I: Once Upon a Time
Magic slippers. A clock that strikes midnight. A pumpkin-carriage and ball with a prince, waiting just for her. A world of wishes and song and being so freaking nice that the world eventually drops a happy marriage and a life of luxury into her lap. It’s a fairytale. It’s the fairytale. The story of Cinderella.
God, we all hate her, don’t we?
II: The Clock Strikes Twelve
“And she’s banned from seeing certain children’s movies, yes?” “Yes. Cinderella, banned, because she waits around for a rich guy to rescue her. Don’t. Rescue yourself, obviously!”
— Keira Knightly, in an interview with Ellen Degenres, concerning the movies she won’t show her 3-year-old
I don’t remember the first time I saw Disney’s Cinderella. Somewhere along the way, I assume that the film must have made its way into my home collection, that it simply filed itself neatly away between my old Looney Tunes box set and a scratched-up DVD of Chicken Run, and that was that. Around the time that I was 2 or 3, when Cinderella was in heavy rotation, I didn’t really care about the movie or its larger implications on the role of women in film. Apparently, I was behind the curve.
See, these days, hating Cinderella isn’t just a hot take — it’s downright trendy. An article in the New York Times calls the movie a “a symbol of the patriarchal oppression of all women, another example of corporate mind control and power-to-the-people,” while a blog post from the Dayton Children’s Hospital calls the central heroine a “dreadfully offensive role model for children, particularly young girls.” Most of these articles drag Cinderella and view her story as emblematic of a society that values beauty and politeness above personal agency. When I read articles like these, I can understand that they’re at least partially motivated by the protective instincts of adults, but I also get the sinking feeling that they’re not entirely written from a selfless, protect-our-children kind of place. I get the idea that these authors see Cinderella and hate her, not because she’s evil or stupid or vain, but because she isn’t the kind of heroine that’s in vogue right now. Cinderella isn’t a Strong Female Lead.
For those uninitiated, a Strong Female Lead (or SFL) is a writing trope that basically gives a female character all of the traits of a typical action hero, but gets rid of all of the interesting relationships or dynamics that make them compelling. The rise of the SFL has been going strong since the early 2000s with Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and other action flicks, but it really hit its stride in the 2010s, when movies like The Hunger Games and other YA adaptations brought out the narrative big guns with stoic, silent hero types that dominated the movie scene and set new box office records. Today, as heroes like Captain Marvel and Rey and the new #LadyBoss Ghostbusters have begun to take center stage of pre-established franchises, ‘strong’ women are more popular than ever before.
And here’s the thing — there is an element to these stories that does ring true with audiences. (Captain Marvel’s 1.128 billion dollar revenue at the box office proves it.) On paper, the Strong Female Lead is the ultimate tool for feminism in the media because she gets to do all of the things that men get to do: she is allowed to fight and learn and win, and show other women the way forward. But, for all of her powers and speeches and extensive skills, there is a catch to the Strong Female Lead. As much as we try to avoid it, there is still misogyny folded into the archetype, because Strong Female Leads, no matter what they do or what circumstances surround them, must be perfect.
The demands put on these new blockbuster heroines are incredibly high, higher than any put on the male heroes that came before them. These Strong Women can’t just be tough and strong and stoic, they have to be the toughest and the strongest and the most stoic of any character in the franchise. For leading ladies in the modern world, being the hero means taking on the persona of the Arnold Schwarzeneggers and Harrison Fords who kicked ass before them. However, instead of being gruff and unlikable and a jerk, these tough-as-nails characters still need to also be friendly and not too intimidating, pretty and charming, and they need to do it all with an effortless grace that makes it look easy. They aren’t allowed to have their own desires or needs or mistakes, because the stakes of what they’ll mean to an audience come before their development in the story. Their values must align with the greater good, because these noble women are ultimately designed to push the real-life women watching them on screen to be noble and selfless, too. And, perhaps most importantly, these Strong Female Leads have to end up alone in the end, because if they experience anything close to love or happiness or even just human emotions beyond mild, constrained irritance, then they’re proving that women need to be loved, and are thereby taking a step backward for All Women Ever.
III: The Day After
“It’s a Cinderella for a new generation… It’s not about women needing a man for validation. It’s about women empowering themselves, and that’s a really great message to be sending out into the world.”
— Billy Porter in an interview for Insider, describing the new Cinderella musical set to release from Sony in 2021
In the era of the Strong Female Lead, Cinderella just can’t compete. Over the course of the last 70 years, we’ve had time to develop a narrative around this princess, to create a conversation that has become so convoluted and complex that it it feels like Cinderella’s role in pop culture has become less about the movie she’s in and far more centered on the helpless-hapless woman archetype that we’ve assigned her. Even Hollywood has gotten in on the debate, as between the 1950 Disney movie and 2021, there have been countless musical adaptations, made-for-TV films and SNL spoof skits that have satirized, reframed and parodied Cinderella’s magic slippers and sickly-sweet demeanor, all to try and make her fit into the role of a Strong Female Lead.
But, see, as a young, fairytale-loving feminist, I am inclined to be suspicious of any message that tears down a heroine, especially one whose performance of femininity is central to her story. The attempts that have been made to re-shape Cinderella into a Strong Female Lead don’t feel genuine to me, or really thought out, because I was one of those kids that these mommy bloggers were so worried about: I did grow up watching the movie and wearing princess dresses and singing Disney music. And yet, despite the ‘harmful’ effects of Disney’s Cinderella, I miraculously haven’t become a boy-obsessed quack as an adult (yet), and I do know how to speak for myself and my needs. So, when I set out to understand why people hated this princess, I found myself asking, what about Cinderella do they actually hate?
IV: The Locked Attic
In order to figure out where all of this anti-fairytale vitriol was springing from, I actually went back and watched the 1950 version of Cinderella. And you know what? That movie can be a little slow sometimes and the mice are in it a bit more than I remember, but the characterization of Cinderella herself is downright wonderful. She’s bright, determined and doesn’t even mention wanting to meet a prince at the ball. Her catty stepsisters — you know, the ones that are the villains? — that’s their goal; all Cinderella wants to do is go to a party. She’s nowhere near the hyperfeminine, too-perfect girly-girl that she’s supposed to resemble, even when she is wearing a beautiful gown and dancing up a storm. She’s surprisingly earnest and honest and kind, and her gratitude to those who help her and utter lack of desire to ‘catch a man’ are so refreshing that I had a hard time believing that this was the princess that is now hailed as a paragon of dependence and weakness, of ‘giving in’ to the misogynistic combo of marriage and a happily ever after. The most surprising moment in the movie, (and perhaps the part I remembered the least from my childhood) occurs when Cinderella’s stepmother locks her in their attic to keep her from trying on the infamous slipper. In her moment of weakness, Cinderella does give up and she thinks her chance to get out of her crappy life is over — that is, until the animals she had been helping all along steal a key and come to free her. It turns out that Cindy isn’t rescued by her prince after all, but by her own kindness being returned to her; her compassion for the animals becomes the key to her happy ending.
After I finished the movie, and I was sitting watching the old-fashioned credits roll, I found myself asking: did Cinderella’s many detractors and I even watch the same movie?
If I had to wager a guess, the main protest against Cinderella is simply that she is a woman who actively struggles. Unlike the Strong Female Lead, Cinderella can’t effortlessly solve her problems and back-flip into the sunset, because — and here’s the source of all that righteous anger that motivates this new generation of critics to rip apart her story — Cinderella is a victim of familial abuse, and she actually responds like a victim of abuse. She is genuinely afraid of her family, but she’s an orphan with no money of her own. Cinderella doesn’t have the resources to escape. Her stepfamily is all that she has left of her deceased parents and childhood home; if she were to ever leave them, she would lose everything, and this choice actually challenges Cinderella, and causes her to question herself and her role in the world. In short, she behaves like a real person and struggles with indecision, fear and isolation in a way that a Strong Female Lead would never even deign to consider. So, with no other recourse, she stays where she is, and does the single bravest thing she can do in order to survive — she continues to believe that things will get better. Because her life is painful and her family is cruel, Cinderella has to rely entirely on her own faith that things will improve to stay alive. When she sings “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” Cinderella isn’t indulging in a girlish fantasy about marrying a prince and being whisked away into happiness — perhaps the very opposite. She is actively building up her resilience and her drive, doing what she can to keep her own head above water. Even though it used to put me to sleep as a little kid, I now recognize what is happening when Cinderella sings. She is doing the very thing that Knightley accosted her for avoiding: she is rescuing herself.
V: The Shoe Fits
I can’t say whether or not Cinderella is a good role model, but I can say with confidence that she is nowhere near the helpless victim that we’ve made her out to be. She’s definitely not worse than the Strong Female Leads that Hollywood continues to force-feed audiences, even if she does cry and wrestle with her emotions more than your average Katniss Everdeen. Cinderella’s unabashed emotional vulnerability and vibrant inner world aren’t signs of her great weakness, but are the coping mechanisms of a person who is trying her best to get through the day. The fundamental honesty of Cinderella’s suffering and consequent triumph is cathartic in a way no ‘woke’ Sony remake is likely to achieve. It’s the very aspects of Cinderella’s character that modern interpretations reject — her openness, her joy, her resilience and her compassion — that make this princess story so enduring, not her ‘empowering’ ability to superhumanly surmount obstacles. The strange pseudo-authenticity of Strong Women feels empty and shallow compared to Cinderella, because her story is one of intense effort, flawed choices and, yes, enough sparkle to choke a housecat. It’s touching when Cinderella says, “They can’t order me to stop dreaming” — not because she’s dreaming of a future as a rich princess, but because she’s daring herself, and us, to do what a Strong Female Lead can’t do: to hope for happiness for ourselves, to believe that we deserve it and to pursue it where we can, even in the sparkliest of places.