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After slogging through several of Disney’s lesser known and less popular titles, we have finally come to our first official Disney Princess film in the Feminisney series.
And there was much rejoicing.
Disney’s 1950 Academy Award-nominated film, based on the 1697 Charles Perrault telling of the ancient fairy tale, Cendrillon, was a huge triumph for the floundering Walt Disney Studios, stuck in a $4 million debt and saved by their biggest post-Snow White commercial hit, conveniently their second princess film. And one wonders why they’re so fond of returning to the trope.
It was also the first time Disney’s Nine Old Men, Walt Disney’s core animators, worked together as directing animators. It is definitely one of the more recognizable (and repeated) fairy tales, with retellings of the story including the 2015 Disney live-action adaptation, a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical (that would go on to star Brandy in 1997), and my personal favorite from the versions I’ve seen, the feminist-friendly Drew Barrymore’s Ever After: A Cinderella Story. That last one I mention is kind of important, because it very clearly paints Cinderella in a much stronger feminist role, a woman of action instead of reaction. Clearly, there is potential for a feminist character in Disney’s version… but what about the film as a whole, the most well-known adaptation of them all? Let’s take a closer look.
The Cinderella story is a well-known one, but here’s the basic summary. Cinderella’s dad remarries a woman with two daughters, then dies. Turns out, that woman is cruel and she essentially forces Cinderella into servitude in her own home. The Prince of their kingdom holds a ball, Cinderella’s fairy godmother does some magic to a pumpkin and some unwitting animals, Cinderella goes, woos the prince, runs away at midnight when the magic ends, and then the prince finds her and happily ever after commences.
A fairly standard princess tale, to be honest… or perhaps it seems that way because of how pervasive Cinderella is to our fairy tale story telling methods. Who knows? But on to the analysis!
Number of named characters with speaking lines: 6, if you exclude characters given only titles (King, Duke, Prince, Fairy Godmother).
Number of named female characters with speaking lines: 4! A solid 67% If you include titled characters, you’d drop to 50%, but not bad female representation.
Does the film pass the Bechdel Test? Yes! Barely! (Explanation later.)
Number of named non-white characters: This takes place in Hollywood’s old-timey France, so expect nothing but white people.
Number of named non-white female characters: 0
Number of openly non-heterosexual characters: 0… but there is some possible discussion here…
Number of openly transsexual characters: 0
Is there a heterosexual romance? Disney Princess film. So yes.
True Love’s Kiss? Not by my earlier definition of a magical kiss.
Number of female mentors or rulers? Well, Lady Tremaine is the leader of the residence… And the Fairy Godmother has power as well… so this is really up to how you want to consider the question.
Number of named female characters wearing “men’s clothes” (pants instead of dresses): 0 (With 0 men wearing “women’s clothes”.)
Main character male or female? Female
Number of named female characters saved from peril by male characters: Cinderella is saved from basically being imprisoned in her house by Jacq and Gus.
Number of times named female characters saved from peril by male characters: Just the once.
Number of named male characters saved from peril by female characters: 1. Gus is saved by Cinderella.
Number of times named male characters saved from peril by female characters: He’s saved by Cinderella 3 times.
Number of named female characters breaking gender stereotypes with their actions (performing “masculine” feats): 0
Number of named male characters breaking gender stereotypes with their actions (performing “feminine” feats): 0… but they do try once.
So far in the series, this is the most female-oriented Disney animated film there is. Four named female characters out of six total, with a main female character, a female with magic… There’s some serious (white) female representation here. However, the movie certainly has its flaws, which I’ll talk about first.
Gender roles abound in this film… and are practically the entire plot. Cinderella is forced into basic slavery by her abusive stepmother, Lady Tremaine. While their conversations about what housework Cinderella will be required to do during the day satisfies the Bechdel Test, it defines Cinderella’s character. The Cinder Girl, she is perpetually doing housework and domestic chores… granted, this is painted in a negative light and as a form of abuse, so it can perhaps be painted in a more feminist light (Cinderella must break free from domesticity)… but the most obvious offense comes from the mice. There are several mice with whom Cinderella talks and befriends, and in return for her kindness and hard work, these mice decide to help Cinderella finish mending her dress for the Prince’s ball, satisfying Lady Tremaine’s requirements to go. The gender role comes in when Jacq and Gus want to help make the dress, and one of the several (and unnamed) female mice takes the needle from Jacq, saying, “Leave the sewing to the women.”
Just an FYI, sewing’s a skill everyone could use. I used to know how to do basic sewing myself, but have long forgotten… leading to many instances of needing to ask more knowledgeable people for assistance.
Anyway, there’s also a moment when the mice are telling Cinderella about a new mouse, Gus, and she goes get him some clothes, grabbing a dress before being told Gus is male, which “makes a difference.” To societal norms, perhaps, but let people (or mice) wear what they want, right? Let’s not expect gender norms on clothing to be mixed up anytime soon in movies, though. There’s also the awkward traits given to Lady Tremaine and her daughters: Vanity, jealousy, and being terrible with money. But, again, like the household chores, these characters are painted as unlikable people one should strive to NOT be, so these traits do get tainted as negative as opposed to standard (Cinderella, for her part, shows none of these traits). So, you get some good with some bad.
Of course, Cinderella’s plot eventually boils down to “Met a hot guy, danced with him, let’s get married.” She has the benefit of somehow not realizing he was the prince, so she’s not attracted to his title, but it is a bit awkward to call her story a very feminist one. But perhaps she herself is?
Especially with third wave feminism, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with the idea that a heterosexual woman can desire a man for his looks. In film, it’d be nice to see a variety of romances and non-romances shown, but there’s nothing openly offensive about an individual heteromantic relationship. The systemic portrayal is the bigger issue. But, that said… Cinderella was a victim of serious abuse. By the version portrayed in Ever After, we’re looking at nearly a decade, if not longer, of Lady Tremaine treating Cinderella as a slave, letting the estate fall into disrepair, forcing Cinderella to watch her memories of her father (and in the Disney film, her mother) fall into disrepair and be uncared for. Cinderella actively defies her stepmother’s abuse by refusing to meekly yield and trying to get out of her situation (by meeting and exceeding her stepmother’s standards). When this fails… yes, she has to have a magical intervention… but she, by now knowing her stepmother doesn’t want her at the ball, goes anyway. And when she sees her chance to escape the abuse, brought on by the Duke trying the glass slipper on all the women of the land, despite her stepmother locking her away, she grabs her chance and runs with it without a second thought. No, she’s not smashing the patriarchy or (as far as we’re aware) refusing to let a man tell her what to do… but she certainly has some feminist potential in her character. So go see Ever After if you want that potential to be truly brought to life.
Whether you agree with my interpretation or not, I think it can at least be said that Disney could do (and has done) far worse than Cinderella from a feminist perspective.
Oh! And the sexuality thing… So, we spend time with the King and the Duke moreso than the Prince… and the King, a single father, is bemoaning his distance from the Prince. He seems incredibly, manically desperate to have some grandkids… and seems to think that the Prince will be wholly uninterested in this prospect, obsessed with his “hobbies” or somesuch. When the King throws a ball, demanding every available woman attend, we see the Prince YAWN after bowing to a woman. Bored by this entire process. So very rude. And the Duke is reacting smugly the entire time, saying stuff like, “The Prince ain’t gonna fall for no woman, especially not at first sight” or something along those lines. Now, obviously, he ends up with Cinderella, but if Disney came out and said the Prince was bi and the Duke was his lover, I wouldn’t exactly have been surprised. The Duke was just way too smug and all-knowing about the unlikely event of the Prince falling for a woman.
Fun notes: The King is absurdly violent. He’s got grandkid fever. Dude literally threatens to kill the Duke if the Prince fails to find a woman he wants to knock up. That’s… pretty messed up. And it’s not hyperbole. When Cinderella runs away, the King is literally swinging a sword and calling the Duke a traitor. Someone please get the King on some calming drugs. He’s ridiculously violent and short-tempered for a dude that has Homer, Plato, and Rabelais on his desk. I mean, I guess you can read those books and have a short temper, but honestly, I would think they require some amount of patience to get through.
Also, “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” is the most nonsense song to ever be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song and I’m glad it lost.