Remake of Cinderella: How Far have Expectations for Women Really Come in Films?

By Hana Shaltout

As a student of gender and cultural studies, I was quite curious to see how the remake of the film Cinderella would have changed in terms of gender attitudes and perceptions since the 1950 Disney Film. Apparently, it was the question on several people’s minds, as the cast has talked about the remake being ‘feminist’. In an interview, Kenneth Branagh told the host that there was a lot more substance to her character, that she was very well educated and that she meets the Prince in the forest, rather than going to the ball and being swept off her feet without ever seeing him before. In an article on Yahoo News, Richard Madden said: “You see a really strong woman by herself and a young man coming together and it’s about them coming together that makes the story, rather than a kind of more sexist view from the older animation.”

(Okay, before I unpack that statement and various other claims, I know what you’re all thinking. Why is Robb Stark in this film?! I was thinking the same thing; and the main reason I could come up with is that Kenneth Branagh needed to motivate an older crowd to go, so he hired two cast members from Game of Thrones (remember the ruler of Qarth, Nonso Anozie?) so they would have just as much reason to go see the film as their younger cinemagoers. It’s such a smart move considering (spoiler alert!) he’s not in GoT anymore).

Brief Overview

Now to get to the film analysis… The film generally doesn’t depart from the 1950s version much, but the audience is given an insight into Cinderella’s (then Ella) idyllic childhood and nuclear family. The costume and set design are absolutely brilliant but they are also somewhat Eurocentric (which I will get to). I’m not going to make the claim that the film is completely Eurocentric but neither is it a complete breakthrough in terms of diverse representation.

For one, the house in which she lives is actually an amalgamation of the (presumably) colonial exploits of the father. The primary cast are all white and the setting is a fictional kingdom in Europe, rather that it potentially being anywhere or just a fairy tale setting. Given the fact however that Kenneth Branagh stuck to the original 17th-century story, it makes no sense to criticise him for choosing a European setting or making indirect references to colonialism, since that was the prevailing ethos at the time. Furthermore, the film actually includes diverse racial representation – but only in fleeting scenes and without any real depth or focus, such as the marketplace. In the ball scene when the prince is meant to choose a princess, the audience sees princesses from different areas of the world.

On the other hand, these representations are quite stereotypical, for example, the princess who is presumably “from Africa” and the Princess Chelina of Zaragosa, the Latina princess. While Branagh should be commended for breaking through the notorious white-washing of Disney and the archaically sexist portrayals of women (although this is disputed), we should also note that the only non-white character who has an actual role is Nonso Anozie as the Captain.

Femininity, Beauty, and Appearance

Something else I would like to comment on is the appearance of Cinderella:

Cinder

Can I please draw your attention to her waist? Because it’s feels like we’ve seen this before…

Cinder4

Lily James’ waist in the film has caused an uproar over body image so I’m not going to comment on it extensively… but what does this mean for how far women have come in films?

Most critics have said that this film lags behind Disney’s Frozen and Brave, but we also have to remember that this is a very ‘traditional’ fairy tale. Scholars of literature and specifically fairy tales tell us that “Fairy tales written during the 18th and 19th centuries were intended to… teach boys and girls appropriate gendered values and attitudes.” (Lori Baker-Sperry and Liz Grauerholz, “The Pervasiveness and Persistence of the Feminine Beauty Ideal in Children’s Fairy Tales, 2003, p714). Baker-Sperry, Grauerholz and Jack Zipes – one of the renowned experts on folklore and fairy tales – all stress the important relation between society and fairy tales. Clearly it is not a one-way relationship with fairy tales teaching children how to behave, or society directly correlating to the fairy tale in question. Rather, the relationship is a complex one in which fairy tales can reflect societal attitudes and institutions while simultaneously teaching its audience important lessons (such as Aesop’s Fables, for example).

This is also why Cate Blanchette, as the wicked stepmother, appears extremely feminine, her ensemble being a fusion of 1940s glamour and 19th century dress. To be honest, I think she was my favourite character in that film; but rather than making her a simple, evil, character, Branagh allows her to emerge as a multi-layered character behind the jealousy and spite she has towards Cinderella. Going back to the question of how far expectations for women have come in film, I think examining Lady Tremaine, Drizella and Anastasia is significant.

The stepsisters are obviously foils for the development of Cinderella’s character and her honour. They are portrayed as greedy and ambitious yet simple-minded. Their haughty attitude and their obsession with getting the prince shows the audience that this is the old sexist kind of characterisation where the female character draws her value from being with a handsome and rich man. This is contrasted with Cinderella who thinks the prince is an apprentice the first time she sees him. In this sense, the stepsisters haven’t come very far.

As for the wicked stepmother however, she throws parties, she gambles, she drinks and she looks absolutely glamorous. This might be seen as a progression from the ageist interpretations of Disney: old=ugly and evil (The Queen in Snow White, Maleficent, Ursula, Mothel Gothel) or old=benign and wise (the Fairy Godmother). Helena Bonham Carter’s gender jokes aside (she says, “I’m your hairy godfather” before she corrects it to “fairy godmother”), her part as the fairy godmother is your usual “bibidi bobbidi boo”.

The other minor character, Princess Chelina – played by Jana Perez – completely accepts her ‘arranged’ marriage to the prince and doesn’t have much say; she eventually lets it go as she sees his infatuation with Cinderella.

Conclusion

On the whole, expectations for female characters in film haven’t come very far in the remake of Cinderella. While Lily James’ portrayal of Cinderella shows her to be strong, cultured (speaking fluent French) and able to ride well on horseback, this doesn’t actually challenge the patriarchal views of women as domestic and well read. Yes, she has an encounter and has a chance to speak to him and decide that it’s worth seeing him again, and is brave in the face of hardship, but other than that her normative feminine appearance (and the corseted waist a la 1950s Cinderella) and traditional attitudes are not that progressive. The other female characters are either waiting for the prince to sweep them off their feet or are very stylised (the fairy godmother, Princess Chelina). For me, the only female character that reveals progression is Cate Blanchette’s role as the wicked stepmother. Her vibrant appearance and character are a refreshing take on a traditionally non-descript role. There is some racial diversity in the film, but it still has Eurocentric undertones (monarchic rule and imperial expansion, colonialism and trade, deeply stereotyped “African” and “Latin” women). Overall, it is an enjoyable film for the young’uns who are still in the Disney Princess phase, and the older gals who really miss Robb Stark on Game of Thrones.

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