Fairytales and Feminism: “I Don’t Wanna be Like Cinderella”
Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast – all classic fairytales which have been around for generations, and have appeared in many different retellings. Nowadays, these stories are owned by the production giant known as Walt Disney Studios, leaving all of the retelling and changes up to their collective discretion.
But just how much have the stories changed from their originals? And have all of these changes been for the better?
The Original Message vs. Disney’s Retelling
The original stories we know as fairytales were made with a purpose: for educating and putting forth ideal behaviours for children, both boys and girls. Boys were taught to be action-takers, leaders, and protectors, often striding forth to either save or find their mysterious princesses, and take their happily-ever-after. While the male hero isn’t expected to be all that eloquent with his words, he’s still expected to be the one to take charge in any situation.
Girls got a very different message.
In order for them to succeed, they needed to fit into the narrow view of what was beautiful, as well as being kind, generous, self-sacrificing, the epitome of patience and forgiveness – just to name a few. Essentially, they were taught to be as passive and as gentle as possible.
In one of the original versions of the classic Cinderella story by Charles Perrault 1, once Cinderella is revealed to be the mysterious princess, she still goes out of her way to be kind to her step-sisters, by giving them fancy lodgings and matching them up with men of the court – a detail left out in both the live action or animated versions of Disney’s Cinderella. However, being a kind and gracious young lady is established at the end of the tale as being the moral of the story: even more valuable than just being beautiful, even though that point it pushed quite a few times throughout the tale.
A fine message, to be sure, for someone of any gender: it should always be a goal to be as kind and gracious to others as possible. But, such an element seems to be lacking when it comes to Disney’s most recent retelling, beyond the mantra of “be kind” – a mantra which doesn’t even seem to be followed by the film’s heroine as she snubs her “evil” step-mother and is carried away by the prince, whipping out a snippy one-liner and leaving her standing, dumbfounded on the stairwell.
Without the all-important message of true kindness and graciousness, what is truly left as the message of the fairytale? Or has the message been changed completely?
Instead of that moment on the stairwell being used as a tool for the audience – to help satisfy that need for the evildoer to be punished, for the bad to get what they deserve – it could be sending a very different message.
A message to young girls: abuse should not be tolerated.
From today’s perspective, the emotional abuse Cinderella suffers at the hands of her stepfamily members is obvious. While the original story may have had goals of teaching girls to be good in spite of whatever might be thrown their way, and to always maintain a calm and gracious exterior made of passivity, Disney is taking the tone in a different direction by showing their heroine sticking up for herself. Instead of taking the abuse in passivity, Disney’s Ella finally takes a stand.
At the end of the movie, Cinderella has her escape, her way out of the abuse she’s been forced to suffer for all of these years. Her handsome prince is right there to help her get away afterwards, meaning she can stand up for herself without fear of any further repercussions from her stepmother. It’s a detail that isn’t present in the animated version of the film, nor the original versions of the story.
Had she decided to be a little more forcefully assertive before the end of the movie, it’s obvious that things would have gone poorly for her. Her stepmother smashes the glass slipper Ella managed to save from her trip to the ball when they get into an argument before the prince’s envoy even arrives – a tell-tale warning sign for escalating abuse 2. The fact that she locks Ella up in her room when the prince’s envoy is about to arrive is also another good indicator.
By biding her time, Ella sets herself up for a successful escape and what seems to be the smart decision of riding off into the metaphorical sunset with her “Prince Charming”.
But that’s when another issue arises with the genre of fairytales: the idea of love at first sight.
The Issue of “Love at First Sight”
No matter what, Cinderella ends up in a rather unrealistic example of romance. While Perrault’s version covers two nights, and the Brother’s Grimm follows a total of three nights of Cinderella and her prince interacting 3, the Disney versions only cover a single night – plus a brief, Sleeping Beauty-esque meeting in the woods ahead of time in the most recent remake. In the same version, the interactions between the prince and Cinderella take up less than 20 minutes of screen time 4
Yet, Disney would have you believe that not only did these two fall in love during that time, but that it was also the perfect, happily-ever-after romance, in a situation only driven on by appearances. In reality, it shouldn’t be considered anything more than infatuation. In real life, any girl who spends less than an hour with a guy before they both spontaneously decide to get married would be considered crazy and impulsive. Yet, in fairytale land, sudden declarations of love and marriage are somehow completely acceptable.
It’s a common theme in just about every fairytale that the poor, less-fortunate female main character ends up being rewarded by a marriage to royalty, with said marriage partner’s personality resembling more of a cardboard cut-out than a person. Cinderella sticks to the values that were pushed by the original fairytale, and she’s rewarded by her escape with a pretty much unknown prince. It’s not surprising, considering it is a pretty common motif in just about every fairytale that features a pure, innocent girl in an unfortunate situation that ultimately gets rewarded for her good behaviour and fitting into the classic beauty expectations by way of rescue by a handsome prince.
Beauty from Beauty and the Beast acts like the perfect girl and daughter, and is rewarded by the beast transforming into a handsome prince. Snow White is rescued from her wicked stepmother’s last attempt to kill her by the random, passer-by prince, and is restored to her royal status by marriage. Rapunzel is rescued from her tower and reunited with her handsome prince.
In every story, as long as the girl follows what is set out as good behaviour, she gets the reward of marriage – and being swept into wealth and status with a person who is practically a stranger.
The stories never focus much on developing the character of the prince, and by working with the same source material, Disney doesn’t do much better. Drawn (or cast) in just about every movie as the classically handsome, white, affluent male, that is where the prince’s character development ends. He is just a working stand-in for the female-focused narratives, which work to push girls towards the author’s ulterior motives of supposed “good behaviour” for females.
False Ideas of Perfection
The movies and stories are always more focused on the girl’s behaviour and her side of the story, making her into the perfect, flawless character. There is never a hair out of place, even when Cinderella is supposedly working as the house maid. She never snaps or outright acts meanly towards anyone around her. She does what she is told by her stepmother. While all of her behaviour ultimately comes across as being fairly naive by today’s standards, it is still somehow fitting into the idea of the “ideal female”. There is no “ugly crying”; always a smile, and the almost impossible waistlines that every princess, drawn or cast, somehow manages to maintain.
What kind of message does that send to young girls, who may have to deal with the unfortunate reality that sometimes, it just isn’t possible to look that good?
Bad hair days, breakouts, bloating – all problems which Disney Princesses apparently don’t have to deal with, but real girls do. With having such an uncomfortably high standard being pushed, how are girls supposed to cope with the inevitable dissonance between what they look like, and what they’re told they need to look like in order to achieve what’s defined as “success”?
The emphasis for girls is to look good to attract the man who will take care of you, which is ultimately what does end up happening even in Disney’s remake. Ella is unhappy and stuck in an unfortunate position without any kind of male figure to look after her. Through her looks, she attracts the ideal prince, who immediately swoops in to save the day and take her away from her abusive household and to a happily ever-after, all by virtue of her good looks. She achieves the end-goal, the success of a good marriage to a well-off match. With a bulging waistline and messy hair, or even showing up to the ball in the tattered dress of her mother’s that she originally wants to wear, it is pretty much impossible to say whether Cinderella would have caught the prince’s attention. If she did, it would have probably had more to do with ridicule than admiration of her good looks.
All of the other strangers and extras at the ball are no different. Everyone at the ball shows deference to her, just because by virtue of the original story, Cinderella is supposed to be the most beautiful girl there.
Looks are what matters, and even the prince is no exception.
Even just by looking at the promo image, it is very obvious where the focus lies in these old fairytales. Cinderella gets a name, while the prince is just “The Prince”. No name; all that matters is his title and status, and the way he looks. Whatever his personality may be like, whatever kind of person he is, is only secondary to the fact he has the royal status that serves as the reward for Ella’s good behaviour throughout the film. Act the way you’re expected, look pretty, and the prince will come along to sweep you off your feet – the abuse message may have been a good one, but Disney is still caught in the old, constrained messages that Perrault and the Brother’s Grimm were pushing with their tales. The old cultural expectations are hard to remove since they are inherently contained within the storyline itself, yet they seem so incredibly out of place today.
Are Disney Princesses a Good Thing?
According to a recent TIME magazine article, interacting with Disney princess media, toys and the entire culture may actually lead to more stereotypical gendered behaviour in girls, and may even lead to lower self-esteem and body image issues 5.
Looking at a group of around 200 preschoolers, the study looked at how much the children interacted with Disney Princess related materials, before looking at reports from parents and teachers and a small task where the kids would pick their favourite toys out of stereotypical gendered and gender-neutral options. For both the boys and girls, greater interaction with Disney Princesses resulted in more female stereotypical behaviour a year later. Such behaviour can be seen as a positive for boys: encouraging better body self-esteem and helpfulness are all beneficial contributions. For girls, however, it could contribute to lower confidence levels and less self-esteem.
While a small study, the fact that so many people have been looking into the potentially harmful effects of Disney princesses in recent years is concerning – if there wasn’t something to be concerned about, so many resources would probably not be focused on studying its effects on children. The stories are rooted in very old and outdated cultural practices and norms, which don’t have much of a place in today’s society, and would cause these so-called “gender stereotypical” behaviours. The stories were made to promote these norms and teach these approved behavioural practices to young children. We shouldn’t be surprised when they start behaving according to these norms after interacting with the stories on a regular basis.
While Disney may be trying to change some of its messages now, even adding a much wider variety of princesses in terms of race to its line-up, the original messages of the stories it’s using as source material could just be a natural block to much progress. As well, it’s animation and casting are still portraying the same kinds of beauty ideals: thin waistlines, classically beautiful girls, with never a single thing out of place, in terms of personality or looks.
Perhaps maybe its time to put some of these old fairytales to bed.
- Ashliman, R.L. “Cinderella, or The Little Glass Slipper”. Folklore and Mythology Electronic Texts. University of Pittsburgh, 2003. Web. June 25, 2016. http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/folktexts.html ↩
- “Warning Signs of Abuse”. Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness. The Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness, 2015. Web. June 25, 2016. http://stoprelationshipabuse.org/educated/warning-signs-of-abuse/ ↩
- Ashliman, R.L. “Cinderella”. Folklore and Mythology Electronic Texts. University of Pittsburgh, 2003. Web. June 25, 2016. http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/folktexts.html ↩
- Kenneth Branagh, dir. Cinderella. Disney Studios, 2015. Film. ↩
- Salyer, Kirsten. “Are Disney Princesses Hurting Your Daughter’s Self-Esteem?” TIME. TIME Magazine, June 22, 2016. Web. June 25, 2016. http://time.com/4378119/disney-princess-effect-on-girls/ ↩
What do you think? Leave a comment.
Your article continues to put focus on a much discussed topic. With good result. Disney recently announced a new TV show where the female protagonist promises to break the stereotype. Maybe you could do a follow up article.
I hadn’t heard about that. I might have to look into it once it’s released. Thanks for reading!
Enjoyed the article. I have some resistance to what I read as your wholesale rejection of “perfection” in these stories. In a way, that’s what defines a fairy tale: perfect good meets perfect evil, and we learn to be more perfect in the process. It’s the clarity of these forms that allows the story to pass so smoothly into the unconscious of the individual and the culture. Of course, in the merciless old German versions, things came out differently: perfect good was a little too perfect, too innocent, and often met her grueseome demise. These horrific outcomes, today, are unthinkable for children’s stories, which creates a curious upset in the didacic messaging: perfection goes unpunished, and is therefore held up unproblematically as the desired ideal.
Then again, you make good on your promise to reject perfection by rejecting the tales themselves with your final sentence. Good stuff.
I just think that these tales have lost their intended place in our modern society. They were meant to teach what was then ideal behaviour for girls and boys, but with the way society has changed, those ideal behaviours are now viewed as more problematic than anything else.
I think if they are going to continue to be circulated, they do need some of the updates of modern rewrites, to encourage behaviour that’s more in-line with today’s expectations. I think pushing old school ideas of perfection can be harmful if proper steps aren’t taken by forces outside the stories (the child’s parents, for example) to show that it’s just an old story, and that the examples shown by these stories don’t have to be followed.
Thanks for reading and for your comment though. 🙂 Gave me something to think about!
It definitely is an outdated trope: beautiful girl wins the affection of the powerful prince purely based on her beauty and is rescued from a life of sadness and poverty. She tends to not have much say in her current situation, and though she moves on to a better situation, she still remains in a similar state of being told what to do. But then again, one is led to believe that she will never be told anything antithetical to her happiness due to her and her prince sharing a bond of unconditional love (Just playing devil’s advocate here 🙂 ).
I found your points regarding the effect of the interactions with Disney princesses on preschoolers to be truly frightening in the way these dolls could negatively affect the children’s self-esteem. Though, in retrospect, it does make sense. The young girls look at these dolls that do not resemble themselves, reflect on the story in which the princesses’ beauty was her means of finding happiness, and then wondering how her story will go.
Very interesting and pertinent article that I enjoyed reading very much.
Led to believe, yes, but I feel that sets an unhealthy view of romance for young girls. Love may be blind, but that’s what can cause a lot of issues – blindness to obvious red flags. Though it doesn’t happen in the fairy tale stories, I feel that love at first sight can lead to some dangerous situations in real life without a reality check. It’s part of why I personally feel that some of these fairy tales are dangerously outdated.
Girls should not be taught that they just need to look beautiful and marry well – that was the lesson for these stories and was applicable back in the time that they were written, and it can be problematic if not mixed with some healthier messages from other sources.
Thanks for the great comment! I’m happy to hear that you enjoyed it.
i agree totally!
Great article. It’s important to keep a femnist curiosity/skepticism about any writing created long ago and by men.
If you ever get a chance, there is a book called “From Girl to Goddess; the Heroine’s Journey” by Valerie Estelle Frankel. I highly recommend it; its the Hero’s Journey but from the heroine’s perspective. The Heroine is on a journey for identity and security, to rescue her loved one, to confront the patriarchy, to challenge her shadow self in the form of the Terrible Mother (a ruthless maternal figure like the wicked stepmother or evil queen or wicked witch), to descend into the underworld to gain knowledge and insight of darkness, and to embody all the great goddess figures of the heroic maiden, the all-powerful mother and the wise arch-crone.
The Book covers women and heroines from different archetypes; maidens, mothers, crones, seductresses, warrior women, queer women, destroyers, tricksters, spirit guardians, wise women, great mothers and terrible mothers.
That sounds very very interesting! I’ll have to keep that in mind once I finish my current book. Seems like an interesting take on old archetypes.
Part of a fairy tale’s charm is that it doesn’t give lots of justification for the characters’ actions or the society’s structure, instead challenging us to accept it as a retelling of the events. That should be a strength we build on, as it lets us present completely different worlds without having to justify them. For instance, what if fairyland were organized more like a beehive than a European court? Has there ever been a tale about what happened to someone who disturbed an ogress brooding over her eggs? Or one about how solitary deep-sea mermaids and mermen find each other and stay together? Let’s stop using fantasy creatures solely as comments on people and be interested in them as themselves.
I feel it’s different when those “fantasy creatures” are people, which was discussed in the article.
The stories were originally designed as prescriptions and ways to teach behaviour for males and females. The fairy tales were based on the societies that they were intended to teach, as well.
I am not interested in the comments that they make on people, but rather what they are teaching those that interact with them today. Every form of writing is a type of communication, with both implied and inherent messages. The messages that some of these fairy tales can send are problematic for today’s society, because they don’t mesh with the way expectations and progressions in roles have changed for all people.
Fantastic read! What a good way to explain this to us!
Thanks so much! Glad you enjoyed it.
I wholeheartedly feel that feminism has made asexuals of us all.
Fellas! Who do you prefer as wife material: Cinderella or that Bisexual Greek Warrior Princess Xena?
Well Cinderella is wife material hands down. Xena however…
Who says Xena is bi-sexual? Nice try to get the LGBT involved in this. Xena was just a warrior princess, looking for her PRINCE!
i am sick and tired on seeing comments like this. get a life and stop trolling. there is more to a woman than just marital qualities. Xena was a kick ass princess who provided a good role model to young girls. Cinderella was a weak, perfect, pea brain who took verbal and mental abuse for years. And honestly this comment is just degrading and furthers the whole “men are insensitive pigs who only see beauty in a woman” stereotype. and for craps sake if you are married or have a partner i feel extremely sorry for them
oh and also the way you say this.. whats wrong with being bisexual? the fact you even mentioned that part makes me think you are a homophobe
One problem is that, like most fairy tales, it presumes a readership that mostly no longer exists. It’s not just feminism.
That’s why I tried to touch on the somewhat unrealistic expectations that they set for males as well. Gender roles nowadays don’t conform to the roles that these stories were trying to teach – as you said, the readership no longer exists.
I’m always drawn to the writing and topics on The Artifice. Thank you for sharing your talent and giving us a powerful perspective.
Thanks so much. I’m glad you enjoyed it.
Feminism doesn’t expect perfection.
I’m going to miss the classic fairy tales from Disney, regardless of intent. Little Mermaid was the best one though.
This is really interesting. When you know the history of the tales, it can be eye-opening.
Traditional fairy tales teach that women are helpless fools in need of being rescued by a man. As well, it always got to me what an oversimplified and shallow story the 1959 Sleeping Beauty was.
I don’t agree. You will find every kind of female archetypes, you just need to have open mind and willingness to step out of the most popular stories. Clever girls, brave girls, damsels in distress, lazy, kind, evil etc. Examples:
1. Russian Maria Morievna commands the army and she cage Koschey. Her husband is the irresposible one, who liberate Koschey.
2. Polish Princess Sorceress (Magic user, who isn’t evil and witch) from Krasicki’s Polish fairy tale puts impossible tasks on her suitors, because she is afraid husband would hinder her learnings. Then she competes with one boy: if he finds her in her many forms, she will give her consent for marriage. She lose, but she lose to her equal .
3. German Rose Red and Snow White rescue the king.
4. Scandinavian ugly, brave Tatterhood defended castle of her mother and then she rescued her dear sister (Yes, one of the rare sisterly friendships in folk stories !). Her sister loves Tatterhood so She only will marry if her sister get married too.
5. German and Czech Clever girl peasant. She marries the king, because she have outsmarted him. Certainly, she is much much wiser than he.
6. Chinese girl slays a dragon
7. Czech Libuse is independent ruler till people starts whining about her being female.
8. Once again czech legend: Women under Vlasta’s command rebel against men because of losing rights under the new king. They are winning to certain point, but all of them die in the battlefield in the end.
9. Lazy girl wants to marry the king. So she pay wavers to do her job. She succeed and isn’t punished.
Just few examples. I’m sorry for any mistakes. English is my second language
Those are great examples. The focus here was supposed to be on the popular European fairy tales, written by Perrault and The Brother’s Grimm, and the ones that were in particular turned into the popular Disney films that we know today.
I do agree that not all fairy tales have the issues that these ones have – it’s just these ones in particular that should be under some scrutiny because of their historical purpose and content.
I wonder those fairy tales are popular because of its enduring appeal, or because we are oversaturated with the eternal circle of the same fairy tale adaptations. Personally, I’m sick of that.
I’m all for variety of personalities , but modern trend to change heroines into kickass, spunky ‘strong’ sword swinging women has become cliche too. I miss more composed, masters of subtle manipulation like Sheherezade. Heroine, who fights with words not swords.
Disney – I never warmed up to their characterisations,. Sidekicks steal the spotlight and this is the reason to watch movies.
Scrutinity… Everything depend on storyteller, I think. Let’s take ‘King Thrushbeard’. It’s taming the shrew to core But it can be changed into story of growing up as person and ruler. Quite nicely Czechs and Germans did it. Both adaptations are more or less straight retellings til the end. There they added different reaction of princess to truth. Czech Princess Anna’s reaction is priceless: She is angry at deception, angry at inequality in their relationship. She wanted her poor beggar back, not the king. She made Mattias realise he was wrong. German Princess Isabella hit Richard and said she don’t want to be Queen anymore..
I’ve been reading some ‘dark’, contemporary feminist-leaning fairy tales recently, many of them by female authors. To be honest, I’m starting to find it a bit wearing.
It seems as though one of the go-to ways of making a tale more feminist, is to make the female protagonist suffer horribly at the hands of men. I’m getting tired of the formulas used to do this in fairy tale stories already: handsome prince-types turn out to be abusive, boorish husbands; female characters endure a long string of horrific ordeals until a deux ex machina, deliberately-unconvincing magical solution pops up at the very end, the subtext apparently being that “in real life there is no easy escape”; etc. Even though I’m a woman myself, the thought did occur that perhaps I should start seeking out more stories with male protagonists, since reading about their lives is less depressing!
On the other hand, it would also be wrong to insist that all tales ignore the dark side of life for many women. Maybe the challenge is to ensure that when making a tale satisfying in a feminist sense, it also remains satisfying in a dramatic sense. For example, perhaps a heroine does get stuck with a horrible prince for a husband; but maybe she knowingly chooses to do so because forging the alliance enables her to save her kingdom (something like Scheherazade again).
Or maybe she manages to raise her son to respect women and so break the cycle, or something like that.
I think there needs to be more of a balance. Going too far one way or another doesn’t solve anything.
Given that life itself rarely exists in extremes, but more of a grey area, I think any modern fairy tale retellings need to shoot for that, rather than the extreme ends of the spectrum that seem to exist.
How interesting! I’ve noticed that with some of my favorite feminist tv shows, like “Buffy” and “Alias,” they really do just put the characters through the worst possible situations. I think it’s to show that women are strong enough to overcome even hopeless situations? I guess that’s a little more typical of action movies in general, like James Bond or Indiana Jones, but then the situations are seen as fun challenges from the perspective of the audience and not depressing.
Thanks for the insights… There is a good angle to much of this. It comes down to not wanting to wait around to be saved by someone else, which is really the message to virtually every modern American movie: you control your own destiny. Sounds nice, but too often selfishly portrayed for my taste. I always thought the gals in these tales represented goodness and I think the world needs more good people.
They do represent goodness, but there is just the aspect of them being too good. Having that kind of message pushed as being ideal behaviour, being that unattainably perfect person… Well, real people can’t really handle that. It just creates undue pressure, in my opinion.
Thanks for reading though! Glad you enjoyed it.
I’ve just realised that actually, there’s a hidden message in the Disney princess films. Think about it: Tiana, Pocahontas, Elsa, Jasmine, Belle and Mulan are all the independent princesses – unlike Snow White, Aurora, Cinderella and so on. But all the independent princesses have something in common – the villain. Belle – Gaston. Tiana- Doctor Facilier. Elsa- Prince Hans. Jasmine – Jafar. Pocahontas- Governor Radcliffe. Mulan – The Huns general. The villains are all male. So does this mean that Disney believes that men are stronger than woman and so only the strongest Disney heroines can defeat them, not the damsels in distress?
I’m actually currently working on a college thesis on fairy tale adaptations (which will include writing a few of my own modernized adaptations, which will probably all have a bit of a feminist bent to them).
I write content for a children’s educational site and I always try to incorporate feminist values.
The future of fairy tales has been a question for some time now, ever since people have started going back and discovering that they aren’t as benign and squeaky clean as they thought. So the question has become what to do with a bunch of stories that seem too simple for adults but too violent for children.
In my opinion, there already are quite a few great female characters as heroes in the classic versions of the fairy tales.
Hansel and Grethel: Grethel is the one who uses her brains to defeat the witch that wants to eat her and her brother.
The Goose Girl: While not actually solving her own problem at the end, she is a very interesting character. I mean, what isn’t cool about a girl who can control the wind and talk to decapitated horse heads?
The Brothers Who Were Turned Into Birds: A girl saves her brothers from the curse.
The Juniper Tree: In some versions, the murder victim is a girl. Also, even in the versions where the murder victim is a boy, it’s his SISTER who places his bones under the tree, which allows him to transform into a bird in the first place.
Beauty and the Beast: Do I really need to explain this one?
The Nutcracker: Not actually a fairy tale, but still worth mentioning. Marie Stahlbaum is the hero of this story, willing to risk everything to save her beloved Nutcracker.
That’s all I can think of for now, but I’m sure there are a lot more.
My favorite one as a kid was 12 Dancing Princesses, where not only are the women active agents in the story but the bad guys. The oldest princess remains an unrepentant murderer who eventually rules the kingdom together with the hero.
Snow White and Rose Red was another good one for girls. The girls eventually win because they’re brave and kind hearted, making friends with a bear or rushing into danger to save a dwarf. Their looks are mentioned, but aren’t the important thing.
I was looking for an article on fairy tales with a feminist twist. Thank you.
I think there’s a lot of overemphasis of the getting a prince in contemporary discussions of the “innocent persecuted heroine” genre (that is actually the formal academic category name for these types of tales). Most of the innocent persecuted heroines are active agents in the stories, modeling resistance and perseverance against forces that seem overwhelming. I think they have a lot of contemporary resonance. The prince is generally simply a reward figure, which is quite similar to how princesses appear as a reward figure in young male hero stories. Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty are not motivated by a desire for love and certainly not for a specific prince.
I always hated fairy tales, and I certainly never got a moral out of them. The only thing I ever got out of Cinderella was that stepmothers are cruel. I loathed Sleeping Beauty, and thought The Boy Who Cried Wolf was sadistic. In fact I avoided “childrens literature” as much as I could., except for Little Brown Bear and stuff like A Hole is to Dig. In fact, I loved to dig holes in the field behind our house as a result.
Strongly recommend Jack Zipes “Don’t Bet on the Prince:Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales of North America and England” ISBN-10: 0415902630. Prof. Zipes has worked hard to promote modern day fairy tales.
Whenever I would watch a disney movie or read a fairy tail, I would find myself feeling mildly sad. It set so many expectations for me, and standards that I would never be able to achieve.
I loooove fairy tale retellings. My fave is Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley, which puts the love of two woman friends at the heart of the Sleeping Beauty story.
I love fairytales – always have and always will. I have several books of fairytales and stories of around the world. And I love fantasy, and myths, too – especially The Mists of Avalon and Lord of The Rings.
Oh, and Snow White and the Huntsman was also one of my favorites, and Maleficent was amazing, too.
so interesting. as a photographer who grew up on this movies they will always have influence on me!
Some fairy tales actually fit pretty well with modern times.
One example is “Puss in Boots,” with its moral of “fake it till you make it.” Very 21st century. Reading the story from today’s perspective of “game,” you can see the cat as an ideal wingman.
I think the positive message within Disney altered fairy tales princesses is that we have some model of perfection to strive toward. I view perfection as unattainable and subjective, but that does not mean it is not worth striving toward. Even if one falls short of the princess model of perfection, that person has still made significant progress in temperament, self-awareness, and by eating right and staying in shape. It is true that there cannot be one without the other, so there will be people that think this model is too overwhelming, and it might affect their health by malnutrition or poor self image. Yet, that does not mean the dangers outweigh the benefits. Furthermore, these visual aids help with the storytelling. What makes Cinderella beautiful is her kind, unselfish, and generous nature paired with an unmeaurable amount of grace and femininity. Why would one make this character unappealing to an audience if one is trying to promote this character? Moreover, burning all fairy tale books containing the story of Cinderella and trashing all the film copies would be eliminating history. So much culture is wrapped into a story that has been valued and loved for decades. Just because culture has changed does not mean there is nothing to be learned from this story. Lastly, I completely agree with your digression about the man’s character. For the most part, Disney princes are only there to have status, save the day, and look pretty. Instead of making Cinderella bloat, I think Disney should revist why they are telling children that a man loving you is the only way to a happy ending.
As a child I loved the fairytale life of a princess and I don’t see why any young girl wouldn’t. The happily ever after, the handsome and charming prince to come to the rescue, and the talking animals that help with a girl out in a pinch when she needs a ball gown! But even my young mind new that it wasn’t real, this life was one of just what it is at its core: a fairytale. The sad fact it that I constantly had to remind my young impressionable mind that, happily ever after was something exclusively meant for Cinderella. A young girl should never have to remind herself that she won’t end up happy because being happy is something I would be, but I got that mixed up with happily ever after and that could be extremely damaging to a young girls outlook on life.
Really great article I’ve always been interested in this topic. Disney movies always amaze me at how they portray women and how young girls are looking up at these princesses.
Sometimes I wonder, though if we take too much agency way from young girls, denying their ability to recognize fantasy from reality (a bit sexist on our part) and their ability to recognize that being kind is a good behavior separate from any so-called reward.
A very interesting article and I think that a lot of points mentioned in this article relates very closely to the lessons and concepts I have in my life as a female IT (Information Sciences & Technology) student at Penn State and my Women Studies and Pop Culture classes. I have read and learned a lot about how the fairytale Cinderella stories are portrayed on TV. But in reality we are living in super tech savvy world and we are career oriented young men and women that aspire to reach their academic/professional goals in life rather than belief in this illusion of a fairytale romance, not to mention a very outdated concept. I believe that we need to come out of this illusion and really focus on how girls are not just dreaming about their future life partner and there are other goals in life that are far more interesting and right on the spot with their career aspirations and other goals, and marriage is not just the only thing girls are dreaming about. I really enjoyed reading this article, especially they way it connects with what I have learned in my classes.
Very interesting article, and I can see the point you are making about the stereotypical princess, but I would like to point out that these are fairytales and Disney usually stayed true to the story. A fairytale is from days of old, in Europe, when the absolute best thing for an impoverished family would be for someone with a greater social class to wish to marry their daughter. The family would shove her off to a wealthy suitor in a heartbeat.
I think two other female characters from the Disney lineup portray feminism in a much stronger light, and I don’t know whether these movies were based off of fairy tales, they are Mulan and Merida too strong warrior/women able to fend for themselves.
The very thin waistline goes very far back and I don’t know if Disney can be blamed for that. The modeling industry and Twiggy come to mind more so than a Disney princess. Thanks for the great insight, I enjoyed your article.
Great article! You make a lot of great points.
I liked this article because it shows how disney sometimes tries to go against what the typical stereotype of the fairy tale was originally. The more the years go on the better disney does this.
I absolutely loved this article and the points you made. I think that Disney stories are now improving their messages to girls by empowering female characters and giving them personal goals. Although fairytales are classic stories, they need to be modernized for the sake of girls’ future images of themselves. These stories were written during at time when marrying into a higher social class was the only way to get ahead in life. Cinderella could not just take out a student loan and get an education; her looks were her only way out of her situation. Now that women can succeed on their own, Disney must continue to create female characters that embody self-sufficiency. Times have changed, traditional fairytales do indeed need to be put to bed.
I loved the article! I am a true Walt Disney movie girl, I love watching these fairy tale movies from Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, you name it I probably seen it. Despite my liking to these movies, you have made a lot of good and valuable points in regards to these type of movies. One point I must address is the thin waistline these princesses always have. They are painting a picture of the perfect and ideal girl as skinny, which is unfair to other girls because this is not true. Another is how the princess is always portrayed as good and kind even when horrible things are said and done to her because she just allows it. Today, when is it okay to not stand up for yourself, I have always been taught to stand up for myself and every girl should in my opinion.
Basically, I really want to say you opened a lot of people’s eyes with this article if they were not opened before, amazing job.
I do agree that fairytales give a false perception on real life. However, I think that fairytales are made to give little children hope and that the most important thing in life is to be kind to one another.
Excellent Article! This is a topic that is often discussed in today. We often wonder why women objectify themselves and have a false perception of how they must look but never go back to the root of it all. We blame it on people like the Kardashians and video vixens but the idea that it all stems from Disney Princesses was brilliant! I myself have never looked at it that way. Disney movies capture the intended essence of the character but does not fully understand what her role plays in little girls life. The image of perfection is displayed and makes her wonder if the is ever good enough to be a “princess” or in order to be one she must look that way.
I love this article. It couldn’t have been any well written. Every example given about the “ideal princess image” was spot on and couldn’t be more relatable to girls today.
I have loved Disney from before I can remember but all brilliant interesting thoughts and I could not of put it better myself. Enjoyable read.
This topic needs to be discussed more because I bet not many people would draw a line from Disney fairytales to teenage girls and their perceptions of themselves. So many girls across the country grow up watching Disney fairytales. So many young girls want to be the princesses in these movies. And so many young girls grow up to believe in Prince Charming. What if one girl does not want a Prince Charming? What if she ends up in search for a princess charming? Will Disney ever have a fairytale that ends up with two girls falling in love? How many young girls feel defeated because they realize that they do not want a Prince Charming because they want a princess charming? Fairytales give false information to girls at such a young age. No wonder many girls grow up not feeling skinny enough or beautiful enough. I agree we need to give fairytales a rest.
I want to agree with the fact that yes, the body images, morals, and behaviors of these Disney princesses are negatively influencing young girls. I might have been one of them, but even at a grown age, I cannot tell what affect this has had on me in the larger picture. Yes, Disney princesses were beautiful and perfect and could sing and talk to animals. They might have made me feel inadequate with regards to my image and appearances. But I think it is important to remember the positives too. The fact that these princesses are capable of instilling hope in a young child the way even a parent cannot do on occasion. They all tell stories of kindness and determination and the prevailing of good- all of which are not totally bad lessons to learn from these princesses. They leave children with an eye for their future, that things get better as they did for Cinderella, that you cannot suppress what is right, and that evil will always face punishment in the end. Perhaps theres a medium that needs to be reached with movies like this. Or perhaps a message to our children before they watch that, yes, they are already perfect, and no, you can be whoever you choose. That is left to the parents and guardians of these children. Not all fairytales should be ousted, because they’re a source of joy in many children, but further reinforcement and support is detrimental to solving the body image and self esteem issue. While an early contributor, those against princess films cannot deny the fact that it is not only these movies that contribute to the issues our young girls and boys may face in the future. It is just as much our own faults as the movie’s.
An ongoing topic being discussed, but in a way that is to the point and not overly critical. I’ve seen a few comments pointing out that they do not believe the “Princess Ideal” affected them in the larger picture of life. Which unless we can go back and rewrite history, we cannot truly tell what impact these stories have made on our childhood and overall self-image and temperament. As you pointed out, the new live version made a pretty big change: the topic of abuse and why you should get away. It may not take up a big chunk of screen time, but it is a poignant event for Ella. This scene though is the only change that the more recent Disney retellings have shown in regards to changing the narrative to our fit our societal norms. Given that Disney continues to promise a more diverse set of princesses, shows that they as a company, are still behind in our ever changing culture. Let’s hope the new Disney movie, Moana, will be a step towards diversity, acceptance, and challenging ideals; however, I’m not holding my breathe.
I am inspired to keep discussing this topic with my friends to hear other opinions. Idealistically, we all want disney princesses to represent what we want to achieve. That is not the case, as we see, their demeanor is perfection and passiveness. There are a couple things that are frustrating at the moment… as a woman, my response to confrontation is to become passive and rather than standing up for myself. Another, is that when it comes to being passionate about something, I get labeled as emotional or melodramatic. Finally, when I want to explain myself for ‘acting out’ I get the feeling that the person listening is already thinking that it must be ‘my time of the month’. Maybe I am over processing things, but really I think that I’m just trying to question and understand the societal norms imposing on young girls.
I really enjoyed reading your article. You brought up some things that I had never thought about, as well as reminding me of some that should constantly be reiterated. The description of the ideal woman that girls must look like to attract a prince was especially important in my opinion, and I believe, should be discussed more. Similarly, your mentions of research into Disney princesses and their effects on girls’ self esteem is especially interesting to me, and reminds me very much of the effects of Barbies. These fictional role models show young girls that they should want the ideal body and face, which is nearly always impossible to achieve and is not needed to feel beautiful (and in Barbie’s case, actually is biologically impossible).
Another of your suggestions was that of Cinderella waiting for the right moment to rebel from her stepmother, which is a very interesting thought that I had never considered. Though it is definitely a compelling idea, I am not sure it is completely believable that she was merely waiting to break free, but was simply just staying because of her grace, kindness and good nature. Regardless of my opinion as to whether it is actually who her character is, it is definitely an idea with merit and it is definitely something I had never thought of before.
Overall, I thought your article was very thought provoking and I enjoyed reading it immensely. I also think some of the more recent Disney movies have started introducing better stories and stronger characters (like Tiana in The Princess and the Frog who works for what she gets in the end and does not wait for it to be handed to her, Elsa in Frozen who does not end up getting married at all, and Mulan who not only saves China, but who also does not end up married by the end of her first movie). I hope this indicates a change from the classic Disney stories and a movement away from all that you have rightly suggested is wrong with these princesses.
Maybe my perspective is a bit strange – I’m Pole after all. When I was kid, I never looked at Disney Princesses as role models. The movies were just a way to transport myself to another world, just fantasy, something to have fun with. I had gotten into Disney movies rather late, though.
Let me say, firstly, I got know cleaned up fairy tales (kind of, because Rapunzel, ekhm Endywia gave birth to twins at the end of story in my copy. No one even winced) AND H.C Andersen -> then Polish fairytales and I found uncensored Grimms (Oh what a fun I had!) in school library. Disney appeared at 12?14?, maybe earlier. At that point, I was very into all kind of animation. I think I watched it mainly for fun
Fairytales are such an interesting topic to address and this article does a brilliant job of doing so. Definitely tackles the problems of modern fairytales. The article brings up interesting points – how can we look at fairytales from a perspective more attune to feminism. I think that fairytales indeed have some aspects that can be quite empowering as the article mentions. However, in terms of representation, empowerment is not shown on the screen. We have to interpret strength of princesses for ourselves rather than just being shown it. Fairytales tend to focus majorly on the “happy ending” which as you say brings up this problematic “ideal.” Especially when you consider the question- do only princesses get happy endings? I think that more representation should be given to the details and perspectives of these women and more emphasis on how they are empowered. What they do rather than what happens to them.
The article was a provocative and really fascinating read that made points I definitely agree with! Very well done!!
Interesting stuff! Like many others, I grew up with Disney’s animated classics, so fairy tales like “Cinderella” have nostalgic value for me … but yeah, they’re definitely not without their issues.
In regard to the princes, I apologize if someone has already pointed this out, but the prince in Disney’s 2015 film *does* have a name. I don’t know that it’s credited officially, but he introduces himself within the narrative as “Kit.” So maybe that’s a step in the right direction. But overall, I think you’re spot on with your discussion about the general lack of personality and development on the part of the princes. I’ve seen the same kind of thing in a lot of romantic comedies: underdeveloped, perfect, and/or totally unrealistic male characters. They’re not typically the “sharpest tools,” either. It’s tiresome and a bit insulting, in my opinion.
Prince Eric from “The Little Mermaid” might be my favorite Disney example: If I remember correctly, he “falls in love” with Ariel solely based on her looks (I mean, she can’t even talk); then he “falls in love” with Ursula in “beautiful young woman” form solely based on her looks and the singing voice she stole from Ariel; and then he “falls *back* in love” with Ariel once she gets her voice back. So … if this guy “falls in love” with two different women on the basis of literally nothing but looks and a nice singing voice over the course of, like, 24 hours, what does that say about his depth of character (or lack thereof)? Also, if his feelings are so easily swayed by a pretty face and a nice voice, who’s to say he won’t ditch Ariel the second he encounters another pretty young woman who can carry a tune (especially when Ariel gets a little older)? I mean, I like “The Little Mermaid,” but come on.
This was a very interesting comparison.
I agree with some of this, but I don’t know if you’re giving Disney enough credit. I grew up with these movies and I’m a very avid feminist and proud of who I am and how I look. Sure, sometimes it seems like the princesses are just in it for the prince. But wouldn’t we all do anything for the man of our dreams? Don’t we all want a happily ever after? And through it all they go on an adventure to find themselves and who they really want to be.
Interesting article! Fairytales, especially those by Disney, often do create passive princesses who need saving from a prince. However, the great thing about fairytales (as in the source text like Perrault, Brothers Grimm, etc.) is that they are flat and adaptable. A writer could easily put a feminist take on Cinderella, or another fairytale, which would send a much better message to children of all genders.
The question about the difference between the original tales and the Disney remakes has always been an interest to me. There was one part in your article where you assert that the message the fairytales convey is that if the princesses behave well, they will be rewarded. That is not the case with every princess’ fairytale though. Ariel for example always breaks the rules and is not “well-behaved”. Also I don’t think that Disney princesses are such a bad influence. I see nothing wrong in educating children (both boys and girls) how to be kind, generous and warm-hearted. The issue about the appearance, however, is one that I agree with. A bigger diveristy amongst the presentations of what a “beautiful” and “good – looking” person looks like is needed.
I think you’re argument has some merit, but I’m not really sure using the new Cinderella movie as an example is very accurate. Cinderella’s ‘snub’ to her her stepmother at the end of the movie is her looking at her compassionately and saying, “I forgive you.” which isn’t a snub at all, but an outreach of kindness. And as for it promoting the idea that being beautiful is all that matters, Kit literally has dialogue explaining that he is crushing on her because of her goodness, not because she is pretty. And when he first meets her, she has messy hair, ash on her face and is wearing a dirty servant dress. And when she arrives at the ball, the second he recognizes her as the girl from the forest, he runs down the stairs to meet her; completely missing her grand and beautiful entrance down the stairs. And as for her character always having to be happy, smiling, and not allowed ‘ugly crying’ there are three different instances in the film when Cinderella loses it and breaks down into unflattering sobs (when her dad dies, after a stint with her stepmother, and when she is left behind for the ball). I agree with you that some Disney movies and fairy tales give poor examples of the reality of being a woman. I just feel like the new Cinderella movie isn’t one of them.
I have always disliked Disney fairy tales in general, the pretty girl who does the right thing get the pretty man trope is tiring. Mulan could have broken this but alas, at the end she gets the man and marries him. Save China from the Huns and you get to marry the only male character portrayed as being handsome. I dislike how these stories reinforce gendered norms, especially in America. I really appreciated your deconstruction of the fairy tale trope.
Cinderella, Beauty and The Beast, Sleeping beauty introduces sexual abuse at a young ages. Think about the dark story of Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty. I am concerned because girls and boys are taught that its okay to have stalkers ( sexual harassment) and its okay for a man to force himself on you while you’re asleep. I think Disney is sending the wrong messages to young girls and the fact that sex education is limited… it creates rape culture. Many adults in college do not understand sex and end up in legal trouble because of Disney movies.
Yep, Disney is directly responsible for rape. Makes perfect sense.
I think this article is eye-opening, and necessary for everybody to realize. When thinking of fairytales and Disney movies, nobody expects there to be anything wrong or bad, however the average person doesn’t really dig deep enough to realize the messages they are sending out to young girls and even boys.
“In every story, as long as the girl follows what is set out as good behaviour, she gets the reward of marriage – and being swept into wealth and status with a person who is practically a stranger.”
This message, along with the rest of the article, shows what women are expected to be like. They are given these high expectations to be perfectly mannered and kind, no matter what is thrown there way, or how poorly they are treated. They have to take it. And for being these ‘perfect girls’, all they are rewarded is a rescue by a handsome guy and marriage. This article is an interesting read, and definitely going to share!
Great article. As someone who grew up with Cinderella, I usually stick up for her. But you crafted an article that deftly and thoughtfully analyzed the negative parts of her story.
On the one hand, Cinderella’s story has been analyzed to death, but on the other hand, maybe there’s a reason for that. As others have said, Cinderella has a universal appeal unlike almost any fairytale or other type of story in existence. When something is that enduring, it’s naturally going to garner plenty of positive and negative attention.
I like what you bring up about Cinderella’s behavior and unrealistic standards of perfection. In fact, if I were going to pick one negative thing about her story to camp on, it would be that. It’s great to teach girls–and boys–to be good, moral people. But effectively teaching them that they have to somehow “earn” their way out of abuse is harmful and dangerous. Snippy though the new Cinderella may be at times, I applaud her for standing up to stepmom in a real and tangible way. I also appreciate more “human,” imperfect versions of Cinderella. We need more of those.
This is such a fascinating article and the topic is so thoroughly explored and the concerns made evident- I completely agree that it’s high past time we wrote new fairy tales! Not only does the “expected behaviour” of the passive, beautiful, gentle girl position girls up for insecurities and disappointments, it also tells them that if you don’t fit the eurocentric-standards of beauty- the small nose, big eyes, luscious flowing hair, impossibly slender waists, etc- then you CANNOT be a princess and if you can’t be the princess- can you ever have your own prince and happily ever after? Are you entitled to happy endings and love if you don’t look like any of these princesses? Even princesses like Merida and Elsa who don’t have love interests and are fierce and independent are still classically beautiful – this creates an expectation of beauty making you more “deserving” of being a protagonist and makes it more likely that your dreams will come true and is the most problematic aspect of not just fairytale women but most of today’s media representations of women.
Most heroes are classically beautiful too. Good luck with trying to sell stories and films with ugly heroes and heroines, especially to children. It will work to some degree with comedies like Shrek, but not for fairytale romances, feminist or otherwise. People prefer to look at pretty people, especially as romantic leads, not Lena Dunham or Jonah Hill. There have been plenty of non-white princesses/heroines in Disney, including Jasmine, usually voted the hottest of the Disney princesses, not to mention Pocahontas, Mulan, Moana and Tiana.
Really though? We always have the beauty-and-the-beast tropes with ugly male leads but this is never reversed- The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Beauty and the Beast, The Phantom of the Opera etc. This also includes the hoard of romantic movies, (which include rom coms of course) with attractive women and ugly/average looking men whose talent/funniness/some aspect of their personality is highlighted which is also a trope that’s never reversed, and there are several examples of this (um, every Adam Sandler movie ever, romances with Billy Crystal, etc). Whenever this even appears to reverse, it’s always with a beautiful actress who has been dressed down with glasses/braces/frizzy hair/sloppy clothes that gets a makeover to win the man’s heart while in the male version, they never have to be anyone but themselves to get modelesque women- it’s just unfair! Your first point having being refuted, I will say that I agree with your statement that people prefer to watch attractive leads on the whole but does the “it’s all about the money game, we’re just producing what most people think they want” claim fair? We won’t really know, until we produce films with average looking leads whose stories are brilliantly written, shot and acted and see the reception they get! Moving to your third point, I never claimed that Disney doesn’t have non-white princesses, only that all of their depictions centre around Eurocentric beauty. Even when their skin colour changes and they may change one or two feautures like Mulan’s eyes and nose, they still have largely the same impossible body types, doe eyes and general facial structure.
There is nothing more dreary and tiresome than a feminist analysing fairy tales. It’s the new form of cultural puritanism.
Why is the stepmother “evil” and not simply evil? Doesn’t emotional abuse and virtual slave labour count as evil in the brave new feminist world? And Cinder’s “snippy one-liner” is in fact remarkably generous and restrained given the treatment she’s suffered at her step family’s hands. What does the writer of this article want? A big hug and Cinders to thank her stepmother for all her kindness shown in recent years? In addition, fairy tales are far more complex and subversive than this typically crude feminist analysis allows for. They’re not simply pattern books of behaviour nor are they to be taken so literally.
no words to express how impressed i am with this article. i was just thinking about the downsides of the disney princesses a week ago and now im reading article for school and just…WOW
Keep up the Good work!
Hi! I really enjoyed reading your article and would love to use it for a paper I am working on. Of course, in order to cite your work, I would also need to use the real author’s name, for it to be a valid bibliography source. I don’t seem to be able to find this anywhere online. Could you please tell me the surname + initials that I could use, or suggest an alternative? It would be a pity not to be able to cite information from your article.
Andreea, please see the comment the author Antebellum left below. Thanks.
Feel free to use Welton, S. 🙂 I’m glad that this article was so useful to you and good luck with your paper.
Thank you very much for the quick reply!