Cinderella’s Representation of Gender and How its Changed
Growing up, Cinderella was a classic. I can’t tell you how frequently I watched the Disney movie as a child, because that number may not exist yet. As I’ve gotten older and wiser, the gender issues in this film have become more and more apparent. It is interesting to see these issues, and though they can be very aggravating, observing them show just how far we have come as a society.
Model Behavior and Perpetuating Gender Stereotypes
When peeling back the layers of the film, Cinderella highlights key issues with gender roles and stereotypes. It is worth noting that Disney’s adaptation is based on Charles Perrault’s classic, written all the way back in 1697. Clearly, times were different, especially in terms of gender norms and stereotypes. Although the tale is centuries old, it is interesting to discover that a few ideas viewers see in the film were actually rather prevalent during the 1950s. For the purposes of this analysis, the Disney film will be analyzed looking through the lenses of the fifties.
One major common thread between 1950s gender issues and gender in Cinderella is the belief that marriage is the ultimate life goal. According to PBS, “In the 1950s, women felt tremendous societal pressure to focus their aspirations on a wedding ring” (“People & Events: Mrs. America: Women’s Roles in the 1950s”). Marriage was viewed as a sense of security and escape from one’s family. This idea can be seen when observing the film through a critical lens. Every eligible bachelorette wants to be married to the Prince, from Cinderella to her step-sisters. The whole existence of a grand ball that allows a slew of single females to mingle with the Prince—and hopefully solidify a marriage proposal—reiterates the idea that marriage is supremely important.
Another notion is that a woman’s place is in the home. Edith Stern wrote an article entitled, “Women Are Household Slaves,” in which she constructs a satire-esque advertisement calling for a domestic female to do “all cooking, cleaning, laundering, sewing, meal planning, shopping, [and so on]” (Stern 71). The whole article points to the fact that women in the 1950s were essentially confined to the role of housewife. Upon getting married, women were expected to stay at home and perform household chores. Some viewers are able to draw parallels within the film, as well; there is an expectation of Cinderella to constantly perform similar tasks, like sweeping and sewing. When she doesn’t do these things, there are consequences, suggesting that it is in a woman’s best interest to do the housework expected of them.
It is easier to notice the gender roles and stereotypes that have been brought to light in Cinderella especially when considering how progressive our nation has been in equalizing women and men. For instance, it is worth pointing out that the idea that a woman’s value is determined based on how they look. This is seen in specific instances in the film, such as when Cinderella encounters her Fairy Godmother. Initially, Cinderella is dressed quite plainly in her house clothes. Her transformation into a glamorous and impeccably dressed young bachelorette reinforces the beauty ideal. If Cinderella were to attend the Prince’s ball in her homely attire, her chances of making a good and lasting impression on the Prince would be slim to none.
Another instance where viewers observe the value of being beautiful is at the ball, when the Prince first sees Cinderella. Based on her physical appearance, he immediately falls in love with her, not even considering other elements, like her kind personality. Peggy Orenstein believes that the focus on beauty is damaging for young girls watching films like Cinderella. She argues that “young women who hold the most conventionally feminine beliefs—who avoid conflict and think they should be perpetually nice and pretty—are more likely to be depressed than others” (Orenstein). Moreover, young girls are beginning to feel that in order to be well-liked, they must “please everyone, be very thin and dress right” (Orenstein).
There is, additionally, the belief that love is superior to both independence and education. Today, being independent and educated are things that more and more women are focused on; they are more focused on getting a college degree and being self-sufficient than finding a husband as soon as possible. In Cinderella, independence takes a back seat to marriage. If she can marry the Prince, she will be taken care of and can depend on him to be the provider. Education is something that doesn’t even come up in the film, which could suggest that women didn’t want to waste their time learning, that they had more important goals to be fulfilling, like wrangling a husband. In our society, women work to become doctors, lawyers, and politicians. Cinderella, though…not so much; as Orenstein would say, “Cinderella doesn’t really do anything” (Orenstein).
Breaking the Chains of Gender Stereotypes Today
While Cinderella may perpetuate numerous gender roles and stereotypes, it is also just a movie. Disney’s own executive Andy Mooney has chimed in on the matter. According to him, children merely go through phases as they grow. He reasons that “[boys pass] through [and girls pass] through. I see girls expanding their imagination through visualizing themselves as princesses, and then they pass through that phase and end up becoming lawyers, doctors, mothers or princesses, whatever the case may be” (Orenstein). In this case, young children watching Cinderella could view it and remain unaffected by it; just because they watch the film doesn’t mean they will grow up thinking that they need to be a princess.
Orenstein, too, agrees that “plenty of girls stray from the script,” and rather than reenacting scenes from film, they may do other things, like “[play] basketball in their finery, or [cast] themselves as the powerful evil stepsister bossing around the sniveling Cinderella.” She also states that “there are no studies proving that playing princess directly damages girls’ self-esteem or dampens other aspirations.”
Perhaps the most telling about the progress we’ve made are the films that are being made today and how they stray away from these traditional gender roles. Lighezzolo brings up Frozen, which is certainly a great example of the undoing of these stereotypes, especially with the idea that Elsa gets her happily-ever-after without having a love interest. Brave is another film that doesn’t depend heavily on a female character in need of saving. Merida is a rough-around-the-edges, self-sufficient, and determined young woman that relies more on her set of skills than waiting on a male to shoo in and do all the hard work.
The views on Cinderella undoubtedly are multi-faceted. While some see the film as a basic children’s movie, others feel that it paints a particularly problematic picture of gender roles and stereotypes. Although neither side is one hundred percent right or wrong, it is still essential to examine the film closely because of the debates that it sparks, no matter what era we’re living in.