I chose to honor the little girl inside of me and went to see the new Cinderella movie. According to IMBd, it falls into the genres of “family,” “drama,” and “fantasy” but it in my mind, I thought of it as a “childhood fairytale.” Cinderella is a familiar story to most of us, and this 2015 “retelling” of this classic tale as a live-action film stayed true to much of what I remembered from the original Disney movie. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, it stars Lily James as Cinderella, Cate Blanchett as the Stepmother, and Richard Madden as the Prince. The storyline follows a young girl, nicknamed “Cinderella” by her cruel stepmother and stepsisters, as she tries to navigate the challenges of surviving without her parents in a home where she is not wanted. After she loses her perfect life when her mother dies and her father remarries and later passes away as well, she is forced to act as a servant for her stepmother and stepsisters. Despite this unfortunate reality, Cinderella strives to “have courage and be kind,” as instructed by her mother. As we all know, she meets a handsome prince, although she doesn’t realize he is a prince in this film, and later wants to attend the royal ball. Her stepmother refuses to let her partake, leaving Cinderella heartbroken until her fairy godmother saves the day. Cinderella’s wish to attend the ball is granted, and she leaves a lasting impression.
I have to admit; I really wanted to like the movie because of how magical the story once seemed to me. The idea of a fairy godmother charmed me as a child, but as an adult, even the magic couldn’t disguise the problematic themes of Cinderella. Watching it with a critical eye left me wishing that the director had revised the role of Cinderella, giving her more complexity and power instead of recreating the powerless damsel I already knew her to be. Overall, this film perpetuates an unrealistic image of female beauty and the objectification of women for the pleasure of men.
Lily James plays Cinderella and she looks literally flawless throughout the entire movie. Her waist is impossibly tiny, her hair is perfectly curled (even with the tattered headband that marks her as a maid), and her skin glows (despite the soot/dirt from her housework). Much of the story of Cinderella revolves around her time at the ball, during which she is transformed into the most exquisite princess of all the Disney films. From her dress to her glass slippers, she embodies all of society’s conventional views of white, female beauty. The fixation on Cinderella’s physical appearance seemed to portray a message of ideal beauty that I can only imagine resonated deeply with the young audiences of the film, both male and female. This is extremely problematic, especially for young girls, because I know that images like those of Cinderella will linger in the minds of young children and form their version of what it means to be “beautiful” in our society. Much of what we consider to be beautiful is socially constructed from a young age, and children are powerless to challenge these unrealistic representations. Cinderella’s beauty is so unrealistic that it almost seems unattainable yet audiences still want to look like her. Before seeing this film, I knew that there had been criticism surrounding Lily James’ physical appearance as people thought her waist had been photo shopped. After watching the movie, I can understand why people were concerned about this (this accusation has been denied by the actress herself), especially because young children (who are likely biggest audience of the film) can’t be skeptical about things like a tiny waist because “seeing is believing” when you are a child. A key element of the film is Cinderella’s makeover by her fairy godmother; her makeover exemplifies the “makeover paradigm” that is outlined in the Gill reading. Gill states, “It might be argued that a makeover paradigm constitutes postfeminist media culture,” a concept that requires “people (predominantly women) to believe, first, that they or their life is lacking or flawed in some way” and that this lack can be fixed by a “reinvention or transformation” (pg. 156). This is easy to see in the film, as Cinderella finally achieves the highest level of female beauty once she fulfills her lack. While the story ultimately carries a message that her beauty came from her kindness and courage, the film is not so subtly coded with this paradigm.
Beyond her image of ideal female beauty, Cinderella is highly sexualized despite the PG rating. After taking this course, it is impossible for me to view a female protagonist (especially a character like Cinderella) without analyzing her for signs of the male gaze. Despite the family-friendly rating and presentation, the male gaze had a powerful presence in the portrayal of Cinderella. As Mulvey writes, “women are simultaneously looked at and displayed” and their display is as a “sexual object” (pg. 9). Cinderella’s appearance embodies the objectification and sexualization for the pleasure of the male gaze, as much as I wish her kindness and courage would prevail when it comes to her worth. Cinderella’s beauty as formed by the male gaze is prominent throughout the entire movie, contradicting the message that it’s what’s on the inside that counts. Cinderella’s encounters with the Prince, when neither of them knows who each other truly is, appear to try to make the point that beauty doesn’t matter, but I cannot take this message seriously. Cinderella’s beauty does not belong to her, ultimately. She is an object of the gaze, which instead diminishes her worth to based on things like her tiny waist, her perfect air, and her radiant complexion. It’s disturbing to me that the male gaze is so present in a children’s story, but I should not be surprised that even in a film like Cinderella we see this concept perpetuated.
I my opinion, Cinderella did nothing but emphasize the importance of beauty. The love story, a key component of this tale, and the message of kindness and courage as the true meaning of self-worth were lost to me among the sea of idealism and objectification.
I saw Cinderella with a friend at a movie theater back in my hometown of La Crosse, WI. The ticket cost $8.50, which is pretty standard. The building is clean and inviting, and it’s one of two theaters in La Crosse so it’s fairly popular. The concessions were featured right as we walked into the main area after purchasing our tickets, so I was certainly encouraged to buy snacks, although I did not end up buying anything. The audience consisted of mostly parents and children but also a few young people (high school/college aged). No one was really interacting with each other except with the people that they came with, which is to be expected because movie watching is a fairly personal experience at a theater.
Gill, Rosalind. (2010). “Postfeminist media culture: Elements of a sensibility.”
Mulvey, Laura. (1975). “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3: 6-18.