The Frogger loves Disney‘s Cinderella, mainly because she thinks Cinderella’s ball gown in pretty, likes dancing, and loves all the cute animals[1,2]. As a result, I have had many opportunities over the past few months to observe this film in great detail, repeatedly. These posts resulted from subjecting the normally active mind, thirsting for stimulation, to triplicate viewings whilst traversing the wintry wastelands of the Midwest, with the second of two presented here, wherein I shall examine why the Cinderella story, rather than being uplifting, depresses me.
Some are thrown off by the negative messages to women about their self-worth and relationships in Cinderella. Some may have a point. I, however, think even the most devoted misogynist should find the story depressing.
Disney’s Cinderella has a relatively simple narrative. Having established that Cinderella is all sweetness, light, and beauty despite the abuse of her Wicked Step-People, we cut to the king announcing a ball to honor the return of his son and heir, The Prince, which “every eligible maiden” is to attend (see Part the First). Being eligible and reputedly a maiden, Cinderella is granted permission to go to the ball provided she completes all her chores and finds a suitable dress.
The Wicked Stepmother, being wicked, overloads Cinderella with chores, preventing Cinderella from repairing/updating one of her mother’s old dresses. Her animal friends anticipate this issue (in song) and collaborate to do the tailoring themselves. The adventures in acquiring materials for the dress and its preparation represent a major set of scenes in the film.
Cinderella, believing that she cannot go to the ball due to lack of suitable dress, returns to her room. The animals reveal her retrofitted dress; but, in a fit of spite/jealousy/selfishness, her Wicked Stepsisters destroy the dress. The Wicked Step-People head to the ball and Cinderella repairs to the garden in tears. . .
. . .cue the absentee Fairy Godmother, who declares that Cinderella must still believe, sings a song, and fixes everything – at least for one night, which is effectively long enough for Cinderella to become the queen in waiting, which probably qualifies as fixing everything. In between, there is dancing, imprisonment, and the climactic Glass Slipper Search.
SIGH! Is Cinderella saved by the generous and selfless effort of her friends? Is she saved by her gentleness and kindness? No. Instead of being saved by her own kindness made manifest in the loving actions of her friends, she is saved by a fickle, magical creature that has ignored the previous years of abuse, and then only when Cinderella still has “faith” at a point when she has no reason to believe that there is anything resembling a benevolent power in the world. What is this, Job?
Now, I’ve read enough Brothers Grimm originals to know that fairy tales are not necessarily designed to leave you with a warm cheery feeling. But, Disney?
How should the story have gone? Well, for starters, we can leave the plot alone right up to the point that her animal friends deciding to help her prepare her dress. Don’t worry, we are going to keep the entertaining segments in which those lovable scamps, Jacques and Gus Gus, scavenge for dress-making materials and accoutrement, while playing the feline Lucifer for a fool – with one change. The industrious mice discover a pair of glass slippers that belonged to Cinderella’s biological mother, who had peculiarly dainty, yet heritable feet.
Cinderella informs the Wicked Stepmother that she will not be attending the ball. The Wicked Stepmother commands Cinderella to spend the rest of the evening in her room and leaves for the ball with the Wicked Stepsisters. Cinderella retires to her room in tears. At which point, her animal friends present her with the dress and slippers. Now stunningly dressed, Cinderella can head to the ball, perhaps using yet another animal friend, the old horse.
We can now leave the story alone until midnight, when we must get Cinderella to suddenly leave or we lose the climactic Glass Slipper Search for a happy, but dull, sequence in which Cinderella and The Prince dance until dawn, get engaged, married, and live happily ever. If we had a Fairy Godmother and magic with no staying power, this would be trivial.
As you might recall, no one at the ball recognizes Cinderella, but the Wicked Stepmother has the sense that she has seen the mysterious girl before. Being both curious and wicked, she follows Cinderella and The Prince around trying to identify the girl. This we can use.
Scene: Cinderella and The Prince dance into the garden. The Wicked Stepmother follows, watching them from the top of the stairs into the garden trying to figure out who the mysterious girl is. Suddenly, the clock begins to strike twelve, drawing the attention of Cinderella and The Prince to the clock tower above the stairs. Cinderella sees the Wicked Stepmother and, fearing that she is about to be discovered, flees losing a glass slipper in the process. Cue climactic Glass Slipper Search, culminating in Cinderella marrying the heir to the throne. Nice.
And what have we done in our rewrite? Whilst salvaging all the major elements, we have saved Cinderella’s salvation from the tardy whims of supernatural entities and placed it in the trustworthy paws of her friends, who were in turn motivated by Cinderella’s lifetime of kindness and friendship, making Cinderella, in effect, the instrument of her own success. Rather than vain hope for random, divine intervention, the moral becomes that our own behavior/qualities and friends are the key to improving our lives. We can debate which option is more realistic, but the Fairy Godmotherless option is certainly more uplifting.
“Blasphemy!” you say. How can I do away with the Fairy Godmother? True, the Charles Perrault story on which Disney’s Cinderella was based certainly has a fairy godmother. It does not, by the way, have anthropomorphized, shirt (but not pants) wearing, talking mice. So, we have some room for artistic license. There are more ancient versions of this story than Perrault’s. In one ancient variant, the role of the Fairy Godmother is played by an eagle, providing historical precedent for having animals providing the heroine with the opportunity to overcome her troubles. So, why not ?
While Disney was flexing its artistic license muscles with the mice, taking the bold step of casting Cinderella’s animal friends in the “Fairy Godmother” role could have made the story as inspiring and beautiful as the hand-drawn animation.
- In the lovely innocence of youth, she even loves the cat Lucifer, even though she knows he behaves badly.
- And, Gus Gus is her favorite mouse, as it should be.
- It says a lot about the idealized relationship in Cinderella that The Prince is so shallow a character that he does not even merit a name.
- The Wicked Stepmother is an ancient trope of literature that was even popular in the Roman Empire, but the Wicked Stepmother character in Cinderella really bugs me. How much does she bother me? Well, so much that this is now a trilogy.
- Bear in mind that this all occurs in one day. See Part the First for more discussion of the importance of this fact.
- In what? It is not clear.
- And, now, it is a four parter.
- Little known fact: Basil of Baker Street (The Great Mouse Detective) is a direct descendant of Jacques, and close friend Dr. David Q. Dawson is a direct descendant of Gus Gus.
- Or walked. The kingdom is tiny. See Part the First.
- Instead of waiting like 12 hours. See Note 5.
- The Disney Continuity Principle asserts that talking, clothed mice have maintained a hidden society in parallel to our human society throughout recorded history.
- I just made that up. But, it should be true, and fulfills the Disney Continuity Principle.