Analysis: Is there a feminist interpretation of “Cinderella”?

Cinderella has generally received good reviews (currently at 84% on Rotten Tomatoes), but it’s had its fair share of detractors, particularly when it comes to how the film relates to feminism.  I consider myself a feminist, as equality for women is one of my core beliefs and goals, so I’ve found myself in the week after seeing Cinderella asking a question: “Is there a feminist interpretation of Cinderella?”  Many people probably already have an answer to that question, formed without having seen the movie.  Some will answer, “No, of course there isn’t,” as everyone knows the story and most of us have seen the 1950 Disney animated version and can base an opinion from that.  Others will answer, “Who cares?” either because they’re not interested in feminism, or they actually dislike feminist ideas entirely.  This article isn’t for them, but it’s for people like me, who passionately support feminism but who also loved Cinderella.  The question is whether we can reconcile these two, seemingly mutually exclusive, views.

Disney has (or at least had) a reputation for problematic portrayals of women in its early animated films.  Its three main “princess movies” up until the Disney Renaissance were Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, and it’s easy to see the objections to these movies.  The women in these movies are the protagonists of the films, yet they’re oddly passive throughout the movies.  All three are defined by their beauty, they dream of being rescued by a prince, two of them spend portions of the movie asleep waiting to be kissed and two spend a good portion of their time doing housework.  Disney has done some work rebranding these characters, with Snow White now an outlaw, a fighter, and a leader on Once Upon a Time and Maleficent flipping the script on Sleeping Beauty by making the “evil” faerie the protagonist, but this new version of Cinderella keeps to the traditional story, hitting all of the familiar beats from the 1950 version.

As with any movie, some things are open to interpretation, and if you go into it looking to see something specific, it’s easy to interpret things to fit that point of view.  To some, Cinderella will always be a girl who stayed with her abusive family for no reason other than because that’s what the writers think women should do.  She is rescued by a prince because she can’t rescue herself, and only when she makes herself beautiful enough to get his attention, with the prettiest of clothes of course.  Her defining characteristics are her submissiveness and her beauty, two things that would make her attractive to your typical prince.  Add in the vain, prince-obsessed sisters and the stereotypical evil stepmother and it’s the sort of movie that will set women back to the 1950s.

However, I came out of the film with a different take on the film.  Ella stays with her stepfamily for several reasons, the first of which is her promise to her parents to look after their family home, where they shared all of their happy times.  Add in the fact that the emotional abuse heaped upon her by her new “family” happens gradually over a stretch of time, and the reality that she had nowhere else to go, and you have a situation where we’re able to understand why she stayed.  She never dreams of being swept away by a prince, and when she first falls for the prince he introduces himself as a mere apprentice in the palace named Kit.  When her stepsisters want to go to the ball to win the prince’s hand and the fame and fortune that go with it, she only wants to see the nice boy she met.  She is certainly beautiful (and I would never defend the corset she wears to give her an insanely tiny waist), but it’s never her main characteristic.

“Have courage and be kind” are the words Ella lives by, encouraged by her mother, and courage and kindness are truly what define her.  There are many types of courage in the world, and they’re not all as obvious as others.  Ella never fights with her stepmother, never hits them, never walks away, but she shows courage in other ways.  It takes courage for her to stay in her home in spite of the abuse she faces, it takes courage for her to sew a dress in secret so that she might go to the ball all while knowing her stepmother would never allow it, but most of all it takes courage to be kind.

Several articles I’ve read have compared this version of Cinderella to the one we saw just a few months ago in Into the Woods.  That Cinderella sings about how her mother told her to be nice and good, giving those as the reasons she continues to be a slave to her stepfamily.  Later in the musical, the Witch criticizes the heroes for being so nice, which she distinguishes from being good or bad, insisting that she, by comparison, is neither nice nor good but is right.  In many circles “niceness” and “goodness” are equated to politeness, submissiveness, being “well behaved” and letting people walk all over you.  One article, in fact, arguing against Cinderella from a feminist standpoint, said that Ella was so submissive in the film that even the author of the article would have taken advantage of her.  The critical point in this version of Cinderella is the difference between “nice,” “good,” and “kind.”

Goodness and niceness are terms colored by the idea of doing what’s expected of you.  A good child eats all of his peas at dinner or picks up their toys when they are done playing.  A nice child says please and thank you and shares their toys with their playmates.  Kindness is something different entirely.  Kindness is something that comes from within, and it has an empathetic quality.  In Cinderella, Ella shows kindness by feeding and protecting the four mice who hang around her house, or by standing up to Kit and his team of hunters who want to kill an innocent elk.  Kindness is a quality that is rarely rewarded in the real world, and it often takes a great deal of courage to look outside of yourself and be kind to others.  Our world generally does its best to stamp kindness out of people, and certainly no one could have faulted Ella for losing hers and becoming indifferent (the opposite of kind) given the abuse she faces at the hands of her stepfamily.

But Ella hangs onto her kindness and is rewarded for it.  Literally, she is tested by the Fairy Godmother (in disguise as a beggar) before Ella gets any gifts from her.  It’s at Ella’s lowest moment, when her stepfamily has just ripped her mother’s dress, which Ella worked long hours to fix up, in order to stop Ella from going to the ball.  Yet even at her lowest moment, she still goes out of her way to get a beggar a cup of water.  That’s not niceness or goodness, it’s kindness.  And yes, she is rewarded for it, with the opportunity to have the night of a lifetime at the ball.  If the concern over the film is the message it teaches children, I don’t have a problem with the supporting idea that kindness is worthwhile and can lead to happiness.

So that leads us back to my initial question: Is there a feminist interpretation of Cinderella.  The answer to that is probably no, because there’s nothing overtly feminist about Cinderella.  Sure, Ella faces and overcomes a type of emotional abuse that’s specific to her gender, but Cinderella isn’t out to preach feminist ideals.  And that’s ok.  Each and every film has a responsibility with regards to its portrayal of women (and minorities, and members of the LGBTQ community), to make the women in each film more than just a stereotype or an object but instead to make them fully fleshed-out characters treated equally to the male characters in the film.  They have a responsibility not to consciously or subconsciously contribute to our society’s negative images of women as the roles they fill instead of actual human beings.  And Cinderella does this.  Not every film needs to be the equivalent of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the show, not the movie).  It’s perfectly acceptable for a film to do nothing “wrong” (or at least very little, as no film is perfect), without requiring it to become a feminist icon.  Do I want to see more films waving the flag of feminism?  Absolutely.  But I won’t fault Cinderella for having other goals.

All of that having been said, I can’t and won’t fault people who want to interpret Cinderella as anti-feminism.  Everyone comes to a movie with their own set of viewpoints and expectations, and while it hurts me to see a generally innocent film like Cinderella vilified, I’m not going to dismiss someone’s views that easily.  I’d love for everyone to be able to experience every film with an open mind, but I know I’m not capable of that so I wouldn’t expect it of anyone else.  And if it helps the feminist cause, then go ahead and bash Cinderella.

But for those of you out there like me, who are loyal to the cause and enjoyed the movie, I believe you can rest easy, as in my opinion the two aren’t mutually exclusive.  Loving this new version of Cinderella, finding it sweet, romantic, or old-fashioned does not and should not ruin your feminist credibility.  Your beliefs and your actions are always more important than the entertainment you enjoy, but in this I feel that case supporting Cinderella is not damaging feminism, nor is it setting women back.  It’s a simple, classic tale, with interesting, fleshed-out female characters, who are more than any stereotype or a soundbite, and it has a positive message for everyone.  That’s all I can ask from any film.

11 thoughts on “Analysis: Is there a feminist interpretation of “Cinderella”?

  1. There are Disney films that I liked better (Maleficent resonates with nearly every woman I’ve talked to), and of course, all of Pixar (resonates with nearly everyone).

    But I found a lot in this film to love.

    First, there is the Pretty; pretty landscapes, pretty costumes, pretty (and diverse) people, pretty pretty horses (without the tack and anatomy goobers of the cartoon)…and the Dress to End All Dresses. I am not a dress wearer, I prefer the jeans and jodphurs and diveskins of adventure, but That Dress reminds me of something I had as a kid, something swirly and fantastic that came from a “faerie godmother” and was the stuff of dreams.

    My iconic moment in the film was that awesome scene of Cinderella galloping into the woods without saddle or bridle. I have to say more about this, because, as a horseman, I know how hard this is to accomplish. I trained my old Anglo-Arab gelding to work this way, inside a fence, not galloping into a dark forest. I was inspired by the scene in Lord of the Rings where the Riders of Rohan give horses to Aragorn and Legolas, and Legolas takes off the saddle and bridle because he has “the elvish way with all good beasts”… an ideal of anyone who works with animals.

    Cinderella is essentially the same archetype, Legolas without the bow and martial arts skills, a truly Good character who can talk to animals and get the help of the Forces of Nature. The riding into the woods scene is not merely an example of her ability to talk to animals, but a Hero Journey of its own. Horse carries her on the Journey, she trusts the power of Horse, and the wisdom of Horse, to take her where she needs to be. Her interaction with the King of the Forest (the elk), and her reaction to his defensive aggression with kindness, informs her relationship with the Prince, and changes something about the heart of the whole kingdom. The King of the Forest is like the Ragged Crone who reveals herself as the Faerie Godmother (or Powerful Sorceress in Beauty and the Beast); if you approach these Powers with kindness, you get their blessing. If you react the way the Beast Prince does in B&B, you are turned into the thing your heart already is. This galloping off on Horse, Into the Woods, was also used in Brave, Beauty and The Beast… and probably a bunch of other tales I can’t think of: in those two cases, the rider has very little control, it is Horse who is doing the driving of the plot.

    Stellan Skarsgard said something in an interview, about how difficult it is to write a truly Good character. It’s much harder to write Superman than Batman, to write Captain America than Nick Fury. Maleficent is more interesting to most people than Cinderella.

    Cinderella could be seen as the wimpy chick waiting around for the Prince to rescue her, giving up, never standing up to the wicked stepfamily.

    Or you can see her as Mother Teresa. The embodiment of an ideal of Good, and Kindness. Of the idea that if you deflect Evil with Good, eventually you win. It’s near to the Jedi ideal; calm, not aggression, no warrior princesses with big swords, no manipulation games, no tricking the evil stepsisters, humiliating the wicked stepmother… just … pure… forthright… Good. (It is also the idea at the core of several religions).

    The Powers of Nature come to your aid. The mice, the birds, the yard goose, the fence lizards, the Faerie Godmother. We see some of this same quality in Aurora in “Maleficent”. In her case, her purity, innocence, kindness, changes the heart of the wounded Faerie Godmother. It’s archetypal, it goes beyond any time or place or cultural references.

    Cinderella is not the action hero we’ve come to expect. Somehow we’ve gone from repression of women to expecting all of us to be action heroes. Action heroes are fine (I love them and spent a number of years playing D&D, doing historical recreation with broadswords, and various martial arts as well as physical challenges like horsemanship, diving, kayaking and mushing). But there is room for the heroine who uses her heart, her kindness her wisdom and her courage in a different way.

    Note that in the film, it is Cinderella who is the catalyst for change in the kingdom. Change that does not come with an apocalypse, or war or conflict, but with a change of heart, like a sunrise.

    I blorted randomly about it here: http://swordwhale.tumblr.com/post/114682080735/cinderella-some-thots

    Liked by 1 person

  2. PS: more on archetypes… I think Ella is the Maiden form of the Goddess. She is Spring, she is pure, kind, in harmony with the natural forces around her. She is helped by the Old Crone, who also becomes (in her “true” form, the Mother). The Not Mother, the Stepmother, is a mother who cannot connect with her inner Goddess, she can’t be a real mother, she is too wounded, too bitter. Like the woman who keeps Rapunzel in the tower, so as to use her maidenly regenerative power, the Stepmother is stealing the power of the Maiden, rather than use her own mature Goddess powers. In Maleficent, we see a Mother who comes back to her Goddess power through the kindness of the Maiden. Maleficent regains her power, her wings, and heals her kingdom, forming a bond with the Maiden rather than a competition.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I like the previous’s extensive knowledge of things like horses and Lord of the Rings lore. I love any tiny thing that can be used to expand the meaning or significance of something. It makes it seem smarter or just plainly more amazing.

    I loved the film probably precisely because it features a different kind of heroine. What I appreciate more than the image of an empowered woman is the acceptance of a diverse woman. I’m not opposed to the idea of a strong or tough woman, but there is the appeal of the innocent and kind woman that has lasted since the dawn of time. It doesn’t insinuate weakness, on the contrary, but it displays a different way of thinking that can apply to a number of women that do not fit or want to fit a singular role.

    In our fast-paced, growingly gender inclusive society, it’s sometimes easier to be considered feminist by showing the female characters displaying male traits such as stubbornness, strength, and leadership. The main idea of film (or TV show for that matter) quality, however, is not that women should display male qualities or that men should have female qualities such as kindness, passivity, and reason. The main idea should be an understanding that all characters can display a variety of good and bad qualities sometimes or sometimes not associated with their gender. Cinderella is not a good character in the film because she is a strong woman but because she is a character that has courage and stays kind.

    Heck, one of the things that turned me onto Agents of SHIELD are the varieties of female characters ranging from May’s strength, Simmons’ brains, and Skye’s savvy. If we stuck to a strict regiment of what constitutes as a strong woman, we would never have or appreciate what makes them all good characters: their differences and what they mean to us.

    I also liked your mentioning of “goodness” and “kindness.” One of the things that people tend to overlook when judging a character on its merits is the context and meaning that they bring to the film. Does Cinderella have to portray passivity? No, in fact in some adaptations, she doesn’t (like Ever After). But that’s not what this film is about. It is about the steadfast courage and kindness of a good woman and the good consequences she receives as a result, and that’s what makes the film stand out.

    I personally believe that we just need more films like Cinderella on all accounts. Not that all films have to depict women as innocent or kind, not that strength should come from something other than physicality, but simply films that display diverse personalities WELL. Not that the strong woman is the best, not that the kind woman is the best, but that the character shines on her own as her own.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post, and very interesting thoughts! Another one is that feminism is about creating the conditions, through equality, for both men and women to do what they want. And so if a woman wants to be passive, then she should be allowed to be passive. I think the time for princess-bashing has passed, we’re more mature than that! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I appreciate your analysis (and also your review) of the movie and its themes. You are doing a good job at making me want to see these movies 🙂

    (oh, and by the way, the other people that are commenting on your blog are really smart as well – your blog has become a true treasure for people loving movies)

    Liked by 1 person

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