“Cinderella, you’re as lovely as your name. Cinderella, you’re a sunset in a frame. Though you’re dressed in rags you wear an air of queenly grace. Anyone can see a throne would be your proper place. Cinderella, if you give your heart a chance it will lead you to the kingdom of romance. There you’ll see your dreams unfold – Cinderella, Cinderella – in the sweetest story ever told.”
Since writing the last Revisiting Disney post, I’ve been eager to work on the next one. Cinderella was the next princess, thirteen years after Snow White. To be honest, although I’ve enjoyed many Cinderella adaptations (such as the books Ella Enchanted, The Rough-Face Girl, Cinder Edna, Just Ella, and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister) Cinderella was always my least favorite Disney princess movie. Most of the movie is spent with the mice and birds of Cindy’s home rather than with our titular character, and the Prince is somehow even less characterized here than in Snow White (although we get a good deal of time with his short-tempered and violent father. ) Nonetheless, she seems in many ways to be the face of the Disney princesses; she’s often at the front of the Disney line up, and it’s her castle that provides the iconic skyline of Disney World.
In Cinderella, there are many comparisons we can make with the Snow White film. Like Snow White, Cinderella’s most important characteristics come down to beauty and friendliness. Like Snow White, her negative emotions are almost always under control. This movie does more to pit the princess against the other women of the story: although the Queen in Snow White does try to kill Snow, Cinderella’s step-family is a more direct foil for her in multiple instances throughout the film – and that may or may not be a good thing. The prince remains rich, handsome, and devoid of personality; his father, however, is truly horrible. The most unbelievable similarity, however, is that both Cinderella and Snow White are somehow capable of somehow getting animals to help them with their chores. Although Snow White’s friends were mute, the mice in Cinderella sing and talk to her. Meanwhile, I’m still waiting for my cats to sweep the kitchen floor …
Like Snow White, the main conflict of this movie is competition between women for beauty and for recognition from men. It portrays the greatest enemy to a woman as other women. Cinderella’s misfortunes stem from the loss of her father and subsequent cruelty of her step-mother and sisters. Presumably, her father’s presence had protected her while he was alive, but once he was gone, she became victim to the spite and petty jealousy of her step-family: Lady Tremaine, Anastasia, and Drizella. They deliberately sabotage Cinderella’s chances at happiness for their entertainment and to improve their own odds at marrying into greater wealth. This is seen when the step-sisters react gleefully to Cinderella’s punishment for accidentally letting a mouse get into her sister’s room, when Lady Tremaine prompts them to attack Cinderella and destroy her clothes to prevent her from going to the ball, and when Lady Tremaine later locks Cinderella up to keep her away from the Grand Duke (who shows up to try the shoe on each eligible lady) giving her daughters more room to try and con their way into marriage.
The Grand Duke, however, immediately brightens up (despite fatigue from being awake all night, fear of execution at the hands of the king, and recent harassment from the Tremaines) upon seeing Cinderella descending the stairs. Presumably he sees that she is not like the other women he has just dealt with. He is kind to her, and later even the violent and angry king becomes kind and timid, blushing when Cinderella kisses him on the cheek. However, the only woman in the film who is kind to Cinderella is the old and portly fairy godmother – a woman who is unlikely to be in competition for the prince’s favor. This seems to reinforce the trope of women who are catty, or constantly at each other’s throats and cannot be trusted, particularly when in pursuit of a man. Even the two sisters don’t get along and call names, accuse one another, and hit each other with musical instruments. Although it allows us to “love to hate” the antagonists of the film, the trope of women who are unable to get along, and constantly at each others’ throats is one that damages expectations of women for friendship among other women. How many times have you heard a girl proudly say “I just don’t have many female friends,” or “I’m not like other girls,” as though embarrassed of their own sex. Female friendship, however, can be very rewarding when not interrupted by this outlook and I feel it is a trope that, were it to completely disappear, would cause no great loss.
Cinderella, however, is clearly meant to be “not like the other girls.” This is shown by the repeated use of her step sisters and step-mother acting as a foil throughout the film. Her characteristics are listed explicitly from the beginning of the movie as beauty, grace, gentleness, and kindness, while the step-family is described as having squandered her fortune in vanity. We see her being generous – helping the mice and serving the Tremaines humbly – while they respond to her generosity immediately with more demands. She is patient, even with the antics of Lucifer, while the step-sisters scream for breakfast at a moment’s notice and the step-mother howls angrily at a soft knock on the door. She helps the step-sisters get ready for the ball while they scheme spitefully to keep her from going. This is the way the movie shows us what kind of person Cinderella is and why she deserves to have a happy ending. On top of it all, she maintains these good qualities in the face of the sort of situations which would tempt anyone to lash out angrily. I certainly can find little fault so far in seeing Cinderella as a role model aside from the fact that she is somewhat boring (and again, Disney seems to do their best to make sure little kids know they should do their chores without complaining!)
We have somewhat less to explore in terms of the male characters in the story: the king is quick-tempered, violent, and meddling. This is clear by the tantrums he throws when he doesn’t get his way (is anyone else reminded of Donald Trump?) the frequent threats against the Duke’s life for events outside of his control, and the massive orchestration to get the prince to reproduce. The Duke hardly has a chance to develop a personality because he is a stressed ball of nerves whose life hangs in the air, threatened at any moment by the whims of the king. The prince only gets one line, so all we know of him, we get from his surroundings: he’s wealthy, he’s handsome. He and Cinderella don’t even speak before he decides to marry her, so I’m also starting to think he’s the sort of person who leaps, then looks. We can only hope that he doesn’t have the temper of his father.
The lack of characterization of the prince is, in some ways, necessary for telling a story to children: when watching, the main characters are stand-ins for the viewer, so the more bland the characters are, the more the child can fill in their own idea of what they should be like. (Boys could see whoever they wanted to see in the prince and girls can see themselves in the princess – as long as they are also gentle, gracious, and good at cleaning.) One negative aspect of this blank slate is linked to the prince’s hasty decision to marry Cinderella. Firstly, it seems to promote the idea that it doesn’t matter whom you marry, but simply that you must marry. It also presents a false idea of what it takes to build a functional marriage. It’s not an unfamiliar story to hear of someone who was so focused on their wedding, or on the idea of having a spouse, that they married someone with whom they could not get along and ended up unhappy or divorced. There are times when I wonder how much of that could be avoided by replacing our culture’s romantic notions of weddings and marriage in with practical ones, and vague princes with ones who actually get to know their brides-to-be.
In some ways, the year in which he movie was made is very clear: The era in which Cinderella debuted was the era of the smiling homemaker who maintained a spotless house, raised well-behaved children, and kept her man happy (although real life was likely less “perfect.”) Cinderella, in a sense, does all of this: her step-family’s house is spotless despite interference from Lucifer, and the mice she cares for are clothed and fed (again, despite the cat.) Cinderella is the picture of domesticity and self-control; even in the moments when she clearly feels otherwise, she continues with her chores and maintains a positive front. She is the very image of the ideal housewife of the 1950s. She is rewarded in the end by getting to marry the man of her dreams.
There is a subtle emphasis on faith, also. Cinderella is able to tolerate the machinations of Lucifer because of her dreams and belief that things will one day be good again. Only once does she say, “There’s nothing left to believe in,” and immediately the fairy godmother appears to right the wrongs that have been done to Cinderella by her step-family. This is an example of the sort of myth that implies that good people will eventually be rewarded by having good things happen to them. Indeed, one of the songs played throughout the film tells us, “No matter how your heart is grieving, if you keep on believing, the dream that you wish will come true.” Such advice seems placating, rather than encouraging, with the moral being to wait out a bad situation rather than taking steps to improve it. Certainly, sometimes the best a person can do to get through a difficult situation is to keep your chin up and carry on, however that doesn’t mean that things will necessarily get better. At other times, this advice seems dangerous in its endorsement of simply wishing for a change in life rather than working hard to achieve that change. But is this actually how Cinderella behaves?
Cinderella wishes for only one night away from her step-family’s demands to enjoy for herself. She is prevented from making her own preparations, however, by Lady Tremaine’s scheming. It is only because of Cinderella’s quality as a good friend to the mice and birds that she is able to have clothes to wear; they repay her kindness by helping her in turn. Although their aid is undone by the jealous step-sisters and only magic can get her to the ball, they again help her when she needs it most: locked in a tower away from her only chance to escape the abuse of the Tremaines. Perhaps the most important lesson of the story is that true friendship is the most valuable asset of all? After all, the fairy godmother (the very symbol of wishing and dreaming) disappears once she has waved Cinderella off to the ball and does not reappear, even when Cinderella’s situation becomes desperate.
Of all the lessons a child could learn from this story that is perhaps the one I would most like them to take away: that in friendship, it is important to give what you have to give and know that your friend will also offer what they can – even if it doesn’t seem like much. It is the love that we put into the world that eventually comes back to us; without the active cultivation of love, we will find ourselves lonely.
Ultimately, I’m still of the opinion that this is one of the weakest Disney movies and the most boring. It’s not one I will be rushing to pass out to children I know, but it is not without its merits.