Cinderella’s Representation of Gender and How its Changed

How far have we come since Cinderella?
How far have we come since Cinderella?

Growing up, Cinderella was a classic. I can’t tell you how frequently I watched the Disney movie as a child, because that number may not exist yet. As I’ve gotten older and wiser, the gender issues in this film have become more and more apparent. It is interesting to see these issues, and though they can be very aggravating, observing them show just how far we have come as a society. This article piggybacks off of Emily Lighezzolo’s article Disney No Longer ‘Frozen’ in Antiquated Gender Stereotypes and provides emphasis specifically on Disney’s Cinderella.

Model Behavior and Perpetuating Gender Stereotypes

When peeling back the layers of the film, Cinderella highlights key issues with gender roles and stereotypes. It is worth noting that Disney’s adaptation is based on Charles Perrault’s classic, written all the way back in 1697. Clearly, times were different, especially in terms of gender norms and stereotypes. Although the tale is centuries old, it is interesting to discover that a few ideas viewers see in the film were actually rather prevalent during the 1950s. For the purposes of this analysis, the Disney film will be analyzed looking through the lenses of the fifties.

One major common thread between 1950s gender issues and gender in Cinderella is the belief that marriage is the ultimate life goal. According to PBS, “In the 1950s, women felt tremendous societal pressure to focus their aspirations on a wedding ring” (“People & Events: Mrs. America: Women’s Roles in the 1950s”). Marriage was viewed as a sense of security and escape from one’s family. This idea can be seen when observing the film through a critical lens. Every eligible bachelorette wants to be married to the Prince, from Cinderella to her step-sisters. The whole existence of a grand ball that allows a slew of single females to mingle with the Prince—and hopefully solidify a marriage proposal—reiterates the idea that marriage is supremely important.

Another notion is that a woman’s place is in the home. Edith Stern wrote an article entitled, “Women Are Household Slaves,” in which she constructs a satire-esque advertisement calling for a domestic female to do “all cooking, cleaning, laundering, sewing, meal planning, shopping, [and so on]” (Stern 71). The whole article points to the fact that women in the 1950s were essentially confined to the role of housewife. Upon getting married, women were expected to stay at home and perform household chores. Some viewers are able to draw parallels within the film, as well; there is an expectation of Cinderella to constantly perform similar tasks, like sweeping and sewing. When she doesn’t do these things, there are consequences, suggesting that it is in a woman’s best interest to do the housework expected of them.

Oh Cinderella, the shoes were never the issue!
Oh Cinderella, the shoes were never the issue!

It is easier to notice the gender roles and stereotypes that have been brought to light in Cinderella especially when considering how progressive our nation has been in equalizing women and men. For instance, it is worth pointing out that the idea that a woman’s value is determined based on how they look. This is seen in specific instances in the film, such as when Cinderella encounters her Fairy Godmother. Initially, Cinderella is dressed quite plainly in her house clothes. Her transformation into a glamorous and impeccably dressed young bachelorette reinforces the beauty ideal. If Cinderella were to attend the Prince’s ball in her homely attire, her chances of making a good and lasting impression on the Prince would be slim to none.

Another instance where viewers observe the value of being beautiful is at the ball, when the Prince first sees Cinderella. Based on her physical appearance, he immediately falls in love with her, not even considering other elements, like her kind personality. Peggy Orenstein believes that the focus on beauty is damaging for young girls watching films like Cinderella. She argues that “young women who hold the most conventionally feminine beliefs—who avoid conflict and think they should be perpetually nice and pretty—are more likely to be depressed than others” (Orenstein). Moreover, young girls are beginning to feel that in order to be well-liked, they must “please everyone, be very thin and dress right” (Orenstein).

There is, additionally, the belief that love is superior to both independence and education. Today, being independent and educated are things that more and more women are focused on; they are more focused on getting a college degree and being self-sufficient than finding a husband as soon as possible. In Cinderella, independence takes a back seat to marriage. If she can marry the Prince, she will be taken care of and can depend on him to be the provider. Education is something that doesn’t even come up in the film, which could suggest that women didn’t want to waste their time learning, that they had more important goals to be fulfilling, like wrangling a husband. In our society, women work to become doctors, lawyers, and politicians. Cinderella, though…not so much; as Orenstein would say, “Cinderella doesn’t really do anything” (Orenstein).

Breaking the Chains of Gender Stereotypes Today

While Cinderella may perpetuate numerous gender roles and stereotypes, it is also just a movie. Disney’s own executive Andy Mooney has chimed in on the matter. According to him, children merely go through phases as they grow. He reasons that “[boys pass] through [and girls pass] through. I see girls expanding their imagination through visualizing themselves as princesses, and then they pass through that phase and end up becoming lawyers, doctors, mothers or princesses, whatever the case may be” (Orenstein). In this case, young children watching Cinderella could view it and remain unaffected by it; just because they watch the film doesn’t mean they will grow up thinking that they need to be a princess.

Orenstein, too, agrees that “plenty of girls stray from the script,” and rather than reenacting scenes from film, they may do other things, like “[play] basketball in their finery, or [cast] themselves as the powerful evil stepsister bossing around the sniveling Cinderella.” She also states that “there are no studies proving that playing princess directly damages girls’ self-esteem or dampens other aspirations.”

Perhaps the most telling about the progress we’ve made are the films that are being made today and how they stray away from these traditional gender roles. Lighezzolo brings up Frozen, which is certainly a great example of the undoing of these stereotypes, especially with the idea that Elsa gets her happily-ever-after without having a love interest. Brave is another film that doesn’t depend heavily on a female character in need of saving. Merida is a rough-around-the-edges, self-sufficient, and determined young woman that relies more on her set of skills than waiting on a male to shoo in and do all the hard work.

You wouldn't catch Cinderella only doing this in 2014.
You wouldn’t catch Cinderella only doing this in 2014.

The views on Cinderella undoubtedly are multi-faceted. While some see the film as a basic children’s movie, others feel that it paints a particularly problematic picture of gender roles and stereotypes. Although neither side is one hundred percent right or wrong, it is still essential to examine the film closely because of the debates that it sparks, no matter what era we’re living in.

Works Cited

Orenstein, Peggy. “What’s Wrong With Cinderella?” The New York Times. The New York Times, 24 Dec. 2006. Web. 27 Jan. 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/24/magazine/24princess.t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&>.

Stern, Edith M. ” Women Are Household Slaves.” The American Mercury (1949): 71-76. Print.

“People & Events: Mrs. America: Women’s Roles in the 1950s.” PBS. PBS, 2001. Web. 2 Feb. 2014. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/pill/peopleevents/p_mrs.html>.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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44 Comments

  1. Yajaira Way
    2

    Cinderella shows women to be very weak, obedient, and passive. It also makes wealth and beauty a top priority and a gateway to happiness.

    • Elaina Chastain

      Yes, I agree, after analyzing the film, there are definitely times where women are portrayed in such a light. Sometimes I think it depends on people’s perception of what is weak, obedient, etc. Being able to acknowledge underlying (and maybe even obvious) issues is very important! Thank you for the comment 🙂

  2. Fermina
    0

    Honestly, these type of conformity causes gender roles and stereotypes to remain present in our society.

    • Elaina Chastain

      I’m not quite sure what you’re trying to say here, but I think that whether or not people are conforming to gender roles and stereotypes is only half of the problem. It’s also how others choose to see/treat others. Thanks for the feedback!

  3. So the whole point of this article is that characters like Merida from Brave are better than Cinderella?
    So girls that want to use bows and arrows and want to be self-sufficient and tough are BETTER than girls who want to be pretty and wear frilly dresses and be saved by a prince?
    Feminism is supposed to be ‘women can be WHOEVER they want’.
    If a girl wants to dress up as Donna Reed and dreams of cooking wonderful dinners for her husband everyday, that’s fine.
    If a girl wants to be a successful lawyer and wear suits everyday, that’s fine as well.
    I do think it’s good that Disney is making films with stronger female leads now, but I also don’t think it’s right to make fun of the ‘weak’ female leads.
    It’s sickening how I see people gushing over little girls dressed as Katniss and acting as if they’re better than girls that want to be pretty princesses.
    When did one become ‘better’ than the other?

    • Elaina Chastain

      Thank you for your feedback!

      This article is actually just an analysis of gender roles and stereotypes that manifest themselves in the film, not an opinion piece on whether or not being non-feminine is superior to being feminine.

      I agree that it is completely fine for a girls to wear what they want and be whoever they want, but I did not say one is better than the other 🙂 If you want to wear frills, by all means, GO FOR IT. If you want to dress up as Katniss, then hey, DO IT. Clearly, as you so eloquently demonstrated,it’s all about personal preference!

    • The biggest thing that I took away from the article is that a lot of movies like Cinderella are telling girls that they HAVE to be submissive, beautiful, and reliant on a man. While I understand your frustration (as it’s an issue that frustrates me a bit myself), I think you’re missing the bigger point. You’re right that feminism is about women being whoever they want to be, but the issue is that societal norms and gender roles sometimes force girls into believing they “should” be one thing, whether they are that or not.
      I also think it’s important to note that, while it’s completely fine for girls to want to wear dresses and be homemakers and wives and mothers, it’s very important for girls to know that they don’t need to be “saved” by anyone, male or female, which is a point that is noticeably absent from Cinderella. Cinderella, as a character, is completely hopeless; she proves that she can’t help herself and must rely on her fairy godmother and Prince Charming to better her life. I have never taken issue with Cinderella teaching young girls that it’s okay to like dresses and dancing and romance or that cooking and cleaning are valuable jobs, but I definitely take issue with the fact that Cinderella tells girls to sit quietly in their bad situations while waiting for their prince to come.

  4. RLTerry

    This article reminds me a lot about what I saw in the musical “Disenchanted” this past weekend. It’s an Off-Broadway show that started at the Orlando Fringe Festival in 2011. The movie centers around the “princess complex.” Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty (Aurora/Briar Rose) headline the show. It goes though the lives of Disney Princesses following the close of their iconic movies. I truly believe that the classic Disney princesses, much like Cinderella, perpetuate the idea that a woman needs a man, is helpless, depressed, and incomplete. Gender roles have changed so much, and hopefully princess movies will start showing that. However, it’s not wise to go in a complete opposite direction either. A nice balance is what is needed.

    • Elaina Chastain

      What an interesting musical! Thanks for sharing 🙂 And YES, a balance is a must. Gender roles in movies nowadays are heading in a new direction, it’s great!

  5. jeremymyers86

    Good article. Well written.

  6. Cinderella definitely reflects how gender role and gender stereotypes play in the society. A pretty standard analysis on Cinderella through the lens of gender studies. But there is a possibility that Cinderella can actually serve as a tool to remind people of the existence of a whole bunch gender issues.

  7. Jeannette
    1

    I’m very curious what people think a single young woman in 18th century France with no money, no family outside the steps, etc. could have done. Let’s look at some options:

    *Ran away from home, lived in the streets begging or resorting to prostitution.
    *Tried to find a job elsewhere, though it’s unlikely, and more likely it would just be another servant job.
    *Find a husband with money to support her.
    *Get an apartment with Snow White and Belle and work at Claire’s fulltime while she gets her college degree online. Oh, wait, she didn’t have those privileges we have today.

    Or use basic common sense and stayed right where she was with food, shelter, what was left of her real family (the animals, who wouldn’t have her to protect them had she left) in her parents’ house she grew up in.

    I think many Disney critics, as well as fans, don’t realize that just because the unrealistically modernized heroines of the 90s+ had the privilege of speaking their minds without getting punished, loving families, good homes, etc., that it doesn’t mean Cinderella, who was truly oppressed, had them too. You cannot compare her situation, which had very little resources for her to use, to the new ones, who magically do. Jasmine and Belle can stand up for themselves or even talk back to people (namely men, even their fathers) without getting punished; Cinderella can’t. Rapunzel and Ariel can run away from home and be safe; Cinderella can’t. See where I’m going?

    She did the intelligent thing many characters now don’t do, she waited patiently for an opportunity to leave but in the meantime stuck it out wisely. It’s not hard to understand. People seem to think she’s not living in a time that was hard for anyone not rich and spoiled (like us today).

    • Elaina Chastain

      Okay, again let me state AGAIN that this is an analysis on gender depiction. Very bare bones. Maybe I’m blind but I don’t necessarily remember flat out saying, “Cinderella is an idiot for not exploring other options, like A, B, or C…” It is literally a simple analysis.But thanks for that lengthy feedback 🙂

    • I love Cinderella because she has not a once of guile. She is a kind, faithful, hopeful individual all the way to the end. I really like her story. The Disney version is the definitive film version for me.

      Ariel and Jasmine are already princesses when the story begins so they could get away with more back talk and sassiness to their parents. Cinderella is all alone with only her pet friends. She really has no choice or she may get tossed out by stepmother.

      I do get the feeling that after the shredding of the bird & mouse-made pink dress by her insane stepsisters, Cinderella had it and was ready to run away. Thank God for Fairy Godmother!

    • Tara Harmon
      0

      As a feminist, I think it’s ridiculous that so many fellow feminists completely dismiss the early princesses, especially since Cinderella came out in 1950. In 2014, women are still pushing for better representation in media, so how can you expect female protagonists of 50s to have 21st century sensibilities?

      While I love the feisty girls like Jasmine and Merida, I think Cinderella doesn’t get enough credit. She was an abused child. There are lots of abused children who never run away from home, plus how many of them manage to maintain a good, kind nature despite being so maltreated? And since when does a girl/woman have to be loud, extroverted, and rebellious to be strong? Quiet, gentle girls like Cinderella are strong in their own way.

      Besides, if I were Cinderella, I wouldn’t have wanted to leave my little animal friends. They were so cute!

      • Nilson Thomas Carroll

        This is a really great comment that should be part of the larger discussion. Cinderella is definitely strong in her own way.

      • Great first point, to criticise material from a different tea causes no progression. To focus on modern day representation of gender works towards change.

  8. Okay analyses, you could’ve explored this further though. We must note that Prince Charming fell in love with Cinderella’s beauty, not necessarily Cinderella herself.

    • Elaina Chastain

      From the article:
      “For instance, it is worth pointing out that the idea that a woman’s value is determined based on how they look. This is seen in specific instances in the film, such as when Cinderella encounters her Fairy Godmother. Initially, Cinderella is dressed quite plainly in her house clothes. Her transformation into a glamorous and impeccably dressed young bachelorette reinforces the beauty ideal. If Cinderella were to attend the Prince’s ball in her homely attire, her chances of making a good and lasting impression on the Prince would be slim to none.”

      Yes, it is true that he fell in love with her based on looks alone! Thanks for the feedback 🙂

  9. I always found it funny how they talked about trying the slipper on every girl in the kingdom, when in reality what they really needed to be looking for was whoever had the second slipper. I never even noticed that the duke mentions that it is possible for it to fit more then one girl, to which the king replies “Let him deal with that!”
    But again, it is a fairy tale and it is cute after all. Helped all little girls dream a bit more!

    • Elaina Chastain

      Great observation!! That’s such a good point, thank you for bringing that up 🙂 Glipses of positives among negatives, I love it!

    • This is actually a really good point. Many people do not really think about this. With how small Cinderella’s feet could have been, there could have easily been many other pairs of feet that were the same size (after all, small feet were the norm when the fairy tale was written).

      I do agree with you, though. It IS a fairy tale, so there isn’t much that we can complain about. This scenario just proves that Cinderella is one-of-a-kind.

  10. This is a very interesting article. I honestly wouldn’t be paying attention to it if I was taking an Intro to Women Gender Studies class at the time. Many people, when looking at gender issues that have occurred in the past, only focus on the present and what it would mean at this present-day time. The fact that you look at this through the time when the movie was made (and the fairy tale) show that it was just the norm for the time. Of course it’s a big change from Frozen, which was just recently released.

    I’m actually debating sending this article to my class. I will either do that or just talk about it during our next discussion. Disney and gender representation are two of the things that my class loves having a debate on.

    Thank you for writing this!

  11. I’ve never seen Disney’s 1950 Cinderella, but I vaguely remember the live-action version in the 1990s. I wonder if they tried to change the message for young girls in that update?

  12. mccartyj

    I think is a lovely and fairly accurate post! Something else to consider: while we’re updating princesses, we do very little to update the princes. From Cinderella to today, what we have are very masculine, physically able men. Even though with stories like that of Tangled or Han’s ‘evil’ side that emerges in Frozen, the princes are one-sided and flat.

    • Elaina Chastain

      Thank you! And yes, the princes are just as important as the princes! We have certainly seen a shift in representations of men over the years 🙂

  13. Very interesting analysis of a film that appears timeless and dated at the same time. Thanks!

  14. This is a very true fact, and its interesting to look at how the older disney movies such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty compare to the newer disney movies like Frozen and Brave which deal more with the girls taking these tasks upon themselves and not waiting around for a man to “save” them! Great article!

  15. Lovely, and thought-provoking article. As much as I loved Cinderella and most other Disney princesses growing up (and honestly, I probably always will), I never acknowledged the gender issues present in the movies up until recently.

  16. ShayS

    I think the article is amazing. I haven’t really thought about the underlying meaning of Cinderella. I just thought it was just a typical damsel in distress Disney movie. I didn’t think about why she couldn’t wear rags to the ball or what the implications of the ball were. I am thankful you brought to this my attention and that you chose Cinderella because most girls can’t even relate to being Cinderella.

  17. Great work! I was thinking about one of my favorite Disney films growing up, Beauty and the Beast, and wondering what a feminist interpretation would bring to that piece. For there we have a heroine who is, very self-consciously presented at the start of the film, as “a beauty but a funny girl,” who reads intensely and uses her intellect to reject the boorish Gaston. And it is Belle who has to literally “tame” the beast, to teach the prototypical arrogant patriarchal prince a lesson in compassion and love. Anyway, I thank you for your wonderful analysis to help me think through other favorite movies from my childhood in new and exciting ways!

  18. Jemarc Axinto

    I like how you point out that a woman is not defined by how she behaves but by her own self-worth. That being said I find Andy Moony’s quote problematic because he still subscribes to traditional gender roles. Whose to say that a girl HAS to go through a phase where she thinks of herself as a princess?

    The issue for me at least in these types of films (I suppose the equivalent would be the 80’s action films like Rambo, Terminator, etc.) is not that the film is damaging to the individual directly, but that the ideas it perpetuates can be damaging to society as a whole. If young girls believe they have to be princesses, the instant they see someone that does not fill that mold they begin asking questions, or worse, teasing.

    I know that in my own experience as someone who was more interested in drawing and reading than rough housing as I got older, I was teased quite a bit for not fitting the “masculine” trope. Yes, the movie didn’t make me feel insecure, but he expectations from those movies is what caused the issue.

    Also, on a more amusing note. I’m entirely convinced the prince was rather smashed at the ball because he didn’t even remember what she looked like hahaha.

  19. Wow I never thought of this movie in a critical way and now my eyes have been open. Cinderella story reminds me of some of the Housewives Shows on Bravo channel where the female is performing duties that women did back in the 50’s. This could be a false example to young ladies that this is what your life should be like, however it would be a false interpretation.

  20. Nat

    Its really fascinating to about just how much gender roles have changed within 50-60 years just compare Cinderella, Snow White or Aurora to Belle, Mulan or Tiana for example.

  21. Interesting take. I always said that women are not a product of their sexuality. They are who they want to be. I am somewhat of a feminist, that a women can do anything a man can do and a man can do the same. So, this is a really great take. And I don’t think there is a role reversal, but simply times have changed and not all women want to be housewives, cooking and cleaning all day. Some look for excitement. Nice piece.

  22. This was a very insightful article, and made recall a class I took just last year in college all about the impact media has on young girls.

    I think, additionally, that it was wise to look at the film through a 1950’s perspective. Things have changed, but back than, it was the norm; ‘Cinderella’ simply reflects the historical context. This is not to say that these expectations were right (I learned in a sociology class that there was a huge spike in the prescription of anti-depressants for women in the 50’s), but I think it is worthwhile to remember when the film was made. Thankfully, now films like ‘Brave’ and ‘Frozen’ have broken the mold, and will hopefully start a long-lasting precedent; one that can reflect how far we have come in gender equality/expectations.

  23. phillip Danny
    0

    this is a very interesting analysis , very similar what i’ve doing in my mind , but i can add other points of view from the movie , as the fact that the girl mouse don’t leave jack to sew , i dont know why she done it
    but the scene seems very sexist , and for that reason i leave to watch cinderella for a quite time but im back watching because that incidental will not prohibit me to enjoy the film ,
    yes the film has problems of gender stereotypes but it still a wonderful film that we can enjoy ! and not only for girls , also for boys because i found the point that the boys can watch the movie , because they can dream as cinderella but in manly way ,
    i mean instead of women cinderella is a man cinderella that tried find love with a princess (instead of prince) for that reason i didnt like the disney princess franchise because disney stereotyped the fairy tales to girls instead to be enjoyed in both , but i learned to live without that warming and love what i want more, i mean to look on the bright side of things,

    anyway, very good job you have done! i really enjoy the film 🙂

  24. Britney Pahls
    0

    I agree with you every thing that involved gender. Disney needs to be more cautious on stereotypes.
    (:

  25. Britney Pahls
    0

    Yes I do agree Disney needs to be more aware about stereotypes.
    (:

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