in distress who magically becomes a beautiful princess, pulled out of poverty and oppression by a handsome male savior. Don't get me wrong, I'll watch Disney's Cinderella or Hilary Duff's A Cinderella Story any day of the week. But don't think that these princess peril stories should be used to describe poor sports performance.
Of course, it isn't basketball's fault that this stereotype exists or is played out in the fairy tale, but the sport doesn't need to perpetuate it. The main problem with the appropriation of the phrase is that it equates a bad team or player with a helpless young woman, similarly to saying that a baseball or football player "throws like a girl." Not only was Cinderella's situation not her fault — while a basketball team's performance is mostly within the players' and coaches' control — but the phrase also classifies anything as weak or inferior as female. It's incredibly sexist to call an underdog team "Cinderella," whether they succeed in the end or not.
If the term's anti-feminist implications aren't enough to convince you to stop using it, you should also consider how it downplays the basketball players' successes as well. With the wave of her wand, Cinderella's fairy godmother does her house chores, gives her a stunning gown, and helps her catch the attention of the prince. Calling a team a "Cinderella story," implies it won because of luck or magic, not its own skill.
Cinderellas in sports can easily be referred to as "underdogs," a term that offends no one (except maybe dogs). Perpetuating these images of damsels in distress who can't do anything for themselves and equating bad athletes with women shouldn't be a part of March Madness. Let's close the book on this horrible fairy tale term.