Analysis / Cinderella

Cinderella as a role model

As we are in The New '10s, over 60 years since this movie, there's a considerable Values Dissonance. Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty were all created before second-wave feminism hit. And seeing our more modern princesses such as Tiana, Jasmine, and Belle going out of their way to make their dreams come true makes this very obvious. It doesn't help that during the 1950s we'd just come out of World War II and society was scrambling to get those women out of their jobs at the factory and back in the kitchen. So, we tend to look at these princesses with a degree of patronization: their depictions of females were horribly wrong, but it was just a product of the times.

Why is Cinderella put into this category? Well, for one thing, she spends most of her onscreen time engaging in menial labor. She's domestic. She's servile. She's submissive and meek, and she never stands up for herself. And to top it off, she's ultimately not the one who finishes the job. It's the fairy godmother who gives her a dress and the carriage, and it's her animal friends that help her get out in the climax.

On the other hand, Walt Disney himself named Cinderella as his role model. Why? Well, you can go the route of "Disney was sexist and wanted to keep women down", but that's still a rather lazy and biased interpretation of his personal opinion. What traits did Cinderella have that Disney admired so much?

Consider Disney's own life. He was rejected, again and again and again. He had his characters stolen, his animators quit, and he spent decades on the edge of poverty. And yet, he never gave up. His persistence eventually led him to draw a certain little mouse which hit big with audiences, and led into full-feature productions, theme parks, television, and eventually a huge corporation to his name. He was a hard worker, never giving up, just hoping that one day life would give him a break.

Perhaps that's what Disney saw in Cinderella. Her status as a servant may come off as sexist today, but she spends most of the movie working, and working hard. She's forgiving and kind, even to her bullying step-sisters. She does attempt to broker an honest deal with her stepmother; perhaps she was just too ''kind'' to see the betrayal coming. And if she wasn't so kind, she wouldn't have made the Talking Animal friends who help rescue her in the climax. She's a Determinator willing to work from sunrise to sunset, her desire to create her own dress another sign that she believes she can make a happier life for herself. Even after her dress is ripped to shreds, the Fairy Godmother says that if Cinderella had really lost all her faith she couldn't be there. Eventually, because she worked and dreamed and had faith, life gives her a break.

So, there's two ways to view Cinderella. One is a modern view of her as a submissive, servile archetype of the Hysterical Woman, and a product of the times. Then there's the patient hard worker who never gives up, which is how Walt saw her. Whole essays have been written ripping Cinderella apart and rebuilding her again. Is it sexist to portray Cinderella as a servant when it's made so clear that she still aspires to have a happier life? Is Cinderella relying on the mice for help or do they genuinely care for her? Is she weak to become so servile and submissive when it's clearly four against one? Is the Fairy Godmother damaging to children, convincing them someone will solve their problems, or is she a symbol of hope in dark times? Maybe we just need to admit we don't know the character as we think we do, and leave our interpretation of Cinderella up to the individual.
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