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/ ↩
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