Cinderella has lived many lives. While the original tale dates back centuries, the film boom began in 1950 with Cinderella (the Disney animated version), and continued with Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella (1957, 1965, and 1997 with Brandy and Whitney Houston), A Cinderella Story (2004, and further iterations in 2008 and 2011), Cinderella (2015, with Lily James), and most recently, Cinderella (2021, starring Camilla Cabello). We even see the proliferation of this plot arc in films like Pretty Woman (1990) and Ella Enchanted (2004). Clearly, this is a tale that we love to tell, but perhaps more significantly, retell and refashion as time goes on. So, why do we keep returning to this story?
Disney’s Cinderella (1950) was released in an environment still reeling from the effects of the Second World War. Women who had worked tirelessly during the war were open to the idea of being swept off their feet into wealth and relaxation, far away from the hardships of the past few years. “In postwar Britain, a weariness with rationing and austerity helps to explain women’s delight in transformations and the idea of release from domestic drudgery,” notes Carol Dyhouse, author of Love Lives: From Cinderella to Frozen. The story resonated because it represented an escapist idea that allowed women to imagine a world that put their comfort first. However, because the popularity of the film endured even as its historical context washed away, the meaning changed as well. In a new world where women had more agency and more power over their decision-making, Cinderella suddenly looked like a tale where a woman attracts a man and then he whisks her away from her life.
So as the times evolved, so did Cinderella. In later iterations, she didn’t swoon as quickly for the prince, she had a more detailed backstory, and she had friends who weren’t merely mice and rats. The fact that Cinderella had a job outside of the home in both A Cinderella Story (2004) and Cinderella (2021) only emphasises the imprint of second-wave feminist beliefs and the undercurrent of American Dream sensibilities (hard work is admirable! Work is a symbol of agency!). As Linda T. Parsons writes in Ella Evolving: Cinderella Stories and the Construction of Gender- Appropriate Behavior, “women now reclaim fairy tales in an attempt to disrupt binary gender construction and to re-vision possibilities for women and men.” The 2021 version of Cinderella is one of the stronger examples of this feminist influence. She enjoys and finds purpose in work and doesn’t give up her business dreams for the prince, but rather, he gives up his opportunity to lead the kingdom to be with her. In this Cinderella, she sweeps the prince away from his old life and into hers, rather than the opposite.
But the retellings of Cinderella are more than just an attempt to counteract the seemingly non-feminist protagonist traits of the past: “Fairy tales contribute to the formation of the boundaries of agency, subjectivity, and anticipated rewards.” Parsons continues, “They are powerful cultural agents that tell us how to be.” They teach children what traits to embrace (kindness, grace, generosity) and which to avoid (cruelty, vanity, entitlement). For the most part, these core messages have remained the same in each iteration, it’s just the world around them that’s changed. 1997’s Cinderella sought to increase the racial diversity of the tale, so it cast more non-white actors (most notably a Black Cinderella, Black fairy godmother, and Black queen) to create a more representative version of the same story. In the 2021 version, Cinderella is played by Latina Camila Cabello, and she has a Black, LGBTQ+ fairy godmother. This story, a pillar of the Disney machine, became more inclusive.
But every Cinderella exists within the same framework. There is a prince, oppressive family members, a transformation sequence, and upward mobility. The specifics may change but the core remains the same, and that core is not neutral. In all of these iterations, Cinderella continues to be thin, able-bodied, and heterosexual. She is always beautiful, and that beauty is always important to the story. Her stepmother and sisters (a specific relation that seems to underline the idea that real family is biological) are cruel to her, at least in the beginning. When she transforms, the transformation is always centered around a grander, more expensive, more feminine outfit, and this outfit is always donned to assimilate into high society. And there is no version of Cinderella where she does not end up with her romantic interest, a partner by her side, a happy ending intrinsically intertwined with a relationship. The borders of this story can only stretch so far, and as much as we can attempt to make it more feminist or diverse, it still has to have these structures, or else it simply isn’t Cinderella anymore.
To be clear, I am not diminishing the importance of diversity in well-known tales. The excitement of seeing a Latina or Black Cinderella is not insignificant, and establishing these versions of iconic characters is certainly a step in the right direction in terms of diversifying the canon. But diversity, and specifically diversity in movies for kids, can be expanded upon and explored in new and interesting ways. Coco (2017) centres on a young Mexican boy who travels to the Land of the Dead, Encanto (2022) is specifically grounded in Colombian culture and symbolism, and Turning Red (2022) also relishes the cultural specificity of its Chinese-Canadian protagonist. These films explore the ideas that we want children to take into adulthood (be kind, be strong, don’t be callous, don’t be cruel) but they aren’t confined to plot points that were created centuries ago.
It’s understandable that we find comfort in predictability. We know how Cinderella is going to end, and we enjoy being pleasantly surprised by new elements of the story that are introduced with every iteration. But it feels like we have started using new Cinderellas as a beacon to showcase our progressive values, even as it exists within the very same structure of its previous iterations. We can, and certainly will continue to rewrite this tale, but we can also focus on the infinite amount of other stories to be written – ones where diversity and inclusion are woven into the fabric of the plot rather than added on top of an existing property.
by Michelle Cohn