What modern feminism gets wrong about Disney princesses

Criticism of princesses like Cinderella miss the value of her story

Growing up, Cinderella was my favorite Disney princess. I wish I could tell you what intrigued me at six years old, but still, I am not sure. Something about her demeanor: her kindness and optimism despite her circumstances, she remained good. 

But looking through the 1950’s movie with modern eyes, people have begun asking if Cinderella is a good role model for girls. After all, she isn’t a businesswoman like Tiana or a warrior like Mulan. Comparatively, she’s more passive in her reality. 

She is feminine, gentle-spirited; she ends up with the prince. She is a different kind of woman than what we imagine when we think of modern women. She isn’t a girl boss. 

Many of us are familiar with Disney’s Cinderella, and if you aren’t, you have likely seen one of the hundreds of other varieties on the fairy tale: the evil stepfamily, terrible life, beautiful ballgown, the glass slippers. 

Many elements of her story still speak to me in my adult life, and in re-watching the movie, I saw so much that I missed. First is the extent to which Cinderella is abused. 

In the opening credits, we are informed by the narrator verbatim that the stepmother, Lady Tremaine, is abusive. And even though that statement leaves little room for doubt, many scenes in the movie show just how manipulative and horrible the stepmother really is.

Lady Tremaine is framed using horror movie-esc lighting and framing, usually depicting her in shadows and darkness to show evil visually. There are several times in the movie where Cinderella will physically distance herself from her step-family.

One of the most horrifying scenes in the movie is when Lady Tremaine encourages and allows her stepdaughters to tear apart Cinderella’s dress in an act of physical violence. 

The actual scene itself is colored in a way that contrasts with the following scene of Cinderella’s makeover. When her dress is torn, she’s wearing pink and the background is red and black. The color palette for the next scene is all cold tones in blues. 

Even if this violence isn’t always physical, it is not uncommon for her stepmother to play mind games to get what she wants. Like telling our heroine, she can only attend the ball if she gets all her work done and has a dress. Then immediately proceeds to provide her with more work than she can reasonably get done and therefore removes her ability to make her dress. 

Or, in the movie’s most pivotal scene, the evil stepmother locks her in the tower because she has figured out that Cinderella is the girl the prince is looking for. This act means this is done solely from the bitterness, jealousy and resentment Lady Tremaine has for Cinderella. 

I outline her treatment in detail because it enriches the meaning and themes of her story. Even though her living situation is bad, she still hasn’t let go of her hopes or dreams. Her character is still unbroken. 

And the fairy godmother is the physical manifestation of this hope. She believes that if she can hang in there, it will be worth it. She will be okay in the end. 

But many aspects of her story are criticized because of the help she receives. Unlike some other heroines, she isn’t able to develop a clever plot to think her way out of a problem. And she doesn’t save herself from the abuse in a traditional sense. 

But the thing about being in an abusive relationship is that it’s unrealistic for people to get out of bad situations on their own. It’s unfair to foster an environment where we expect abuse victims to solve their problems and are victim-blaming. 

Cinderella has no support system and no friends. Her step-family keeps her home and keeps her out of the public eye. Her only friends are the critters she lives with. How could she save herself? 

The criticisms Cinderella faces aren’t reserved for only her. Many of Disney’s princess line-up are quick to be pointed out to be problematic. 

Take Ariel, for instance, she is 16 pining after a human prince, and willing to sacrifice just about everything to be with Prince Eric. Not a great message to send to girls. 

But we often forget that her infatuation with Prince Eric is the straw that breaks the camels back in terms of her going to the surface. Princess Ariel has an entire song about her fascination with human culture and science. 

She has a whole song about the gadgets and gizmos she has collected. Her character also represents curiosity and a desire to learn. 

Or Moana, I heard a parent complaining about her movie because she goes against the will of her parents. But the overarching theme of the movie is that though her parents love her, they are disappointed with her for not fulfilling the mold of what they perceive to be a perfect child. 

Moana did not obey her parents, but she was honoring them by seeking out what would make her fullfilled. She refused to sacrifice what she knew to be her purpose because it wasn’t what others had imagined for her. She has a purpose and drive. 

That’s the thing about the movies. Each heroine has something different they value and teach. Belle and Ariel’s inquisitive minds, Moana’s purpose, Mulan and her honor and duty and Cinderella, with her grace and optimism. 

These characters do have flaws. The stories are written by people, who I am sure also have flaws. But these stories taught me really valuable lessons growing up. I genuinely hope I grow up to be as kind as Cinderella. 

I hope when tribulation comes I greet it with her grace and optimism. 

But some of these movies don’t deserve all the flack they get and as an adult I continue to really enjoy them. 

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