The story of Cinderella has endured across time and cultures, and it has nearly as many versions as it has storytellers. The dominant interpretation in our culture today — what I’ll call “victim Cinderella”— is one of a passive stepchild whose family is mean to her. She really wants to go meet a boy, magically receives help to do so (in disguise, at a party, once), and then marries him. With that, all of her problems melt away and her life is fixed forever.
That would certainly be a problematic story in a number of ways, and the litany of popular complaints is extensive:
Why does Cinderella put up with her family’s mistreatment?
Where is her backbone? Where is her agency?
Why can’t she do anything for herself, but instead has to be bailed out by magic?
Why does her happiness depend on a man — and worse, why does she marry him after one meeting?
What lesson does this teach our children?
In this light, it makes sense that Cinderella is a story of which, culturally, we’ve become ashamed in the past few decades, even as we reinvent it again and again:
Well, what if she’s in high school and they don’t get married? (as in Cinderella Story)
What if she’s not passive, just cursed to obey? (like Ella Enchanted)
What if they had met previously, so it’s not a completely blind marriage of convenience? (Ever After, 2015’s Cinderella, and most renditions since the original Disney)
A new solution in 2021’s Cinderella?
The new Cinderella starring Camila Cabello overtly — and more vehemently than any previous version — rejects Cinderella tropes to such an extent that one may wonder why the filmmakers chose to adapt this fairy tale at all. It appears to be more of a reaction against the “victim Cinderella” than a fully fledged story on its own terms.
In the film, Cinderella (called Ella) fervently wants and works to become an independent dressmaker. We see Ella serving her family tea once, but otherwise, very little suggests that her stepfamily relegates all of the chores to her. She is emotionally abused and forced to live in a (light and airy) basement, but if the film is trying to portray that she’s overworked, it relies on our prior knowledge of the Cinderella story.
Ella doesn’t want to go to the ball until the prince suggests that she take advantage of the fact that potential customers will be present. The film's trailer captures perhaps the biggest change from previous versions of the story: “I don’t want a life stuck waving from a royal box any more than a life confined to a basement.” Ella is drawn to the prince, but she is unwilling to sacrifice her dreams for the sake of a potential relationship with him.
Threaded through all of this — and, in my opinion, the best parts of the film — are the musical numbers. I enjoyed Cinderella in the way that I enjoyed Mamma Mia!: The plot is flimsy, but the music is catchy, the costumes are colorful, and the dance numbers are fun. However, the feminist take falls short; not because it’s untrue but because it’s so forced.
Several reviews have pointed out the heavy-handed feminism of 2021’s Cinderella. The film touts diversity even as the majority of the main cast is white and a key positive female role model - the fairy godmother - is played by a man. Valuable screen time is spent on comedy that does not advance the plot, and much of the rest of the dialogue seems to have been pulled out of a Feminism 101 course. I’ve seen the film several times now and I still can’t tell whether Cinderella wants to be taken seriously or not.
So much of the film is dedicated to fun song-and-dance numbers, while the rest is filled with poorly developed characters skimming through a poorly developed plot in order to either learn or teach others about progressive feminism. From the opening scene, we learn that Ella’s world is mired in vague “traditions” that prohibit women from owning businesses or ruling as monarchs. Throughout the film, there are nods to popular symbols of female subjugation such as Ella wearing a corset over most of her dresses and women dressed in outfits evocative of The Handmaid’s Tale. We learn that the stepmother was herself mistreated by a former husband, and it is this painful experience that fuels her allegedly well-intentioned mistreatment of Ella. The prince’s father is depicted as a rather comical figure who has been corrupted by power but is not inherently evil.
The problem with the solution
My primary objection to 2021’s Cinderella is this: There are no villains. Evil no longer exists as such. Every act of injustice can be explained away as a result of the “flawed system” of power, of which the king (and other bastions of the patriarchy) and their victims ignorantly take advantage.
Because of this, in order to deliver a happy ending, the film relies on cheap conversions with no recognition of the real consequences of evil. Ella and her stepmother reconcile quickly and easily, and the stepsisters were never wicked to begin with, merely “obnoxious” and “self-absorbed.” The king only needs one angry telling-off from his wife to change both his political priorities and his family relationships. Even the prince, who first believes that “women can’t own shops,” is won over by a single impassioned line from Ella, and he immediately tells her that he wants “to do [his] part to correct a flawed system.”
An understanding of power systems and their effects on individual life is good and necessary. However, to attribute all conflict and injustice to these power systems is to misunderstand both human nature and the nature of evil. This would be to presume that injustice would evaporate if only we could settle on the right system. Additionally — and ironically, for a feminist film — this robs people of agency. From this perspective, we are no longer responsible for our actions. Oppressed and oppressor alike are just victims.
I find this new take on the villains of Cinderella odd, especially in light of current events in my own life. I recently left a living and working environment in which I was overworked for months and ultimately emotionally abused by my superiors. The reason I stayed for as long as I did was because I strongly believed in the ministry (and still do) and because I loved and wanted to continue serving the people with whom I lived. If I’m honest, I’m still sorting through the beauty and the pain, the good and the bad, from that time in my life. I know my former employers to be well-meaning people with good and holy qualities, but I also know that they are capable of real injustice — which is why this rereading of Cinderella feels not just dissonant, but inherently false.
Who is Cinderella, really?
Despite the cultural baggage we have with “victim Cinderella,” Cinderella is a story of abuse. There is no other way to put it. Cinderella is a story of a girl who was neglected, insulted, and overworked by those who were supposed to care for her. It’s a story of a girl who, in spite of this abuse, remains a person of integrity and virtue. We like to think of Cinderella as though she went to the ball on purpose to find a husband, but I would like to point out from personal experience that, prince or no prince, wanting a night away from overwork and underappreciation does not make one a gold-digger. It’s born of a natural desire to be seen and loved for who you are, rather than what you do for others.
Cinderella, fictional character though she is, has been treated by feminists the way we would never want a woman to be treated. Abused and resilient, she’s been met with derision: Why didn’t you do more? Why didn’t you want more and work harder? Don’t you have dreams? Why didn’t you leave? Why did you leave with the first man you found?
This new film gaslights Cinderella on a whole new level, minimizing the trauma she endures and resolving it all in one short snippet of the final song in which Cinderella begins a duet with her stepmother, singing, “Nobody loses...” The problem is that, while Cinderella is fictional, her story resonates with so many people because we see ourselves in her.
I know that the people who hurt me thought they were doing what was best, and I tried for a long time to excuse their behavior on these grounds. I realize now that making excuses for them actually makes forgiving them even harder. Personal culpability — how much we are to blame for our actions, and specifically our sins — depends on many factors, the total of which only God can know. But this does not mean that we are merely, or even primarily, pawns in a great confluence of power systems. We are still responsible for our actions, and what’s more, our actions have very real consequences, whether or not we intend them.
Clearly, the makers of the new Cinderella wanted to distance themselves and their film from the problems of “victim Cinderella.” However, in doing so, they also distanced themselves from what is good and true in the story: the importance of virtue, the innate need we all have to love and be loved, and the importance of justice as well as forgiveness in the face of evil.
Does this mean that Cinderella is unadaptable for the screen? Not at all. Any adaptation should begin with the recognition that fairy tales are their own genre and therefore present a unique challenge to the filmmaker, whose audience demands more character development and plot detail than the original short stories often provide. In this sense, any “original” Cinderella story (whether from Grimm, Perrault, or another source) is at best a skeleton of a tale. It’s up to the filmmaker to put flesh on the bones.
With that in mind, I would like to see an interpretation of Cinderella that allows for villains’ backstories without excusing or minimizing the consequences of their actions. This interpretation would acknowledge that hurt people hurt people, while also recognizing that abuse is a serious violation of a person’s dignity, no matter who perpetrates it. It would show that Cinderella is our heroine because she remains good in the face of evil and temptation, and that her goodness includes working to forgive her abusers. It would clarify that her forgiveness takes strength and time, most likely does not include continuing a relationship with her abuser, and actually demands that her relatives face justice for their crimes. In a detail that is nowadays considered too gruesome for children, the Grimm story has a bloody end in store for the stepsisters. In getting rid of their punishment, however, we’ve also gotten rid of the moral that sins have serious consequences (as we read in Romans 6:23).
Most of all, this interpretation would still recognize, as Cabello’s Ella sings, that “love will save the day,” and that our deepest need is to love and be loved. This is personified in an earthly marriage and ultimately fulfilled in the saving love of Jesus Christ.
I’m not asking for the classic Cinderella to become the poster child for feminism or for feminists everywhere to even like her. But I do ask that we look a little deeper before we dismiss her out of hand, because how we tell her story matters.