Originally published on the Fanny Pack blog.
This article is the third in a series. You can read the introduction to Wicked Wiles here.
“A pretty plot for fairy tales, Sire. But in real life, oh, no. No, it was foredoomed to failure.”
Based on the fairy tale by Charles Perrault, Disney’s Cinderella (1950) is set in a ‘far away land long ago’ where a girl named Cinderella lives happily with her family. Sadly, this doesn’t last. Her mother dies and Cinderella’s father remarries a woman with two daughters, who turn out to be cold and cruel. Upon his death, they force Cinderella to become their maid. Meanwhile in the royal castle, the King – longing for grandchildren – plans a ball for his son the Prince to find him a suitable bride. Invitations are sent to every eligible lady in the land, and Cinderella begs her stepmother to let her go. With the help of her mice friends, Cinderella fashions a beautiful dress to wear, only to have her stepsisters tear it to shreds and her dreams of happiness destroyed.
Luckily, Cinderella’s laments are heard by her Fairy Godmother, who whips up a new dress, a pumpkin carriage, and some glass slippers that will last until midnight. Cinderella charms the Prince at the ball but is forced to run away prematurely as her curfew approaches leaving only a glass slipper behind. This forces the King to send out a search party to try the glass slipper on the foot of every woman in the land in the hopes of finding its mysterious owner.
The film’s character are mostly female, consisting of:
- Cinderella’s stepmother (Lady Tremaine)
- Anastasia (stepsister)
- Drusilla (stepsister)
- The Fairy Godmother
- An unnamed female narrator at the start of the film.
Yes – Cinderella’s stepmother and her two daughters.
Jealous of Cinderella’s ‘charm and beauty’, her stepmother forces Cinders to become a servant. This also kind of makes financial sense as she presumably cannot afford to employ actual servants after squandering her late husband’s wealth – as the narrator reveals at the start. Just like Disney’s previous Princess film – Snow White – the jealousy of a bitter stepmother provides the only villainous motivation. The difference this time being that Cinderella’s stepmother is not an evil Sorceress. She’s just plain evil.
Anastasia and Drusilla are described as ‘vain and selfish’ by the narrator and are not forced to do any work around the house due to their mother’s favouritism. The stepsisters aren’t exactly ugly, but certainly plainer and ‘less feminine’ compared to Cinderella. During the fitting of the glass slipper scene, for example, the mislaid slipper barely covers either of their feet – implying both sisters lack the aspirational feminine trait of small and dainty feet, which by default Cinderella must have. This also follows the Disney tradition of personality dictating appearance.
In the case of the step-family, however, this rule seems unbalanced as their personalities really are worse than their looks. Upon receiving the invite to the ball, Cinderella’s stepmother agrees she can attend on the condition that Cinderella completes all of her chores and has a suitable dress. When Anastasia and Drusilla object she repeats her condition: ‘I said if.’ Obviously she has no intention of letting Cinderella attend, but clearly gets some sick pleasure out of dangling hope in front of her unfortunate stepdaughter so she can rip it away from her; a metaphor that turns out to be literal when she manipulates Anastasia and Drusilla into tearing Cinderella’s dress to shreds.
This glimmer of hope is both a fantastical and tangible thing for Cinderella as the narrator tells us that the kingdom is ‘tiny’ and she can see the castle in plain view from her bedroom window. Yet, I would go so far as to say that if you look a little closer than the film would want you to look, that glimmer of hope is a thematic thread for all of its characters, including the villains, and provides their real motivation.
This realisation struck me when Anastasia and Drusilla complained to their mother that they had no new clothes to wear to the ball, and I remembered that narrator explained that the stepmother had married Cinderella’s father for his money – all of which she and her greedy daughters spent. The implication is that the stepmother is a ‘gold digger’ – yet another demonising female quality. Having sucked one source of income dry, she is now forced to set her sights on marrying a daughter off to the bachelor Prince in that oh-so-visible-castle-from-the-window to sustain the opulent lifestyle they have become accustomed to.
But let’s consider the social context of this: In the not-so-long-ago times when either a rich father or husband was the only means for a woman of status to survive, what other choice did the stepmother have? To Cinderella, the castle represents freedom from her oppressive stepmother, but to her stepmother the castle represents financial freedom in an oppressive society. And whilst she cannot be excused for it, perhaps her cruel treatment of Cinderella is a venting of frustration upon the remnant of a marriage she hoped would afford her security, and an added burden of an extra mouth to feed with money she has (stupidly) frittered away.
The motivational jealousy she feels at Cinderella’s ‘beauty and charm’ is because those natural qualities that Cinders has been gifted with mean she could easily find an affluent husband… if she is ever allowed out of the house.
From start to finish, all of the interactions between the film’s central female family members are irrefutably negative. As the maid, Cinderella is unquestionably submissive to her rude and demanding stepmother and stepsisters, with the exception of bravely asking her stepmother’s permission to go the ball.
The only positive interaction Cinderella has between another female character is with the Fairy Godmother who is basically everyone’s ideal Grandma – lovely, huggable, and quirky. She comforts Cinders and works her magic to restore her self-confidence and get her to the ball. She even has the foresight to allow Cinderella to keep the remaining glass slipper after her magic fades, enabling Cinders to prove later on that she is the true owner of the shoes when her stepmother ‘accidentally’ smashes the other.
Cinderella is light on plot and high on filler, and by filler I mean lots of animals in clothes faffing around for too long (in my opinion). This makes answering this question tricky, but arguably it is the King who sets everything in motion to achieve his goal of having grandchildren, and the entire story revolves the ball.
The stepmother contributes only by blocking Cinderella’s opportunities to escape her control, and these are opportunities that are given to Cinderella rather than creating opportunities herself. The only time she asserts any kind of influence is when she asks to go the ball. In fact, Cinders is so lacking in drive that even after the ball when the magic wears off she shrugs her shoulders and trudges back home obediently instead of seizing her opportunity to run away for good.
The male characters are:
- Prince Charming
- The King
- The Duke (the King’s aide)
- Various animals that live in Cinderella’s chateau
The King states that he has no interest in which woman the Prince picks as his bride; as long as she can provide him with grandchildren: ‘What’s love got to do with it? Just a boy meeting a girl under the right conditions.’ The Prince also has no interest in any of the women at the ball – stifling a yawn as they are all introduced to him. That is, until he spots Cinderella entering at the back of the ballroom.
Obviously taken by her looks, he rushes over to meet her, and the pair spends the night walking and talking through the castle gardens. We never get to hear what they are saying (other than a weird telepathic duet) until Cinderella suddenly tells him she must leave as her curfew approaches. This is also the last we really see or hear of the Prince, as it is the Duke who is tasked with searching the Kingdom for the mysterious maiden that the Prince stupidly failed to get the name of his new crush despite all those hours of implied conversation.
I mentioned earlier that the castle represents hope, and this is also true of the Prince. He is a sadly tokenistic character – known only as ‘Charming’ – serving purely as wish fulfilment for the female characters; therefore a surprisingly weak male presence despite his narrative importance.
Just like Snow White before her, Cinderella’s skills are enforcedly domestically based. Unlike Snow White, Cinderella – although born into wealth – has to marry to attain Princess status and we don’t get to see what kind of Princess she becomes. (Although, if the King got his way, she’d most likely be spending most it popping out kids and little else.) Otherwise, she possesses natural beauty and charm, kindness, and the ability to communicate with animals – typical of a Disney Princess.
Unfortunately under my criteria it’s another negative Disney Princess film in terms of gender representation. Here’s why:
- Cinderella barely influences the plot.
- Negative interactions between nearly all female characters.
- Cinderella is given the opportunity to follow her dreams but only to satiate the King’s need for grandchildren. He doesn’t care who she is, he just wants a woman – any woman – to marry his son and produce heirs.
- The film missed opportunities to give depth to the stepmother and stepsisters’ jealousy – some kind of social context might have made it more balanced and more interesting.
- The animals help Cinderella because she helps them, which shows that if you are nice to others they will return this kindness.
- There is also a positive message about working hard and being rewarded, except Cinderella’s opportunities happen mainly by chance.
- Unfounded jealousy is the only motivation for female villainy.
- Marriage is your only chance at happiness/means to financially support yourself, with no option to become self-sufficient.
- The film is critical of women who marry for money alone, yet offers no context/solution to this problem.
- Male characters are depicted negatively – either talking about women as baby-making machines, or treated as nameless and voiceless tokens.
Next in the Wicked Wiles series: Sleeping Beauty!
@SpannerX23 on Twitter.
By night, Hannah is a geeky feminist blogger, but by day she is a freelance artist who specialises in unconventional and unique illustrations. Check out her website here to see her portfolio.