I think it’s fair to say that it’s no longer socially acceptable to enjoy Cinderella, the Disney animated blockbuster from 1950 whose original success allowed the company to enjoy a motion picture renaissance throughout the following decade and beyond. (The late 1940s were, shall we say, “not kind” to the animation studio.) Thanks to a passive heroine whose problems are solved through charity and immediate marriage rather than anything she actually “does,” the film’s accusations of sexism (or anti-feminism, if you'd care to draw a distinction) resonate with modern audiences more, perhaps, than the original story does, much in the same way that it’s now hard to watch Gone with the Wind without wincing at the black stereotypes and Confederate sympathy.
I’ve stayed out of those arguments for the most part because I hadn’t seen the film since I was a single-digit youngster. Back then, everything seemed pretty good. Candy was sweeter, bike rides took all afternoon (assuming, for the sake of this conversation, that I actually learned how to ride a bike), and Cinderella was okay, I guess. Disney’s Blu-ray release of Cinderella in a two-disc “Diamond” edition was as good an opportunity as any to relive and re-evaluate the so-called classic and scour it for negative vibes towards women as a whole. What I have found… is that Cinderella isn’t necessarily sexist. The problem is that it’s not terribly good.
I sense a “harrumph” coming from the opposite side of the internet, so let me clarify: Cinderella is gorgeous, the songs are wonderful, the animation is expressive and the Blu-ray from Disney is pretty darn good, porting over most of the DVD extras and adding a few new ones that lack insight but sometimes feel like more than fluff, particularly the intriguing alternate opening that exists only in storyboard form. I’ve heard some grumblings that the color timing may not be the same as the original production, but I’m waiting for more qualified experts to weigh in on that issue. As far as I’m concerned it looks just about right, but then again I am also openly admitting that I haven’t seen the full film in about two decades.
The issue isn’t with the craftsmanship or the incidental details. The issue is with the story itself. Lots of Disney movies are adapted from pretty thin original storylines. Cinderella has about as much material to work from as Tangled and Sleeping Beauty, but the filmmakers have clearly padded the story more than they actually fleshed it out. Let’s start with a refresher course.
The bare bones of the plot, which takes place over less than 48 hours, is that Cinderella has been psychologically – perhaps even physically – abused by her stepmother and stepsisters after the death of her father, and dreams of doing something other than being their personal slave. When The King, desperate for grandchildren, orders all the eligible maidens in the kingdom to attend a ball for his son, Cinderella’s family prevents her from going until a previously-unseen Fairy Godmother arrives and gives her a magical makeover. She falls in love with The Prince but escapes before the spell wears off, and before he can even learn her name. But she drops her glass slipper, so The King commands that whomever fits the slipper (he’s not particularly choosy) will marry The Prince, who apparently has no say in the matter. Fortunately the shoe fits Cinderella, and nobody else, so Bob’s your uncle.
The problem with this story is that Cinderella has nothing to do besides take all her family’s abuse without complaint. She’s got a great demeanor and only once threatens to beat the cat with a broom, but she has no drive. Many fairy tales read like horror stories – Little Red Riding Hood comes to mind – but Cinderella was seemingly intended to A) give underprivileged girls hope for a better future, and B) encourage them to shut up so their parents could treat them however the hell they wanted until they got married and moved out. That's a kind of horror too, I suppose, because it does not boast a positive moral in any modern context that I can fathom, regardless of gender issues.
Cinderella is such a non-character in her own movie that more attention gets placed on the film's monstrous parents, giving the film a very dark undercurrent. Cinderella’s stepmother is obviously manipulative, selfish and perhaps as genuinely evil (as opposed to cartoonishly evil) as Disney villains get. Her passive-aggressive acceptance of Cinderella’s presence frequently gives way to sudden, startling anger and shocking violence, particularly when she has her two biological daughters rip Cinderella’s dress off of her in a truly uncomfortable display of sadism. But the King isn’t much better. He doesn’t want his son – who barely gets a line of dialogue in the entire movie – to marry for his own sake, or even for the sake of the kingdom. He manipulates the whole commonwealth to fulfill is own need for grandchildren, and is perfectly happy to marry his son to anyone in a “Size 6” just to get what he wants. Children are nothing more than playthings to their parents, and one wonders if Cinderella is entirely trading upwards if her new father-in-law is so utterly callous towards his biological son's interests. If she doesn't actually bear children right away, you get the impression that The King could respond with the same kneejerk, unhealthy level of violence towards Cinderalla as he levels at the Duke. And that was just for losing track of one maiden in party with hundreds of other people in attendance.
Rather than juxtapose the genuinely dramatic manipulations of an older generation with youthful idealism or even rebellion, the children get shoved to the side of the narrative so their traditional fairy tale can play out with no dramatic alteration. The only thing that gets Cinderella all the way to a feature-length running time are frequent asides with the anthropomorphic mice who, in the original story, exist only to be turned into the horses for Cinderella's magical carriage. These mice – and a dog, and some birds – are Cinderella’s only friends in the movie version, and spend many pointless scenes evading the family cat, named “Lucifer” (subtle), before the plot can even begin. They have no thematic connection besides, perhaps, representing the appropriate way to treat those of a lower station (although I'd say that's a stretch), and their only function in the storyline is to get Cinderella out of the various messes her stepmother puts her into. They’re cute, and they have a great song, but they're comic relief characters who inexplicably seem to wind up with more screen time and actual impact on the plot than the actual hero.
Cinderella seems to espouse a very naïve but hopeful philosophy. The film suggests that positive attitudes will eventually get you everything you want, whether you actually act on your ambitions or not. While a positive attitude certainly makes Cinderella’s excruciating home life bearable, there’s a line of dialogue in the alternate opening special feature that illustrates her real problem rather beautifully. When the animals why Cinderella doesn’t just run away, in this unused sequence, she responds, “Haven’t time, too much to do.” The hero ignores a practical solution to her own problem because she’s brainwashed herself into accepting her status quo, and that mindset never actually changes over the course of the film. Cinderella never grows as a character, nor do any of the people around her. Cinderella does not become particularly empowered by defying her stepmother, or even by successfully romancing the most eligible royal in the world, and her evil family doesn't even get their comeuppance at the end, despite the fact that the woman they abused has been given about as much power as anyone can get in this fantasy universe.
Cinderella doesn’t seem terribly sexist. Her stepmother is also a woman, and she gets what she wants 99% of the time, malevolent though her schemes may be. You could argue, I suppose, that the film is therefore demonizing independent women, but the film exists within such a tiny microcosm that it doesn't seem capable of making any statement with that much sweep. It’s a watchable movie, and somewhat entertaining as blind wish fulfillment, but it just suffers from an underdeveloped storyline and a pair of romantic leads with, respectively, either serious psychological issues or no personality to speak of. It’s hard to get caught up in anything Cinderella offers besides the impressive animation and music (which admittedly go a long way), and the promise that everything will get better if you just believe that it will. At no point does it suggest taking charge of your own life. Sexist or not, that’s a negative message, and it doesn’t play as well today as it must have upon its release, given its well-documented popularity.
For fans who don’t care about such criticisms, the Blu-ray is a fine release and worthy of a purchase. For animation junkies, it probably belongs in your collection for the historical significance alone. For adults who actually care about things like story and character, it’s a largely dissatisfying motion picture, with a troubling message and a weak narrative throughline. For kids, it’s not something that they should probably build an ethos around, but it’s mostly a fun time. Mostly.