I recently enjoyed my honeymoon (which I had to wait a year after being married to actually go on). Because of our current lack of funds, my partner and I didn’t go anywhere, but rather stayed at home and enjoyed each other’s company. One of the things that we did decide to do while on our honeymoon was marathon Disney movies. And so naturally, after years of not having seen it, I re-watched Cinderella. And while the movie still is very problematic, I have to admit that I’m starting to think that maybe feminists (myself included) give Cinderella a little more shit than is really merited.
Originally I had a very harsh opinion of Cinderella herself; she’s a woman who is treated poorly, but still seems to, at least somewhat, care for her oppressors, and who bears everything they throw at her graciously. The message to me always seemed to be that if you are being mistreated, you should still be kind and gentle and just deal with the cards you’ve been dealt, with the hope that if you’re good enough one day you’ll escape the bad position you are in. Maybe I was looking at it with too much of a cynical eye, but that was (and to some extent still is) how I viewed Cinderella, until I started looking at her as an abuse victim.
When the movie begins we see Cinderella at a very young age, probably somewhere between six and eight years old. Her mother had passed away and her father had already remarried. This means that the only mother Cinderella probably knew her whole life was Lady Tremaine. Cinderella’s father seems to have died not long after he married Lady Tremaine, meaning that Lady Tremaine also probably handled most of Cinderella’s upbringing. This gave Lady Tremaine time to train Cinderella into being a servant instead of a society woman. In the Disney movie, we don’t see any other servants. Cinderella is forced to run the entire household while her stepsisters Drizella and Anastasia are trained to be ladies of society. Cinderella has been basically told her whole life that she isn’t worth the same as her stepsisters. She’s told she isn’t worth Lady Tremaine’s love, even though she is the only mother she ever knew. We see Cinderella constantly act as a “fixer,” as someone who is trying to do everything perfectly and be perfect for her abusers so that she can minimize the damage that Lady Tremaine and her stepsisters do to her. Cinderella’s attempts to be perfect and bear her troubles gracefully in this light seem to be less of some misguided moral lesson and more about Cinderella’s attempts to survive.
It also becomes evident now as I watch the movie as an adult that Drizella and Anastasia are not spared from mistreatment by Lady Tremaine either. While we could look at how spoiled they are as a form of abuse, I’m not going to discuss that here, simply because that aspect of the girls’ relationship with their mother is rather obvious. Instead, what I want to discuss is how Lady Tremaine manipulates her daughters into being against Cinderella and against each other. At the beginning of the movie, Cinderella brings one of her stepsisters her breakfast and asks her if she slept well, to which she responds “as if you care”. Furthermore, when one of the mice gets accidentally trapped under Anastasia’s teacup, Anastasia seems to completely believe that Cinderella did this to her on purpose and with malicious intent. Despite the fact that Cinderella never seems to do anything to harm her stepsisters, the two girls are completely convinced that Cinderella is out to get them. This to me indicates that the sisters are being manipulated by Lady Tremaine. Lady Tremaine could have easily taught her daughters that they were better than Cinderella and that she was beneath them without instilling in them this idea that Cinderella was constantly out to get them.
Lady Tremaine’s manipulations are further made clear when Cinderella manages to finish her chores and come downstairs ready for the ball in the dress the mice and birds made for her. Lady Tremaine states that she and Cinderella made a bargain and that because she has a dress and completed her chores, she should be able to go to the ball, thus lulling Cinderella into a false sense of security before directing her daughters’ attention to the sashes and jewelry Cinderella is wearing. These are all items that were formerly Drizella’s and Anastasia’s that they had proclaimed were old or didn’t look good anymore and had discarded, and were then picked up by the mice and used for Cinderella’s dress. Though the sisters are shown as selfish, by getting upset over something they didn’t want anyway, they are still being manipulated by Lady Tremaine into assuming that Cinderella stole these items, causing them to fly into a rage and tear Cinderella’s dress apart.
There are some problems here with viewing Cinderella and her stepsisters as abuse victims. While it’s very clear that they are victims of abuse, the movie itself doesn’t exactly do a good job presenting this. My major problem with this movie is the lack of plot and the lack of character development for almost every character in it. If you took out all the filler in the movie, then the whole Cinderella story could probably be boiled down to forty minutes. Because of this we learn almost nothing about our main characters. We get very little insight about how Cinderella feels about her family. She seems annoyed with them but still craves attention and approval from her stepmother—which we see especially when Cinderella comes down to attend the ball with her sisters in the dress the mice made. Before Lady Tremaine crushes Cinderella, she makes clear that she made a deal with Cinderella which she claims she will uphold and even compliments Cinderella’s dress before manipulating her daughters to destroy it. The whole time Cinderella preens and seems to adore the positive attention her stepmother gives her before it all falls apart. But even with this scene, most of the complexity for the characters, especially Cinderella, our main character, comes from facial expressions. Cinderella never talks about her feelings toward her family. She doesn’t even sing about it. And this is where this movie falls short compared to other Disney movies like Tangled that also show abuse. Cinderella was written at a different age of Disney. Many of the older Disney movies are really more loosely connected shorts than a cohesive story. Between the laughing mice, the cat named Lucifer, and artsy depictions of Cinderella cleaning, the movie loses a lot of the plot and character development, which ultimately hurts how the movie portrays abuse.
That all being said, Cinderella is the princess that gets the most shit for ruining little girls and playing into really sexist understandings of women’s role in society and beauty standards. Peggy Orenstein’s book about Disney princess culture is literally called Cinderella Ate My Daughter. It’s a great book and I love Orenstein’s critiques, but Cinderella was not the one who started all the Disney princess tropes and problems. But I think Cinderella gets so much of the blame simply because of how popular she is. Cinderella is still not perfect; it’s not a great story, and it’s highly problematic, but I found that there is actually some more complexity to the story than I originally thought once I realized that Cinderella and even her stepsisters were horribly abused by Lady Tremaine. While that abuse isn’t portrayed as well as it could have been, I still think it is clear that Cinderella is an abuse victim and not a submissive woman who passively accepts how people treat her as some have tried to paint her in the past. And that softens my opinion on Cinderella a lot.