In Defense of Cinderella

Disney recently released the latest of their live action takes on the old animated classics. I’m talking of course about Cinderella. I haven’t seen the movie but I have read and heard a number of reviews and I noticed a weird trend. Regardless of their opinions of the remake, most critics seemed to be very unappreciative of the original film. Or, perhaps more accurately, the character of Cinderella as she was portrayed in that film.

Now while I haven’t seen the new live action film I did seen the original animated film many times and I remember it very fondly. So imagine my surprise when most of what I read suggested that Cinderella had no character to speak of.

I take issue with this. Cinderella had a lot of character, even if it’s not developed in the ways we’re used to. So today let’s take a look at the classic animated Cinderella and some of the criticisms people have been making of it and then why they might not be entirely fair.

  1. Cinderella is entirely passive. She does nothing to escape the position her stepmother puts her in she just waits for the prince to come for her. While it’s true that Cinderella does nothing for herself, to improve her own situation, to call her passive is incredibly wrongheaded. She does a lot. Her most noticeable actions are just altruistic and directed towards mice. She does a great deal to proactively rescue, feed and clothe the mice of the house and in the process of caring for them indirectly provokes her stepmother (one of the most terrifying Disney villains there is). There’s more to Cinderella than just passively waiting, she’s actively doing good for those around here. That takes real moral strength – real character – to do.
  2. Cinderella undergoes no character growth during the story. This critique is actually very valid. Cinderella (the original animated film) is based on a fairy tale and is a very loyal adaptation of it. There was generally very little character growth in fairy tales because they were stories designed to serve as examples of desirable character qualities. Rather than showing how a character trait might come about they are designed to show that trait in action and what the rewards for it are. Her character is the result of a different storytelling tradition than the modern one and that does weaken her impact some, particularly to modern audiences, but it doesn’t make her character bad just the presentation of her story.
  3. Cinderella is a wimp. She never stands up for herself. This one really gets me. Given the time period of the story and the situation Cinderella finds herself in there’s only so much defiance we can reasonably expect of Cinderella. She does try and stand up to for herself and those under her protection when she does things like save the mice from the cat or ask if she can go to the ball. But she’s essentially been relegated to house servant since she was a young girl – she has few skills and little to no education. Just maintaining a cheerful attitude a taking the moral stands she does is already a herculean effort. What more do you want?

When you look back on it then it’s easy to see that Cinderella had its flaws as a film. The mice are kind of silly and take up time that might be used to develop the more important human characters like Cinderella’s stepmother or the nameless prince she ultimately marries, or showing a more modern character arc in Cinderella herself. The music is average and the stepsisters themselves really don’t add much to the story beyond giving their mother another excuse to be mean. But is Cinderella herself a flaw in the story?

She’s steadfast, patient and kind. Her good nature is her greatest charm and when she gets hers it is truly marvelous. Many times when I was young I laughed in gleeful vindication when Cinderella produced the second glass slipper, to her stepmother’s dismay and the Duke’s delight. She didn’t change or grow much but she sure made us grow to love her and for good reason. So give the lady a break. Or not. At the very least, no matter what you think, I’m pretty sure Cinderella would go right on being herself and, in an era when peer pressure is brought to bear with more strength and from more directions than ever before, that in and of itself is a sign of real character.

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One response to “In Defense of Cinderella

  1. Thanks for this, Nate. I find the reminder of the fairy tale genre’s purpose especially helpful. Regarding Cinderella’s “passivity”, I would add the extreme resourcefulness of trying to make her own ball gown. Her stepmother tries to thwart her, she chooses to be obedient and respectful (some of her character qualities!), and the mice finish the dress for her. Even though she knows she is not welcome, she has enough determination to dress and try to go anyway. She gets ripped apart for her audacity. Then when she is locked in her room during the search for the mysterious princess, she again shows resourcefulness in calling Bruno to get Lucifer to give up the key. Her calm sweetness (no smugness, no hint of a vindictive nature) when she presents the slipper, adds to the delight of that moment.

    I will have to reserve judgment on the new version. Modern storytelling does focus on relationship and growth, and I look forward to a more fully developed prince. Why shouldn’t young men have better role models in these movies, too?

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