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Analysis / Cinderella

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Cinderella as a role model

As over 60 years have passed 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 Rapunzel 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 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.

Cinderella is every successful man or woman

Anyone who has paid attention to the biographies of the great artists & performers, great political & social visionaries, great scientists & scholars of this world will notice that nearly every one of them will state that, at some point in his or her life, that person caught a "lucky break" or fortuitous window of opportunity (had a sudden insight or epiphany) that made all the difference, and that without that serendipitious moment, he or she would likely never had made it. How do they usually word this?

"It was like a blessing from Heaven."

"It was like I had been touched by a muse or an angel."

"It was like a moment with Aladdin's lamp."

"It was like I had my own fairy godmother."

Meanwhile, modern psychological research has shown that people who give up or turn bitter as a result of the challenges they face nearly always miss that serendipitous moment and thereby fail to take advantage of it, remaining instead stuck where they are.

Disney's Cinderella is a woman who refuses to allow her inhumane circumstances to turn her bitter and refuses to allow anything to force her to give up her patient wait for her moment of serendipity, even though her wicked step-mother is clearly trying to break her spirit and demoralize her. Because it is a fairy tale, her "lucky break" or window of opportunity is embodied in the fairy godmother. The fairy godmother only supplies the means and the opportunity, but Cinderella has to demonstrate she has what it takes to make use of this "lucky break". The fairy godmother does not make the Prince fall in love with her; that is entirely Cinderella's doing. The fairy godmother does not make Cinderella's allies (depicted here as mice) help her; this is entirely the result of Cinderella's compassion for others. The fairy godmother does not ensure Cinderella proves herself to the Prince; that is entirely the result of Cinderella's wisdom at keeping the other slipper.

If we were to turn the lives of any great man or great woman into a fairy tale, nearly every one of them would have a moment when a fairy godmother or an angel or a heavenly beacon of light suddenly presented to him or her a similar "lucky break" or window of opportunity.