For this project, I chose to watch the latest adaptation of Cinderella because I thought it might be interesting to give a feminist take on this story and its message given the sheer number of girls it has and apparently continues to influence. I watched the film at AMC Rosedale 14 with two of my friends in a large theater that was either new or very well maintained. We bought our tickets at $8.02 each, where the ticket attendant told us that we would be given free popcorn and soda if we signed up for a membership with them. I walked in there thinking that the film’s target market included adults who’d grown up watching the animated Cinderella, but the sea of little girls in princess dresses suggested that my friends and I were probably just outliers. Perhaps unlike some other girls, I’d never really caught on with the Disney princess fever because 1) the Disney channel wasn’t available to me until I was 12 and by then I’d found something else to obsess about, and 2) I was trying really hard to reject everything other girls liked in a misguided attempt to be cool. But I could see how excited the little girls in the audience were as we waited through the trailers and I’d come to accept that whether or not I bought into it, the Disney princess culture was a powerful force.
The film introduces us to the titular character in its very first scene: the young Ella feeding the animals in her well-to-do family’s garden as her mother lovingly watched. The colors in the earlier scenes are always very warm and the music is sweet and pleasant to make Ella’s world seem very happy and welcoming. Although her mother dies very early on in the film she is shown repeatedly reminding Ella of the power of courage and kindness, and tells her daughter that her fairy godmother will watch over Ella in her absence. Despite the grief caused by her mother’s death, Ella is shown to have grown up into a cheerful and bright young woman who held onto the values that her mother had taught her. The colors in the scenes don’t get much darker until Ella’s father leaves her to the care of her stepmother and stepsisters.
From the very start, the film tries to create a divide between Ella and “the other girls”. Unlike the other girls, Ella is kind, reasonable and unconcerned with material things. For example, when her father plans to travel for work her stepsisters ask her father to bring them home parasols while she asks him to pick up a branch. It is worth noting that the writers antagonize the stepmother and stepsisters by capitalizing on not only the differences in their personal values, but in their physical appearances and natural talents as well. There is a scene where Ella’s sister, Drisella, is shown poorly playing the piano and singing off-key, which is used as a parallel for a later scene in which Ella is heard sweetly singing a song her mother had taught her as a child. Although there is nothing inherently wrong in creating a flawed female character, there is something problematic in thinking it is necessary put all other women down in order to build one up. The writers’ refusal to recognize the problematic nature of making villains out of all other women doesn’t only pressure the viewer to subject women to Cinderella’s impossibly high standard, but also to attribute any flaw a girl might have to her lack of morals or character.
Additionally, it is important to note that though this adaptation attempted to flesh out the romance and the prince’s role more by having Ella and Prince Kit meet prior to the ball, a large part of what separates Ella from the other ball attendees is her beauty. The film’s attempts to dissuade the viewer from this mindset with the prince’s assertions that “she’s more than her beauty” and “she’s unlike anyone I’ve ever met” are overpowered by the camera’s excessive lingering on Ella’s face. In Postfeminist Media Culture, Gill states “the body is presented simultaneously as women’s source of power and as always unruly, requiring constant monitoring, surveillance, discipline and remodeling” (Gill, 149). This is further supported by the stepsisters, whose apparent obsession with their physical appearance leads them to spend hours trying on dresses and putting on their makeup to prepare for a ball. Although placed under a negative light, the portrayal of the two stepsisters is relevant to Gill’s separate assertion that “sexual objectification can be presented not as something done to women by some men but as the freely chosen wish of active, confident, assertive female subjects” (Gill, 153). These efforts are later undermined when Cinderella, who attained her level of beauty almost effortlessly, outshines the two sisters.
Separately, it may be important to note any key similarities and differences between the adaptation and the original animated film. Similar to its predecessor, the film does very little to explore concepts of race, sexuality and ability. The only real attempt Disney had made at representation in this film was turning the Captain, one of the prince’s loyal friends, into a black character, which can’t be seriously counted as representation when his existence solely revolved around the prince’s love life.
Unlike her animated counterpart, however, this Cinderella is shown to take on a more active stand in times of conflict. Although she remains mostly passive in her stepmother and stepsisters’ cruel treatment of her, she is vocal about her disapproval of taking advantage of others vulnerable to outside danger. For example, she is quick to defend the stag from being hunted down by the prince and his company. When the prince tries to argue that there is nothing wrong with hunting for sport she retorts that “just because it’s what’s always been done doesn’t mean it’s what should be done”. In a later confrontation, Ella chooses to protect Prince Kit and the kingdom from the cruelty of her stepmother by giving up her own freedom and happiness. While admittedly very brave, it raises the question on what the film implies is the source of women’s strength. Repeatedly, the story seems to suggest that the source of women’s strength lies in how much suffering she is able to endure in silence. When Cinderella is resigned to the idea of a life trapped in the attic, the narrator states that she would learn to take comfort in the fact that her time with the prince would turn into beautiful memories like those of her dead parents. This in turn relates to the story’s problematic message that suffering is necessary in order for someone to truly become sympathetic and kind. This is best exemplified in one of the final scenes in which Cinderella offers her stepmother forgiveness, to show that despite all the terrible things the stepmother had done she was never able to break Cinderella. While I do think it is important to remind young girls to try to remain brave and kind to others in the face of adversity, it is equally important to remind people that you can be both those things without neglecting your personal wellbeing.
The film ends much as in the original animated film: the stepmothers and stepsisters are banished from the kingdom; Cinderella and the prince get married and become the most fair and well-loved rulers the land has ever had. While I admit to enjoying my viewing experience, I am still undecided on whether the director’s decision to remain almost completely faithful to the original was good or bad. I will always have a soft spot for fairytales and princesses and magic, but when I look at all the little girls who are going to carry the messages of these stories throughout their childhood I can’t help but think some things should have changed by now.
Gill, R. (2007). Postfeminist media culture: Elements of a sensibility. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 10(147), 147-166. doi:10.1177/1367549407075898