This article is part of a series looking at Disney princess movies, from the first to the latest, to see whether they are as “anti-feminist” as some might claim.

  • Bechdel pass: Yes
  • Number of female characters: 5, plus mice.
  • Female characters’ goals: to be happy; to marry the prince; to marry her daughters to the prince.
  • Lesson: Believe in your dreams, and they will come true.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed watching Cinderella. It is a traditional fairy tale, made in the early 1950s, and so it is hardly a tale of female rebellion and independence. But not every worthwhile female character has to be Mulan, and despite her traditionalism, Cinderella has many strengths of her own.

Cinderella is not the world’s most defiant character, but she does have personality. She dreams of the day when she will be happy and free, and although she quietly takes the abuse of her family, she’s also got a bit of feist and a sense of humor, as she tells off the cat Lucifer, tricks and plays with the mice, and shouts at the clock for ordering her about like everybody else.

She is not the willing martyr — she will argue for her right to go to the ball, and when the dream is torn from her, she does not simply shrug and sigh, but breaks down. Not because tears are weak and feminine, but because no-one could face that kind of abuse without giving up hope once in a while. She dreams of happiness, but she isn’t wishing that a handsome prince will sweep in and save her. She doesn’t even realize that her new true love is the prince until quite late in the story.

Of course, her love with the prince is based entirely on one glance, but at least, unlike Snow White, she actually speaks to him and spends some time with him onscreen during the musical montage where they fall for each other. It’s fairy-tale-esque, unrealistic, but not bad.

If anything, the villains are the ones dreaming of their prince. Cinderella’s step sisters, Anastasia and Driselle, will stop at nothing to ensnare a powerful husband, and their mother, in her cruel, calculating way, is determined to further the interests of her own daughters at Cinderella’s expense. Like in Snow White, we have a stepmother who is jealous of her step-daughter’s “charm and beauty,” but she is mostly concerned for the relative position of her daughters, rather than determined that she should get the attention.

But Cinderella’s dreams are also sadly undefined. We learn, in her very first scene, that Cinderella is a dreamer, and that she believes that if you have faith in your dreams, no matter how desperate things seem, they will come true. I don’t think this is a bad message for a movie to have, although a little less fairy tale passivity would be good. But we never learn what Cinderella’s dreams of happiness actually look like. What is her goal? Where does she go when she is asleep? The lack of a defined goal does work on some levels: she wants to be happy, but without a family or friends, what does that even look like? And as viewers, we can sympathize with her and her message more easily if we can decide what that dream may look like. But it also means that she is less developed as a character. Just as her step-sisters are fairly shallow characters, and her step-mother is chillingly horrible, but lacks any emotional depth, Cinderella is a dreamer, without any depth to her dream.

There are many things in the movie that don’t quite make sense. Is Cinderella the only girl in the kingdom with that shoesize? Why does everyone at the ball act like she is positively forbidden from going home EVER? The mice are more than a little annoying, and Cinderella does little for herself, and is mostly just beautiful and hardworking and kind.

But there’s nothing wrong with being hardworking and kind. There’s nothing wrong with a traditional fairy tale about an abused girl who dreams of happiness, remains a lovely human being despite the horrid people she lives with, and then finds true love. Not everything has to be swords and battles.

Cinderella is a traditional Disney princess figure. But traditional, it seems, doesn’t have to mean shallow or weak. It just means stereotypically feminine.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

05 comments on “Cinderella

  • dothatvoodoo , Direct link to comment

    Have you watched the Cinderella sequel? I watched it a few years back and I don’t remember details, but I think they did a fair job of humanizing one of the stepsisters and just fleshing out the protagonists’ characters better. Please consider including the sequel in your examination of Disney feminism!

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      I’ve never seen any of the Disney sequels! I’ll definitely have to check it out. Perhaps I’ll do a big watch of them once I’ve finished with the originals…

      • Laura , Direct link to comment

        In the sequel Cinderella definitely becomes a more active character, and her evil step sister becomes more human and understandable, and even develops a positive relationship with Cinderella. I often wonder if those changes were made because the film was released in 2002, and created for an audience that wouldn’t accept a stereotypical feminine Disney princess in the way a 1950 audience would. Though I agree there’s nothing wrong with that I like that she becomes more developed in the sequel. The falling in love with a glance thing was the only thing that still annoys me from the original.

        A lot of Disney sequels “modernize” the princesses in a way that makes me think they view traditionally feminine as wrong. Except Mulan, Mulan 2 changes her to become more stereotypical feminine.

  • Sparky , Direct link to comment

    This isn’t a critique of Cinderella but rather of the militant feminist attitude towards it. Through such books as “The Paper Bag Princess”, the feminist movement has sought to use the story of Cinderella to push a distinct and somewhat unjustified attack on men; basically that if Cinderella was an empowered woman she would have no need for Prince Charming, who feminists perceive as a shallow man with no qualities beyond wealth and physique, nor would she need to be “rescued”.

    Now, setting the empowerment issue aside because it’s complicated, this assessment of the prince is unfair, and in its own way, chauvinist. We know nothing of the prince as a person; he might be an intelligent, just, progressive person who’s well liked by his troops and just really bad at dating. Or he might be a complete tyrant. We just don’t know, because he’s a blank slate beyond the fact that he finds Cinderella head-over-heels attractive.

    Even after the marriage he’s still a blank slate. It’s Cinderella’s name on the castle on the maps at disney, not his. He’s an accessory to the story and an accessory to his wife’s life.

    • dothatvoodoo , Direct link to comment

      I’m not sure where you’re getting the “militant feminist” attitude from, or where you’re seeing the attack on men (in Disney’s Cinderella at least; I’m unfamiliar with The Paper Bag Princess). The prince’s character might be less well-developed, but he is still presented as a positive character as someone who was willing to go to great lengths to find the girl he fell in love with at the ball even though he only spent a few hours with her.

      Um, and yes, it would be Cinderella’s name written in on the maps of Disney because it’s HER story everyone is familiar with. That is a consequence of him being a supporting character in Cinderella’s story told in her perspective. In pretty every much every movie (not just cartoons) that doesn’t have a female lead, every woman is reduced to this kind of one-dimensional role. She is the “prize” to be won by the man who probably had to rescue her too. People would complain that her character was too annoying or too boring (or that she was just a “blank slate”), but they would shrug because, hey, the male lead needs to be rewarded with a girl. These girls are always seen as the “accessory.”

      So…. I guess your complaint is that the prince isn’t the main character of the Disney movie, Cinderella? Oops, pardon my militant feminist attitude.

What do you think?

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