With the past few years’ onslaught of sequels, prequels, crossovers, reboots, and retellings, there’s no denying it: Hollywood is in the age of the remake.
Not even Disney’s classic 1950’s animated Cinderella escaped getting a 2015 live-action facelift.
Even though it’s considered a classic installment of the Disney Princess franchise, Cinderella has faced some criticism over the years for having a weak female lead and a weak story.
Many of the classic Disney tropes that are now criticized appear in the 1950’s film. Now, I’m not saying Disney Princess films are bad for children or that they all contain terrible messages. I love Disney films and many have great messages and great heroines, but they aren’t without their flaws. The main point is that Disney has taken notice of the complaints and has started using new tropes.
Disney has moved away from their tried-and-true formula, and even critiqued it in some of their newer films (i.e. Frozen, Brave, Maleficent) by turning the formula on its head.
Despite this new trend, the 2015 film sticks very closely to its 1950s predecessor, and is definitely a live action version of the original rather than a brand new retelling. So when they do make changes from the original, they are fairly significant, and have some serious issues and change the fundamental point and moral of the story. After trying to be the feminist filmmakers, Disney proves they might not really understand what that means.
Here are the top 5 ways I think the 2015 Cinderella fails at feminism:
1. HER FAMILY
The movie gives Cinderella more of a backstory than the 1950’s version, but the added scenes do cause a few problems. In the old movie, Cinderella’s parents die and she becomes the mistreated step-daughter and then servant of Lady Tremaine as a young child. It’s easy to conclude that Cinderella was essentially raised by her step mother.
This is a very critical detail in Cinderella’s story, because as a child she is much more impressionable to the influence of her step family, whereas an 18 year old woman who has only recently lost her father would be able to clearly see how terribly her new family is treating her.
2. HER SITUATION
In the animated version, we never see Cinderella leave the estate, and there’s no indication that they live anywhere near civilization. Imagine growing up in isolation, being raised to believe you deserve your unfair treatment, and being dependent on your abusers for food, shelter, and clothing. It’s very easy to see how the 1950’s Cinderella was so accepting of her situation and hadn’t run away.
Thus, it is a testament to Cinderella’s spirit and courage that she dreams of a better life where she is free, and keeps her spirits up in the midst of her oppression.
This is all in stark contrast to Cinderella’s circumstances in the live action film. Although her mother does die when Cinderella is young, her father remains a strong and caring figure in her life up until her late teens. So she has spent the majority of her life in a loving home, raised to see her value and be an independent woman.
She knows just how evil her step family is and has the innate confidence to stand up for herself, but she does not.
And this cannot be stressed enough: she can leave whenever she likes! When her step family first begins mistreating her, she rides away on her horse into the forest, and there meets the prince for the first time. We also see Cinderella walking in the village talking to a friend, who is in shock at her step family’s behavior and the fact that Cinderella is still living there. Cinderella defends her actions by saying that she can’t leave the house that her parents lived in.
This Cinderella chooses to stay, whereas, from what we are shown, the 1950’s Cinderella isn’t able to. This addition to the plot changes Cinderella from a captive to an accessory in her own misfortune.
3. HER MOTTO
On her deathbed, Cinderella’s mother offers her daughter the following words of encouragement for her life:
“I have to tell you a secret that will see you through all the trials that life can offer. Have courage and be kind….When there is kindness, there is goodness. When there is goodness, there is magic.”
These words become Cinderella’s personal motto as well as the theme for the entire movie. And she repeats it a hundred times. I didn’t actually count, because that would take forever, so let's just say it was a hundred times.
Cinderella does not interpret, or rather the writers do not depict kindness and courage as treating others with respect and doing the right thing despite fear or difficulty.
Instead, they display kindness and courage as meekness and a lack of any self-interest. It is not unkind for Cinderella to object to being exiled to the attic, or being called derogatory nicknames, nor is it cowardly for her to express negative emotions or to leave her abusive situation.
While she does show forbearance, patience, and forgiveness- which are admirable traits- it is worth noting that Cinderella can look out for her own interests and take care of herself while still being patient and forgiving- the two things do not contradict each other. When being kind to her stepfamily, she can also be kind to herself and not let herself become a doormat.
4. HER DRESS
I believe the dress-tearing scene in the 1950’s film is the moment Cinderella fully realizes/accepts just how little regard her step family has for her. That’s when her despair sets in. When Lady Tremaine doesn’t let her go to the ball, and her stepsisters attack her and violently rip her mother’s dress to shreds (in the closest Disney has ever come to depicting a rape scene), it becomes very clear that they do not love her in the slightest, and that her one chance at a better life has been stolen from her.
The dress tearing scene is vastly different in the 2015 film. Cinderella’s two sisters, while still vindictive, almost calmly tear one of the sleeves of her dress. The dress is still intact, it just needs one repair and it would be wearable again. The stepsisters’ actions were cruel, but not violent or damaging beyond repair.
It is also worth noting that the dress Cinderella wears almost every day in this film is a clean, elegant, gorgeous blue gown that would be perfectly suitable for the ball. In this version of Cinderella, she has options.
So, that’s her old dress. How does the new film handle her new dress?
After her stepsisters rip the sleeve of her mother’s dress, Cinderella runs outside, distraught, and meets her fairy godmother for the first time. Among other things, she provides Cinderella with a magical new dress so she can go to the royal ball. While the entire scene is full of whimsy as the pumpkin turns into a coach and the lizards and mice turn into footmen and horses, the dress is given the most time and attention and magic.
The filmmakers could have chosen to make the dress transformation more understated, like the original.
Instead, they indulge in a solid 35 seconds of Cinderella spinning around and around with a euphoric expression while engulfed in a magic pink and blue cloud of CGI while her dress slowly forms around her.
The shot is certainly magical, but it looks more cartoonish than the animated movie! And with the amount of time devoted to the transformation, you are left with the impression that this beautiful new dress is the most important thing that happened to Cinderella that night. Not meeting her fairy godmother, not getting her chance to go to the ball, and not falling in love with the prince, but getting a new dress. No other part of her night is shot to be as transformative or magical as this.
5. HER RESCUE
One of the last and perhaps most significant changes to Cinderella’s story comes in a pivotal scene at the tail end of the movie. This is the scene where the prince has been searching for Cinderella with the glass slipper she left behind, Lady Tremaine locks Cinderella in the attic-tower, and Cinderella is discovered by the prince and the two live happily ever after.
In the animated movie, Cinderella is imprisoned in the attic by her stepmother after the ball. When the royal search party arrives and begins trying the slipper on the step sisters, Cinderella fights back and frantically searches for a way to escape. She gets the mice to steal the key to the attic from Lady Tremaine and bring it back up to her so she can get out in time to try the slipper on. This scene is in many ways the climax of the movie, as everything comes down to Cinderella escaping or not.
Contrast this to how the scene played out in the live action movie. After the ball, Lady Tremaine locks Cinderella up in the attic. Narration comes in and says that Cinderella was not too distraught, because she knew that her time with the prince would soon turn into a wonderful memory. She dances and twirls around the attic, and then sits at the windowsill, peacefully singing a lullaby. No joke. She dances and sings while imprisoned. And this isn’t an “I’ll be okay” kind of dancing, it’s an “I don’t care about my situation” kind of dancing.
Cinderella is completely unaware that the prince is at her house trying to find her, and continues calmly singing. The mice are the only ones who are concerned about her situation, and run to the rescue, while she is in a daydream. The mice try to fling open the window that Cinderella is sitting at, so that the prince, who is leaving the estate, can see and hear her singing. They succeed, and Cinderella and the prince reunite.
It is a significant difference that in this version, courage is conveyed as Cinderella not being concerned by her imprisonment or plight in general, and making no attempt to fight to free herself. The crux of the whole scene, and by extension, the whole movie is left up to CGI mice.
This is a long post, but there was a lot to say. Disney’s live action Cinderella isn’t a terrible movie, in fact it has some great moments and good additions, but critical plot elements show a lack of understanding of what makes a person strong and kind and courageous.
The original Disney Cinderella exhibited kindness and courage in an imperfect, but much more effective way than her modern counterpart. The former was positive and loving, but also fought tirelessly for her freedom when the opportunity presented itself. She fought against the family she had known for most of her life, confident that she deserved better.
The latter Cinderella, while certainly more vocal about her virtues of courage and kindness, displays more than anything a nonchalance about her circumstances rather than a determination to persevere and overcome.
Is that really the message we want to send to young girls? Never show negative emotions, never be frustrated by your situation, and never stick up for yourself. Kindness and courage equal niceness and passivity.
Somehow, and I’m baffled by this, a movie from the 1950’s managed to have a stronger female protagonist with a better message than a movie from 2015.