Disney's New Cinderella Isn't A Perfect Feminist Fairy Tale, But It's A Start

Photo: Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.
For the 2015 live-action adaptation of Cinderella, the archetypal damsel in distress and her one-dimensional prince wouldn't do. We've been in the midst of a Disney Princess backlash for several years, and Frozen brought the revolution to a head when finding love and a husband wasn't a defining part of Queen Elsa's journey toward happiness and self-acceptance. This new Cinderella wouldn't work as just a straight retelling of its animated predecessor. It needed to find untapped strength and personal agency in its source material without changing the preexisting, well-known story into something unrecognizable. Cinderella needed some feminist fairy dust. 

When Disney turned Charles Perrault's Cinderella; or, The Little Glass Slipper into an instant animated classic in 1950, its mission was simple. America was coming out of World War II and needed the rags-to-riches transformation story of a good-natured, kind-hearted girl who, with a fresh coat of paint — here a new gown and miraculously unbreakable glass slippers — became a princess and lived happily ever after.

Cinderella and her good nature eventually triumph over evil (in the form of a malicious stepmother and taunting stepsisters) when she's rescued by a prince who is so overwhelmingly defined by one trait that it's also his name: Charming. It obviously wasn't a feminist tale, but it was so successful at conveying the story it wanted to tell, that we still refer to amazingly unexpected transformations as Cinderella stories, even in sports. 

For the 2015 retelling, director Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz were conscious of the evolving attitude toward the Cinderella story. Using the existing framework of the animated classic, they set about constructing a newly empowered Cinderella and an emboldened prince. From there, stars Lily James (Ella) and Richard Madden (Kit/the prince) used their characters' richer backstories to demonstrate this changing of the fairy tale guard. In this revised version, Ella isn't on a crash course to becoming a princess, the only way she could find her happily ever after.

"It's not her destiny," James tells us on a recent call. "Ken said right from the [start], in this version, Cinderella is not waiting for a prince to rescue her. She's not a victim. She's in charge of her own destiny, and that was really important. We wanted to show that not only in her character, and in the fact that she's so strong and open and good, but [also] in the fact that when she does meet the prince, they don't know who the other one is. They meet in the forest, and she rescues him just as much as he rescues her."

This newly added meeting in the forest now serves as the reason Ella desperately wants to go to the ball. She wants to see her friend Kit, who told her that he's an apprentice at the palace. It's not about being swept away by an unseen prince who represents her savior, and the only way out of her stepmother's clutches. 

Even during that meeting, Ella remains faithful to her convictions. "Always remember to have courage and be kind," her mother told her before she passed away, a mantra which Ella repeats frequently throughout the film. During her encounter with the prince in the forest, Ella's courage is demonstrated when she steps in front of a stag being pursued during a hunt, and her kindness is evidenced by her asking Kit to spare its life. He tells her that it's kind of the point of a hunt, but Ella argues that just because it's what is done, doesn't mean it's what should be done. Her bucking of tradition immediately piques his interest, as will the fact that neither one knows the other's true identity.
Photo: Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.
Advertisement
Some critics argue that "Have courage and be kind" is an anti-feminist mantra, reinforcing stereotypical beliefs about how females should act and behave, but Branagh insisted this was not the case in a recent interview in The New York Times. The director "likened it to the nonviolent resistance of Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi." 

"I'm proud that a sophisticated, intelligent and passionate girl emerges out of a classical framework where her empowerment is not at the price of becoming like a man. I think it celebrates her specific femaleness in a way that encourages people to be who they are, not necessarily in competition with the opposite gender or with an attempt to be what other people appear to wish them to be," Branagh told the Times.

In other words, the you-ness of being you isn't tied to gendered traits, but rather a series of qualities to which you should remain true. "There are lots of different ways in life to be strong, but for her, it comes from within," James says. "She doesn't have to take lessons or use a sword, but she's able to get through life with this goodness and this courage that makes her so unique."

This newly empowered Ella would also require a multi-dimensional suitor. "In the animation you only see him in two or three scenes, and in this film you get to see him as a son, as a soldier, and as a friend, as well as a prince," Madden said on the red carpet at the L.A. premiere of the film. "I wanted to bring a sense of humility to him and see him not up in this palace, but as a man who has been at war. When you watch this film, you see Cinderella is such an amazing woman. My biggest thing was how do I create a man that is worthy of her?"

James echoed his sentiment. "We wanted it to feel like they were really right for each other, and that they were going to enrich each other's lives."

For all of the lovely sentiments being expressed about how progressive this Cinderella is, it's not without flaws. Ella is still confined to her corset and the expectation that she be thin, attractive, and blonde. Critics have accused Disney of further digitally slimming the already small-framed James to make her waist appear even tinier in her blue ball gown. Both the actress and Branagh have refuted this claim, but the body shape being portrayed still confines to a mainstream feminine ideal. 

There's also the issue of Ella remaining in her home, even after her stepmother forces her to move to the cold, dark attic and wait on her family members hand and foot. Perhaps it can be written off as Stockholm syndrome, or her reticence to abandon a home that's been in her family for centuries or the creature friends she's made who also live there. Still, it's hard to understand this newly empowered Ella's reasons for remaining a servant in her own home, with no desire to move out, and only the belief that if she continues to have courage and be kind, her circumstances will change one day. There's only so many changes one can make to a classic tale before it becomes something completely different, we suppose.

And, of course, Ella still requires a fairy godmother to play the deus ex machina who transforms rags and mice into a fancy dress and carriage for the ball. In Branagh's Cinderella, however, this becomes more of a quid pro quo. Her fairy godmother only helps Ella after the latter takes pity on the former when she appears disguised as a beggar. Again, the message being conveyed is that Ella's kindness and ability to empathize are what inclines others to help her in return. She brings about the changes in her life through these steadfast character traits. 

Is this new Cinderella the fully-realized feminist fairy tale we've been hoping for? No, because, as Lily James herself points out, Cinderella isn't real. Perhaps the best proof of this are the glass slippers that had to be CGI'd onto her feet because "they didn't fit any human foot." It wasn't that she was "the wrong Cinderella," James said, it's that Cinderella is a fairy tale construct that's an amalgamation of historical and present-day ideals. The 2015 Ella is certainly a CGI glass-slippered step in the right direction, though.
Photo: Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.

Cinderella arrives in theaters March 13.
Advertisement