Freeing Ourselves of Cinderella

Feminist Video Essay


I remember seeing the trailer for Disney’s new Cinderella this last winter, and thinking, “Well, my daughter won’t be seeing that.”  Now that I’m getting my degree in Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies, I have great intentions of being the ultra feminist mom (which I am sometimes successful at and other times, not.  My child watches a LOT of Bratz on Netflix as I’m doing homework)  But as luck would have it, I had to find a film in theatre to analyze from a feminist perspective that my 6-year-old daughter could accompany me to, and Cinderella was it.  And in hindsight, it could not have been more appropriate for the cause.  I recall working at a pre-school as a teen, and one of the mother’s actively refrained from showing her daughter Disney princess films for reasons I have come to understand over the years.  The story of Cinderella as we know it, is an old one, dating back to 1697.  A young, miserable girl, oppressed and enslaved by her evil stepmother, is made beautiful by a magical fairy godmother, and captures the heart of a prince who then saves her.  She’s one of the original damsels in distress.  Made into a cartoon in 1950 by Walt Disney, the now live-action film doesn’t have enough progressive twists for my liking.   The Disney princess genre is the perpetuation of patriarchal ideologies encoded into visually stunning films, to then be decoded by our impressionable youth.  2015’s Cinderella is no different and I will demonstrate that here.  There are a few interesting things happening in the film that I will discuss; the back story of the evil stepmother, and the multicultural cast of extras and villagers, Orientalism depicted by an exotic princess from another land.  And I will supply a few themes that I feel could have been utilized to empower young girls consuming the film.  And of course, I will go into detail of the depiction of Cinderella, herself.  But first I will touch on the theatre experience.

My daughter and I squeezed our viewing into a very busy Sunday with our already three other engagements and happened to be in the Edina area, so I chose a show at Southdale AMC.  Our other option may have been the Rosedale AMC in Roseville which may have been a slightly different experience, Edina being middle to upper middle class city.  The ticket prices would have probably been comparable at about $11.00 for myself and $8.00 for my daughter.  And naturally I had to spend a small fortune on popcorn, Raisinets and water (we rarely drink soda) approaching closely, $15.00.  I recall watching the three young girls in front of us buying hoards of snacks, thinking I am going to have to get a third job by the time my child is in junior high.  How is a bottle of water $5.00?  And also why did I not bring my large purse and smuggle these goodies in?  Crimes of Survival.  Poor planning on my part.  We were running a bit late, and the woman behind the counter said, “Don’t worry, Cinderella has twenty minutes of previews.”  Twenty minutes of previews and $5.00 bottles of water.  The whole thing reeks of consumerism and capitalism.  Nevertheless we made it in to catch a mini movie of Frozen (anyone who has a child has been helplessly drowning in Frozen for the last two years-we should have used that time for a bathroom break. More poor planning.)  But we did catch a final preview that interested me a bit.  The movie Tomorrowland:  I found it particularly interesting because my final for Fem Film studies is on the problematic tropes of the female superhero.  Tomorrowland is about a young, troubled girl who is believed to have the power to “fix the future.”  I said to myself, now THERE is a movie I want my daughter to see.  Anyway, the theatre was filled with middle-aged moms chaperoning small troops of young girls.  With the exception of one couple in their mid-twenties.  And I remember thinking, oofta, what did he do wrong? But quickly caught myself-why is it not ok for a hetero man to see a movie like Cinderella?  I am still, like everyone, dismantling my own hegemonic thoughts.  

And then finally the movie begins.

***The above image is not what our theatre looked like, but what I think it should have for the amount I spent!! Comfy couches!!


Lily James.  Could there have been a more perfect woman to play the role of the traditional Cinderella?  I became a fan of hers as Lady Rose of Downton Abbey.  She is the perfectly graceful, refined, beautiful blonde haired, blue-eyed white woman.  It is almost disgusting.  The way in which she is filmed throughout this movie is to highlight just that.  Most of her shots are waist up portraying the world’s best shoulders, collarbone and not-too-terribly-offensive cleavage, but cleavage none the less.  Her entire presence is artfully framed by the male gaze.  The “to-be-looked-at-ness” is utterly overwhelming- a term coined by Laura Mulvey in her essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”:  “In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.”  (Mulvey, 62)  There were no people of color in the theatre with us for that viewing and it makes me wonder.  How much more can we tolerate of this “conventional beauty” being shoved down our throats?   FAR more than half of the female population do not look like this woman. And even women with blonde hair and blue eyes don’t look like this woman.  (Although I may venture to say that if they did exist, they might be in Edina)  What would it have taken for Disney to push the limits and had a woman of color playing Cinderella?  Is that necessary? Or should they have spent the $95 million (only, apparently) on a movie that was more inclusive to ALL of the 75 million children in this great country of ours-boys, girls and trans-youth (not accounting for all of the children outside of our borders consuming US media and culture)?  The truth is we are conditioned to LOVE beauty.  So much that we can’t look away.  What if my daughter, influenced by the two hours of exposure to that kind of unrealistic beauty, goes home and secretly, in the mirror, turns that male gaze on herself?  What if she is blinded by these beauty conventions and cannot see her own exceptional, unique beauty?  Unrealistic beauty conventions are detrimental to the health of the collective self-image of our young girls.  I wondered if anyone else in that theatre was thinking that way.  It takes something to oppositionally view, though.  How do we make our young girls understand that beauty is socially constructed?  That it is not real?  That “beauty” comes in many different embodiments?

The wicked step-mother, on the other hand-they did some interesting stuff with her.  Lady Tremaine is played by Cate Blanchett.  And why did I like her?  She emotionally and verbally abuses Cinderella and downright enslaves her.  This is not why I like her-I do not condone child abuse.  Maybe it’s because we are beginning a tendency towards sympathizing with the villainous female?  You can really see it in Wicked and Maleficent.  And in Cinderella, I felt like we were being positioned to “understand” why the wicked stepmother is wicked.  Obviously because her stepdaughter is the “fairest of them all” and she is jealous of the love her husband shows for his biological daughter (implying a love, still, for his deceased wife, Cinderella’s mother).  Blah, blah, blah-that’s all business as usual.  But near the end of the film, Lady Tremaine opens up to Cinderella about her past.  Married to a wealthy Lord who apparently mismanaged their fortune-upon his death, Lady Tremaine and her two daughters were left with nothing.   And so finding a fortunate suitor was imperative to her and her daughter’s survival.  Now that, for me, is something.  The story takes place in a time when the monarchy and patriarchy reigned.  What was this woman to do?  What were her other options?  Even complicating the character a bit more, Lady Tremaine smoked, drank, partied, and at one point allied herself with the Prince’s corrupt Grand Duke.  Her depiction was in stark contrast to the prim and proper Cinderella.  Sadly, in the end, Lady Tremaine falls.  But she may have been the most interesting character.


Take a look here. What do you see?  The villagers-they are not all white.  Half of them are people of color.  And they are represented at the same class as the white people.  Similar dresses, bonnets, baskets.  No class disparity, in my opinion.  Why is this important to me? Why do I appreciate this?  Because I do not want my child growing up in a white washed world.  I don’t want her only seeing or spending her life with just white people, and I don’t want her seeing only media representations of white people.  While watching the movie I was thrilled to see characters that may have been of Middle Eastern descent (who is to say) and shop owners that were of Asian descent (again, who’s to say).    It’s not historically accurate, you say?  Who cares.  There are many burdens of representation.  For my daughter and I, I prefer any kind of respectful, tasteful, purposeful representation.  If this is problematic, or if I am completely missing something, I am open to contestation.  In the meantime I am going to enjoy this and applaud.  (Nevermind that the entire village is under the control of an all-white monarchy.  Just let me have this moment.)


But before we all get too excited, I forgot to mention Princess Chelina of Zaragoza.  We’ve got some pretty blatant Orientalism occurring here.  The character doesn’t say much and really only stands in as an exotic foil to Cinderella’s white, country girl, rural beauty.  Princess Chelina is presumably being “offered” to the king as a potential wife. A convenient marriage purportedly masterminded by the Prince’s menacing Grand Duke who probably expects to gain riches and power from colonizing and exploiting resources and materials from an exotic land in the East.  Maybe now I’m just being angry and cynical.  Or perhaps not.  In her book “Feminist Film Studies”  Karen Hollinger, on Orientalism, quotes Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: “colonialist powers justified their conquest and domination of the Third World by seeing colonized nations as “previously uninscribed” and completely silencing subaltern peoples, especially women, who are regarded as subjects of oppression and nothing more” (Hollinger, 193).  Is anyone at Disney paying attention?


All in all, I was bored.  Bored by the same old story.  The same old theme.  A beautiful young woman is saved by a gallant man.  Throughout the movie Cinderella quotes something her mother said to her when she was a little girl: “Have courage, and be kind.”  To the point where I was like-ARE WE BEING HYPNOTIZED HERE?  What is the dominant message that is being decoded by the young girls watching this?  That conventional beauty will save you.  Men only love women who are “kind and courageous,” beautiful, prim and proper.  That women, like the wicked stepmother, who are considered difficult, un-ladylike, who try to meddle like a man in a man’s world-they are punished?  Furthermore, that only the love of a man can save you?    It’s 2015, damn it!

How did I clean this mess up with my daughter?

“Freya, yes, be kind to Mother Earth, other humans, and animals.  Have courage.  But also, you MUST know how powerful you are.  You are going to have to be a bit of a badass in this world, AND you don’t ever take any shit from anyone. Ever.”  There.


If I died and a wicked stepmother had it out for my daughter and she didn’t pack her bags, take off into the night to find help and save herself, I would roll over in my grave.  Obviously I’m making this look easier than it is, but you get what I am saying.


If not, what I’m saying is that the young girls leaving the theatre that day, I imagine:


  • did not leave feeling inspired
  • did not leave feeling proud of who they are
  • did not leave feeling proud to be a female
  • did not leave feeling empowered to make a difference in the world
  • did not leave knowing that they even could.


We don’t really have time for this anymore.  This damsel in distress rhetoric.  This anything other than conventional beauty is not beauty narrative.  The “difficult women are not as desirable.”  The idea that it even matters to be desired in the first place!!  Have women not made any advances in the last 65 years that our current blockbuster aimed at young girls is a story from the 17th century?  Come on, Disney-that’s all you got?  This just will not do for my daughter and I.


Work Cited


Cinderella title image. Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web.

VIP theatre. Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web.

Lily James as Cinderella. Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web.

Lady Tremaine. Digital image. Http:// N.p., n.d. Web.

Villagers. Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web.

Princess Chelina of Zaragosa. Digital image. Http:// N.p., n.d. Web.


Hollinger, Karen. “P. 193.” Feminist Film Studies. London: Routledge, 2012. N. pag. Print.

Mulvey, Laura. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.  (n.d.): n. pag. Web.






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