Note: I was never fully satisfied with the way this piece turned out, so I re-wrote it in a way that better encapsulates my feelings, click here to read that article!
Guys. It’s no secret. I’m a capital F Feminist.
Friendly reminder that feminism means economic, social, and political equality of the sexes and doesn’t involve humorless man-haters who think males should be kept underground and used only for breeding purposes like Time Magazine would have you believe. But I digress.
I also love Disney. That one should also be obvious. I mean, I have a blog about it.
So when I watch the original princess movies, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, etc, I get a little angsty at the anti-feminist messages the movies portray. As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve come to appreciate the benefits and occasional positive lessons to be learned from these movies as long as they’re given the proper context by the parents who introduce them. I’ve even come to genuinely like Snow White.
But there is one princess who defies salvation. Nothing can pardon her egregious sins against the cause for true equality of the sexes. Dat bitch?
That’s right. Everybody’s favorite runaway bride is number one on my animated hit list.
Why on earth do you hate Cinderella? Is it because she needed a man to solve her problems?
Well, no. I mean, I’m not thrilled about that part, but there’s nothing wrong with finding a romantic partner, falling in love, and starting a life with them. And we’re talking fairy tales; princes and princesses are part of the territory. Plus, Cinderella’s goal wasn’t to marry a prince. She just wanted to go to a party. She happened to meet a man and fall in love at that party. Conveniently and rather quickly, but we’re dealing with a 90 minute medium here.
So is it the whole “If you dream hard enough your wishes will come true without any effort on your part” trope?
Again, not my favorite. In fact, I think Starkid summarized that problem so succinctly and beautifully in their Aladdin parody Twisted that I’ll just let them do most of the talking for me on that point.
And that is an awful message. Definitely. But we had Princess and the Frog to confront the problems of that trope, while also pointing out that the message does have the benefit of, well, hope. Why wasn’t that movie more popular again?
So what’s your big beef with Cindypants, then?
My problem with Cinderella is that this adaptation sends the horrifying message that it is best to accept abuse and unjust treatment with a smile. And if you do, the universe will reward you.
Let me explain.
Throughout the movie her stepfamily orders her around, insults her, psychologically tortures her with promises of rewards they never intend to fulfill, and at one point even physically assaults her.
Cinderella is in a terrible living situation. She is most certainly a victim of domestic emotional abuse. Yet the movie depicts her as handling this abuse with an almost cheerful acquiescence. Sure, there is something to be admired in carrying yourself with dignity in the face of tribulation, but the effortlessness with which Cinderella is depicted as doing so, to me, sends a dangerous message. “If Cinderella is happy doing everything she is told at the expense of her own self, am I so unhappy? What am I doing wrong?”
It furthers that despicable narrative of victim blaming. That if you are unable to break free of your situation, that it is your fault, and not the abusers. If Cinderella existed in the real world, I wouldn’t hate her. But, needless to say, she does not. She is a creation from other people. And that creations teaches children that allowing people to treat you like dirt is an exemplary quality.
“Don’t fight back,” this movie seems to say. Cinderella didn’t fight back. She just sang to herself and dreamed for more with a smile on her face, and in the end, she was given everything she wanted.
What’s wrong with altruism? Do you just hate nice people or something?
Being kind to other people is a good thing. But to be truly kind you must also be kind to yourself. Cinderella is never ever kind to herself. And I don’t think that’s something we should glorify.
When you get down to it, Cinderella isn’t really as much a nice person as she is a passive person. Except for in dealings with the animal kingdom where she has almost complete dominion, she does nothing to further her own cause. The duke has to knock down her door and a hundred talking rodents have to bust her loose for her to actually leave her house. Hell, to even get her to a party a mythical entity had to conjure a magical pumpkin carriage and sparkly dress to physically take her.
Again, this might be fine if the movie depicted her as a battered woman who needed help. But they didn’t. She’s portrayed as the perfect woman. Unlike her stupid, ugly stepsisters with terrible voices, Cinderella is unnaturally beautiful, remarkably poised, has a perfect singing voice, and all (men) who meet her instantly fall in love with her. Except, of course, her hideous stepfamily who was just super jealous of Tindrella. Don’t even get me started on the problematic all-women-are-in-competition-with-each-other-and-the-prettier-you-are-the-more-value-you-have message that sends.
Cinderella is too good. She is an unrealistic ideal no person can live up to. As is the means from which she goes from rags to riches. And those who try often do so at their own detriment.
And in case you think I’m reading too much into “a kid’s cartoon,” you don’t have to look far to see how deeply this idea is ingrained in our society’s consciousness. Just look at how the media reacted to all the #blacklivesmatter protests (where there seemed to be more concern for broken windows than murdered teens), or the victim blaming that happens in cases of domestic abuse (“Why didn’t Ray Rice’s wife just leave him?” the pundits asked). This movie, that almost every person sees at some point in the formative years of their lives, enforces the scary but pervasive idea that this is the ideal of what women should be: docile, obedient, uncomplaining, and altruistic. And we only have to look at Gamergate to see how men react when women defy this paradigm and speak out for themselves.
You have to remember the time period. What was she supposed to do?
We have fairy godmothers and talking rodents. Are we really worried about realism here? We couldn’t conjure up some magic spell to help her get the hell out of there using her own agency? She couldn’t become a glass slipper vendor? Maybe the magic shoes gave her the confidence she needed to leave her stepfamily’s house and get a job as a servant in a kinder household. Hell, with that pretty face? She could have become a tavern wench and made a killing in tips. Or take that sweet little voice of hers and become an entertainer at the royal court. The girl had options, is all I’m saying. She chose not to take them.
Jokes aside, I do realize that in the case of domestic abuse, “just leaving” isn’t so simple. But that’s not what the movie highlighted. It said that women who are good and don’t fight anyone or for anything will get their due reward and all those who were mean to her will be punished.
Sorry, that just isn’t how life works. And that’s not a message that will arm your kids for the future. There will be no fairy godmother to fight against the patriarchy or other institutions of privilege for them. We want them to learn not only to fight for themselves, but also to understand other people’s right to do the same, and not feel threatened when the status quo has to be shaken so people can fight against unjust and abusive situations.
Other film adaptations of Cinderella have done better in this regard. The 1997 Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella showed the eternally fabulous Whitney Houston encouraging Cinderella to act for herself and leave her abusive home. When the prince came knocking on the door, Brandyrella was already packing her suitcase.
Sondheim’s Into the Woods also depicts a Cinderella whose indecision is not glorified, but is an obstacle she must overcome. It also shows how she suffers from her mother’s parting words to “always be good and kind” — in a verse that was conveniently omitted from Disney’s recent film adaption.
So if you need your magic slipper fix, there are many, less problematic alternatives. As for Kenneth Branagh’s upcoming live action adaptation? Well, we’ll just have to stay tuned on that one. But the trailers aren’t leaving me too hopeful. Update: I didn’t ever see the movie, because I was informed it was basically the same movie except without the animation or the music, which were the only two things I actually liked about the original. But this article (which is basically this article but written much, much better…do I get props for writing it first? No? Okay that’s cool.) speaks well to the live action’s own issues with the same poisonous idea.
So forget the glass slippers, lace up your running shoes, and gets as far away from this movie as possible.
But, I must say. Although I hate Disney’s Cinderella…I will always love her castle.
Gotta get me one of those.