Disney princesses are pretty much inescapable; they’re everywhere. No matter where in the world you live, you’ve most likely seen movies like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White, leaving you with a remembrance of the iconic images featured in the movies. An example of this is the rose from Beauty and the Beast. Most young girls wanted to be a princess like Belle at least once in their lives. Even with these stories being deeply ingrained into our culture, there’s been a fierce backlash of the Disney princess movies. With feminism pushing for better representation of women in the media, a lot of people take issue with the classic stories, saying that the princesses aren’t the best influences on young girls because they rely on the men around them instead of themselves.
This has led to movies like Brave, Moana, and Frozen, which don’t have love interests, and they make the leading ladies solve problems on their own. While I think it’s great that the Disney movies are trying new things with their female leads, some of the criticism may be unwarranted.
People focus on Cinderella as the epitome of a weak damsel in distress character. Leah Holstien, owner of a blog called themagicalworldof.com wrote an article explaining why she thought Disney’s Cinderella was problematic. The writer claims that the movie teaches girls to be ‘martyrs’ and care for everyone before themselves.
“Cinderella never once complains or fights back… She never complained, never showed any sort of weakness, or any form of meltdown,” the writer states.
It seems as though the writer hasn’t seen Cinderella since she was a child because she has gotten so many facts about the plot wrong.
Cinderella does fight back. More than once.
If you don’t remember, when Lady Tremaine locks Cinderella inside her room in order to stop her from trying on the glass slipper, Cinderella fights back. She doesn’t fight Lady Tremaine, but she bangs on the door and tries to break out the bedroom. Not to mention the fact that Cinderella even attended the ball in the first place is already an act of rebellion. If her stepmother and stepsisters saw her at the ball after they already tried to stop her once, she would’ve been in big trouble. But, she decided to go anyways. She could’ve told the fairy godmother she didn’t want to go because it was too risky, but she didn’t. She even asserted herself to her stepmother by telling her she wanted to go to the ball.
The writer also claims Cinderella never has any human meltdowns, even though she breaks down in tears after her stepsisters tear apart her dress.
You have to keep in mind what kind of environment Cinderella lives in. Holstein acknowledges that Cinderella’s family is abusive. Even the movie does. In the very first scene, the narrator tells us this: “Cinderella was abused, humiliated, and finally turned into a servant in her own house…”
The idea that Cinderella isn’t strong enough because she doesn’t fight back against her abusive family the right way is just infuriatingly small minded. Cinderella’s been made into a servant in her own home, she faces mental abuse every single day, and yet people think of her as weak because she can’t stand up to her abusers. Those people never take time to consider how hard it can be to confront someone in a position of authority, especially when that authority figure ridicules them every day. To imply that it’s Cinderella’s job to stop the abuse would be victim blaming, which is maddeningly problematic.
Cinderella was given a fairytale ending because even though she had such a difficult life she remained positive and brave. She was brave enough to tell her family she wanted to go to the ball, brave enough to try to break out of the attic, and brave enough to stand up for herself by trying on the glass slipper. Wielding a sword and fighting a dragon isn’t the only way to be brave. You don’t have to fight a bear like Merida or join the army like Mulan to be heroic.
Cinderella is heroic because even when she’s living in a pressure cooker environment, she’s optimistic and kind. The narrator tells us this:“For with each dawn, she found new hope that someday her dreams of happiness would come true.” Cinderella looks out for the animals that live around her, defending the mice from Lady Tremain’s cat, saving Gus from a mousetrap, and making clothes for the animals even though she doesn’t have to. This isn’t the movie telling girls to care for everyone else before themselves, this is the movie telling children that they can survive a stressful situation if they stay calm, stay positive, and face the problem like Cinderella. She doesn’t allow her tormentors to change her outlook on life, and actively fights back against them.
More recent princesses like Tiana, Moana, and Elsa have hardworking and outspoken personalities, and that’s great. I think Disney should have more variety with their characters. But I don’t think that automatically negates the heroism of other princesses. To me, Cinderella is so much more than just a damsel in distress. Cinderella teaches us––in the words of the 2015 adaptation––to have courage and be kind.