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.