Can Cinderella Be Feminist? Comparing 6 Versions of the Popular Disney Princess
It's been a big week for Disney. The Little Mermaid turned 25 to the delight of nostalgic millennials everywhere (save for me, I hate Ariel), and today? The first trailer of Disney's live-action Cinderella debuted. The good news is that the costumes are fab, but that bad news is that it seems Cinderella isn't getting the modern feminist makeover she definitely needs.
We love discussing feminism in line with Disney Princesses, because many of us see those films as the building blocks of how we view the world. As time goes on, there's definitely been a spectrum of which stories are more or less damaging in shaping feminine values, and as a result of these discussions, there's even been a little bit of re-working to fix the more antiquated aspects of our fairytale friends. We nitpick at the good, and we condemn the bad, and we try to fix the problematic the best we can.
Case and point: Snow White, perhaps the least feminist princess, has recently been rebranded in several venues as a crafty fighter. And even Ariel, who is the dumbest (I have a sophisticated argument supporting that, as in: Belle rules and Ariel drools) manages to run away from home. So why is this so hard to do with dear old Cinderelly?
The problem with Cinderella has always been a lack of genuine motivation. At any point in the 10 or some-odd years that Cinderella works as a housemaid she could've just been like, "NOPE" and bailed, but she doesn't. She doesn't until literal magic intervenes and a rich guy she just met decides she's hot enough to marry.
Short version: somehow it's just REALLY hard to make that story into intelligent feminist discourse, and media has proved that time and time again. It doesn't seem like this version will change that, but hopefully someone else will break tradition? Maybe Anna Kendrick?
Until then, let's revisit six versions of Cinderella and weigh their feminist leanings (or, more likely, lack thereof) accordingly.
Perhaps the most famous version of Cinderella, yet as glorious as that fairytale dress transformation is, she's almost impressively bland. She's not even a bit self-sufficient, she has no backbone, and she relies on everyone from fairy godmothers to goddamn mice to solve her problems. The worst part? although I know watched this at my YiaYia's house constantly as a child, I couldn't tell you a single detail about the plot. I just tried remembering her songs and got them all mixed up with Snow White's. No bueno.
Feminist or Nah?: It's a Disney film from the 1950's. A resounding nah.
Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella
The wonderful Julie Andrews originated the role, and there's a 1998 version with Brandy worth checking out, but somehow the above 1965 television adaptation is the one I remember. Again, Cinderella is shown to be less than self-sufficient, and when the Prince sings "Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful?" I die a little inside. It just sounds like a proto-One Directions song. However, "In My Own Little Corner" at least shows that she has adventurous ambitions, albeit ones she won't fight to pursue.
Feminist or Nah?: Nah, but at least there was a glimmer of imagination somewhere inside her.
My brother had to compare this with the Disney version for a women's studies paper, and ultimately I ended up re-writing the entire essay because he completely missed all the important points. In short, this is not a perfect feminist re-write of the tale, but there's a LOT of good happening with Drew Barrymore's Danielle, the Cinderella character. She has a rebellious streak and totally calls the Prince out on his shit, so that's something.
Feminist or Nah?: Perhaps the closest we'll get to feminist.
I mentioned just the other day that the movie is terrible, and I stand by it. Anne Hathaway's character is a quirky, clumsy rom-com cliche in a corset. Still, the book it's vaguely based on, which is in turn based on Cinderella, exemplifies a totally progressive protagonist. The Ella of that story is has strong values, an adventurous spirit, and is fluent in several different language (no big deal or anything). A "curse of obedience" explains why the Ella's in each story put up with their family's torment, and in the book it could be read as a metaphor for living with a kind of mental illness (although it's a YA novel, so probably not).
Feminist or Nah?: "Eh" to the movie, it's mired in so much stupidity all it's good points get drowned out. The book would be a definite yes.
A Cinderella Story
Welp. Hillary Duff's Sam is at least working as a means to an end, rather than being a slave for the sake of being a slave. She's saving up to go to Princeton, a dream shared by school hottie Chad Michael Murray. Still, I don't think tacking an Ivy League to the end of the film makes her Gloria Steinem.
Feminist or Nah?: Nah. While that sole ambition does notably separate her, and she masterminds her escape in the end (by deus ex machina, pretty much) she doesn't really inspire or empower the audience. Much like the Ella Enchanted adaptation, the film is too campy and mediocre the elevate the strengths of the Cinderella.
Once Upon a Time
This show, which turns Snow White into a badass champion in pelts and Little Red Riding Hood into a ferocious werewolf, manages to do the greatest injustice to Cinderella. In her featured episode back in season one, Cinderella pulls an Ariel and basically makes a deal with Rumplestiltskin to get that fabulous dress and carriage. BIG mistake. Huge. Then they decide to make her like, a sad pregnant teenager who's stuck doing laundry for 28 years. No joke. This episode debuted in 2011, what's their excuse for this?
Feminist of Nah?: I just... I so respect her struggling to make it on her own, which would have theoretically happened if Cinderella tried to run away from her stepfamily. But this just shows that even a show like Once Upon a Time, who even gives star moments to Princess Aurora, doesn't trust Cinderella to be—there's that word again—self-sufficient. Awful.