First Theatrical Release: February 15, 1950
First Home Viewing Release: October 4, 1988
My Rating: 3.5/5 stars
Where I Found It: My personal VHS collection. I have the 1995 re-issue, which I received as a Christmas gift from my grandmother in the 90s.
Bechdel Test Score: Passed! There are plenty of female characters here: Cinderella, stepmother and stepsisters, the Fairy Godmother, and roughly half of all the mice and birds. The women also talk to each other about subjects other than men — the stepsisters and stepmother talk to one another about Cinderella; they talk to Cinderella about her chores; everyone talks about the ball, only sometimes mentioning the prince. In fact, when Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother appears, they discuss all she will need to go to the ball, but they do not make mention of the prince. I guess he’s just auxiliary to Cinderella’s opportunity to leave the house!
Ah, Cinderella, possibly the most beloved and maligned of all fairy tale princesses.
When a woman is overly dependent upon a man, we say she has a “Cinderella Complex.” Peggy Orenstein pegged the whole princess culture on Cinderella in Cinderella Ate My Daughter. And “rags-to-riches” stories are also known as “Cinderella stories.”
Whole books have been written about what is really going on in Cinderella, so I’m just going to graze the surface via Disney’s rendition of the story. Are all those horrible things people say about Cinderella true?
She’s a Doormat
This statement probably has its origins in the fact that Cinderella a) does all the work around the house and b) doesn’t seem to object.Most written versions of Cinderella, including the Perrault version Disney based its movie on, describe Cinderella as being good and sweet and kind despite the abuse she endured. It’s easy to assume this is true of Disney’s Cinderella as well — after all, she tries to get the dog to get along with the evil cat (I could write a whole post about anti-cat sentiments in popular media), she rescues mice from traps, and then she feeds and clothes them.
But one of the very first things we see Cinderella do in the movie is complain. Watch it again if you don’t believe me. She chews out the clock for waking her from a good dream in the way that anyone who hates her job/life will recognize. Cinderella may “put up” with her family’s abuse, but she does not remain sweet-tempered in the midst of it. We hear her grumble under her breath a few other times as she does her chores. But what everyone seems to remember is the way she sweetly sings as she scrubs the floor — probably because it is one of the most gorgeously animated segments in the film. This seems to epitomize Perrault’s version of Cinderella, sweet no matter what, but in the context of Disney’s sometimes-cranky Cinderella, it’s just the picture of a woman finding a way to cope with the drudgery of her life.
Which, by the way, unlike Snow White who cheerfully takes on the task of cooking for and cleaning up for seven grown men, Cinderella does not do housework cheerfully. And in this, Disney may reveal its most profound truth to little girls:
While the subtlety of this message might be lost on children dazzled by Cinderella’s beautiful ballgown, it’s not lost on a grown woman who has read The Second Shift and who notices that the worst way Cinderella’s family can think to punish her is forcing her to do endless and thankless “women’s work.”
This is one place where Disney is telling the truth, and it’s too bad that gets muddled by the romanticization of Cinderella’s story. Housework remains entwined with beauty, sweetness, and romance rather than punishment and hardship. I also can’t help but link this with the time during which the movie was first released: one can hardly remember the 50s without thinking of pristine domesticity. Yet Disney’s first release of this era, while seemingly a very “domestic” film (Cinderella is rarely seen outside the confines of her family’s property), is actually a movie about getting the hell out of there. YES the way Cinderella finds her escape is through a man, but who can blame her for seizing the opportunity to marry the one man in the kingdom who won’t expect her to do his housework?
This ruined the story for me for a few years because I didn’t have a good answer to that question.
But as an adult, I see it with very different eyes. What we essentially are dealing with is a girl who has endured emotional abuse since she was a little child. The abuse began when she was too young to live on her own, so she had no choice but to depend on her abuser, and someone in this situation learns to do whatever she needs to to get through the day with the least amount
of damage possible. The abuse that we see in the movie is just a sliver of what this girl has lived with for most of her life. She has no relationship with another human being that is not abusive. And while her stepsisters walk a strange line between being humorous and incredibly sad, her stepmother is pure scary. She has no magic like Snow White’s Evil Queen or Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent, but she has the art of manipulation down to a tee. We see this especially in her reaction to Cinderella’s wish to go to the ball. She does not forbid her to do so. She only sets expectations that are impossible for Cinderella to meet. And then finds a way to make her daughters do her dirty work by destroying Cinderella’s dress when she rushes down to meet the carriage.
Seeing Cinderella’s defeat in these two scenes, first when she admits that she’s not going to the ball, and then after her family leaves without her, are probably the most emotionally resonant moments in the whole film.
So, let’s start seeing Cinderella for what she is, a survivor of emotional abuse, and stop ragging on her for not standing up for herself. That’s just blaming the victim, and it’s a shame that it’s the feminists who decry Cinderella most loudly even as they shame real-world victim blamers. [Note: this is in-group complaining, not out-group complaining, which makes all the difference.]
She Just Waits Around to Be Rescued
Okay, it’s true. Cinderella does not have a lot of agency. Technically speaking, none of the good things that happen to her happen because of her own actions … right?
Although Cinderella makes the decision to go to the ball on her own, she gives up when she doesn’t have time to work on her dress. It’s because of the mice and the birds that her dress gets finished, so even if she had been successful in her first attempt to attend the ball it would have been because she was “rescued” by her friends. Shortly thereafter, she is “rescued” by her fairy godmother, who picks her up as she cries, decks her out, and sends her off. And then she captivates the prince, so that he will ultimately rescue her from her horrible life.
But we’ve already established that she’s living in an abusive home where the reality is that she DOESN’T have a lot of agency. Her stepmother controls all the resources. Her prospects if she tries to leave on her own probably aren’t great, not to mention that she’s learned helplessness from the time when she was a child and WAS helpless, when the abuse first started.
So, what DOES Cinderella have control over in her life? The way that she treats others. And while many who undergo abuse become abusers themselves, we never see Cinderella kick the dog. She literally rescues those who are less fortunate than herself. They then pay her back by trying to help her go to the ball, so it’s not really fair to say she didn’t do anything to make that happen. She paid it forward. And when someone more powerful than her (Fairy Godmother, the Prince) comes along to rescue HER, well, maybe it’s not so much about waiting around to be rescued as it is about karma.
The truth is, in many cases children and women in abusive homes DO need to be rescued. By social services. By a perceptive teacher. By law enforcement. By a Fairy Godmother. The tragedy is that too few of them ever are. So now the question isn’t, Why didn’t Cinderella get out, but What the hell took her Fairy Godmother so long?
This is a beautiful movie, but it’s still a product of its time, and far from perfect. The gender police are alive and well, especially regarding the mice. When Jaque tells Cinderella there’s a new mouse in a trap, she lays out a little dress and he laughs, “No, no, he, he!”
She says, “Oh, well, that does make a difference.”
Does it really? If you’re a mouse? If the boy mice go around without any pants on, why not just put little shirts on everyone, since covering the genital region doesn’t seem high priority? And in the scene where the mice and birds design the dress, Jaque volunteers to sew, and one of the women scolds him, “Leave the sewing to the women!” Jaque and Gus then go out for the more “dangerous” job of finding Cinderella’s accessories. Come to think of it, the female mice are never seen outside Cinderella’s room. They’re cloistered mice.
Also, it strikes me as odd that the mice are the ONLY animals that talk in this film. All the other animals have normal animal limitations. WHY CAN THE MICE TALK? I think it’s because the years of isolation and abuse have made Cinderella a little batty and she just thinks they’re talking.
And the prince! The poor prince has less screentime than his grandchild-obsessed father and the duke, and his only speaking lines are, “Wait, wait!” He makes off worse than Snow White’s prince accessory. So, for all the mostly justified feminist outrage that female characters are always relegated to “moms and girlfriends,” Disney was reducing men to mere accessories (and dead fathers) long before the current conversation started.
And the Kids?
I think kids will always be watching Cinderella. I hope they always will be watching Cinderella. While I don’t think the “nine old men” were intending to examine the effects of abuse through children’s media, they didn’t need to. Stories become timeless for a reason.