In Defense of Cinderella
By Gennifer Eccles
CW: This article mentions emotional and mental abuse. Please exercise self-care before continuing to read.
Earlier this week, I was driving back home from the movies, enjoying the sudden (but not unwelcome) temperature drop. I cued up my Spotify playlist for the summer, and sang along to all the bops coming from my phone’s tinny speaker. When I was pulling up to my neighborhood, Cinderella by The Cheetah Girls came on. I added the song early in summer, after a Zendaya tweet resurfaced on my feed.
As I turned off my car and gathered my purse, I kept the song going. Not only does the tune take me back to a simpler time in which I was in awe of a Disney Channel Movie and hoped to be in a girl-group like The Cheetah Girls, but I’m also impressed by the song’s message of feminism.
My favorite part of the song is when the girls sing the bridge:
“I can slay my own dragon
I can dream my own dreams
My knight in shining armor is me
So I'm gonna set me free, yeah”
These simple lyrics of female power are a reminder of self-worth to young adults like myself, and more importantly, a great introduction to feminism for young girls. I’m not too sure I picked up on it back when I watched the movie during my childhood; I was much more focused on the fabulous velour sweatsuits. But listening to these lyrics, I was shocked that Disney would promote such a feminist, albeit simplistic, ideology. Disney rarely pushes against gender stereotypes, and The Cheetah Girls’ girl-power brand has always stood out to me.
However, one line from their song caught my attention as I was walking up the driveway, quietly singing along. The main hook of the song goes:
“I don't want to be like Cinderella,
Sittin' in a dark cold dusty cellar
Waitin' for somebody to come and set me free”
To be fair, I’ve been listening to this song basically the whole summer, whenever it came on my playlist. But this was the first time I was actually listening and thinking about the lyrics and the message they were promoting. While I’m all for being proactive and standing up for yourself, as the girls sing about, I do have a little issue with this character-bashing of Cinderella. It’s not like Cinderella merely sat in a “dark cold dusty cellar” and waited for someone to free her. Upon a rewatch of the movie, I noticed that Cinderella does resist, just in quieter ways.
I want to make something abundantly clear: Cinderella is living in an abusive household. Healthline reported on the various signs of emotional and mental abuse, and it comes as no surprise that viewers of the movie can easily find similarities.
Here are some of the signs I found upon a quick rewatch of the movie:
In case you don't remember, Cinderella isn’t the protagonist’s birth name. Her true name is never revealed and instead she is called Cinderella, a name given by her stepmother, Lady Tremaine and her stepsisters, Anastasia and Drizella, in an attempt to shame her for working as a servant. Since we never learn Cinderella’s name, she has no sense of autonomy and the nickname is a constant reminder that Cinderella doesn’t even feel like she has ownership over herself.
Yelling and/or demanding
Cinderella’s family constantly yells at her with their demands - do the laundry, bring up their breakfast, and above all, don’t talk back. Cinderella is oppressed by this tool of manipulation, even if it’s made to seem less harmful through a Disney perspective. The simple fact is, it’s still a control tactic.
Insulting her appearance
One of the most iconic scenes in the Disney film is when Anastasia and Drizella cruelly rip Cinderella’s dress, which was fashioned from one of her mother’s older dresses, to shreds in an attempt to humiliate her. This dress is a symbol of Cinderella’s happiness, a reminder of a time when Lady Tremaine and her daughters were not tormenting her. By tearing it up, Anastasia and Drizella are ruining Cinderella’s only reminder that there is a better life out there for her.
Cinderella is never commended for her work, even though she works from sunrise and past sunset. Since Lady Tremaine and Co. never compliment or acknowledge Cinderella’s non-stop work, her accomplishments and drive are disregarded. Cinderella’s dedication is one of her best qualities, but since no one acknowledges the characteristics that make her such a great person, Cinderella cannot truly grasp her self-worth.
This is a sign that viewers might not have picked up on. At the very beginning of the movie, the narrator notes how Lady Tremaine and her daughters wasted Cinderella’s father’s fortune, which was bestowed to Tremaine upon his death. This leaves Cinderella in financial ruin and forces her to work as a servant at the estate. By diminishing Cinderella’s economic status, Lady Tremaine has limited Cinderella’s freedoms, as social status is so closely linked with economic wealth. Cinderella is financially dependent on Lady Tremaine, who continually reminds her of this by exerting her power.
Cinderella is constantly ordered around by her family. They’ve forced her into a position of servitude, establishing their dominance and power over her. These direct orders strip Cinderella of choice. Rather than make decisions for herself, Cinderella’s opinions, desires, and needs are dismissed. This makes it harder for Cinderella to comprehend that she is just as important and worthy as her peers.
These six signs are just ones I picked up upon by skimming the movie, and I am sure there are more to be uncovered upon a deeper analysis. Nevertheless, these signs show that Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters are emotionally and mentally abusive. Cinderella is in a futile position; she does not have any money to her name, has no human friends or allies, and is isolated from any true sign of hope. And yet, Cinderella rebels against her stepmother’s constant attempts to control her.
We so often think of resistance in forms of obvious rebellion and action, but resistance and advocacy takes many more forms than just marching or protesting. Despite Lady Tremaine’s constant belittling of Cinderella, Cinderella still maintains happiness, hope, and a strong sense of self-worth.
Cinderella does resist, just in quieter ways. While Lady Tremaine attempts to isolate Cinderella, the classic Disney princess still forms bonds, even if it's with various creatures on the estate. Even though Cinderella is forced to live in the attic and is ordered to stay home the night of the ball, she leaves. Yes, she might need a good push from her fairy godmother, but Cinderella worked hard towards her goal of going to the ball and defying her stepmother. Against all odds, she completes the laundry-list of chores and demands, and with the help of some mice, even sews her gown. Before this, Cinderella was complacent, following orders. The moment she decides to go to the ball is a watershed moment. While we can look at this through a romantic lens ー Cinderella’s going to be in a fancy dress and find her one true love! ー Cinderella’s decision has other implications as well. The ball is an opportunity for Cinderella to raise her socioeconomic status and leave her abysmal living conditions. Cinderella is doing something for herself; she puts her own wants ahead of anyone else’s for the first time.
In the third act, when Cinderella’s stepmother locks our protagonist in the attic, Cinderella does not just give up. Cinderella doesn’t just sit around, waiting for a prince to save her, like The Cheetah Girls imply. With the help of her mice friends, she escapes her makeshift prison. Even so, all hope seems lost when Cinderella’s cunning stepmother trips the man holding the glass slipper. In an empowering turn of events, Cinderella takes her own slipper out of her pocket. This final act not only cements Cinderella as the princess-to-be, but also defies her stepmother’s wish for Cinderella’s misery. Cinderella changes her future and opens opportunities for herself. Cinderella’s happy ending is not because of a prince, but because of her own defiance and persistence.
The next time you rank your favorite Disney princesses, keep in mind that Cinderella isn’t just some despondent woman yearning for a better life. Cinderella works with what little power and opportunity she has, and in turn, cultivates a life of luxury and happiness. That’s pretty badass.