Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
October 22, 2021

Cinderella: A feminist remake falls flat

By ELIZA ZIMMERMAN | September 14, 2021

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rocor/CC BY-NC 2.0

Actress and singer Camila Cabello plays the titular role of Cinderella in Amazon’s new live-action remake of the classic story.

If you’re anything like me, all of your social media (particularly TikTok) have been flooded for days with reactions to Amazon’s new Cinderella, starring Camila Cabello. You’ve likely already been exposed to some aspect of the film. Common criticisms include the not-all-that-realistic chirps of mice harmonizing to various songs, Janet Jackson’s cover of “Rhythm Nation” that inexplicably starts off the film and genuine critiques of the weird and out-of-touch world depicted (where racism doesn’t exist but sexism is so intense that women can’t even own businesses).

Despite this, I tried to go in with an open mind and the awareness that although it does have a strange amount of innuendos (at one point, a man refers to the stepsisters and Cinderella as “fleshy,” which just felt unnecessary), the movie was meant for small children, particularly young girls. Even with my attempt to remain impartial, Cinderella failed to impress. 

The basic storyline remains the same except for the fact that from the start of the film, Cinderella is already confident in herself and a dedicated entrepreneur, dress designer and feminist who has no interest in men or royal life (she’s not like other girls). The prince (Nicholas Galitzine) sees her at the announcement for the ball, where she climbs onto a statue of the king (Pierce Brosnan) to see better and then sasses said king when he tells her to get down (again, she’s really not like other girls). The prince, a misunderstood loner who hates his position (“It’s a broken system!” he proclaims at one point), has given up on love because every girl brought to him is not who he’s looking for. 

In the face of Cinderella’s adorkable cocktail of awkwardness and confidence, however, he is smitten. The prince later finds his way into the village and meets Cinderella who, like the subversive young activist the movie would really like you to see her as, trashes the royal family and calls the prince useless. He’s utterly unfazed and convinces her to come to the ball because there will be a lot of rich people there who might buy her designs. 

The story continues on much like the original after this, save the weird #girlboss feminism that seeps through the entire film. The “not like other girls” trope that Cinderella is pigeon-holed into, for a complete lack of any other defining traits, was perhaps my least favorite part of the film. 

When the ball begins, we see other women in the kingdom dressed in much more elaborate dresses and costumes than Cinderella’s pretty bland ballgown designs. Most of the women wore vibrantly colored, experimental ballgown styles with intricate makeup and, in the case of one attendee, gold patterns drawn on her bald head. It may be superficial to judge how someone based on their fashion choices, but it seemed to me that at least some of those women must have been worth having a conversation with. 

In addition, for a movie so dedicated to feminism, it still centers around the fact that only one woman can be insightful enough to see through her own oppression and effortless enough to convince a man in power to love her without even trying. All the other women are embarrassing and “less than” because they’re looking for some type of security. I think there are many more lessons we could be teaching young girls rather than that other women are their direct competition for the attention, love and protection of desirable men.

The characters themselves also don’t make much sense. At different times, the stepmother (Idina Menzel) is cruel, reducing Cinderella to a mere servant, while at others she’s portrayed as a traumatized woman who’s trying to look out for Cinderella’s best interests. Similarly, the stepsisters (Maddie Baillio and Charlotte Spencer) oscillate between being mean-spirited and strangely compassionate towards Cinderella’s plight. Instead of introducing complexity, however, these contradictions only serve to confuse and obscure any real personality or lessons that could be taught from watching the characters in the film; at least in the original Cinderella, the stepmother and stepsisters are intelligible, even if this is because they’re one-dimensional. 

I’m also not sure that the best way to teach a young audience of predominantly girls that the proper response to abusive family dynamics is to just be really kind in the face of blatant disrespect (the last thing you should actually do). Cinderella’s primary reactions to being treated as a servant by her own family are snarky comments and attempts to lift her sisters’ self-esteem with out-of-place feminist speeches about how the only way to feel truly beautiful is to practice loving what you see in the mirror. At least the original story effectively condemned being an abusive, controlling and scheming caretaker. 

All of this criticism is not to say that I didn’t enjoy watching the film; I had a wonderful time with my friends laughing about it and developing my opinions and predictions. There were also moments that I enjoyed; Idina Menzel has an honestly pretty enjoyable rendition of “Material Girl” with the stepsisters. 

There’s a side plot where the king and queen (Minnie Driver) are having marital problems because he’s self-obsessed and she has a small speech about how to love someone – you have to show them love – which I thought was a nice lesson. But these are only moments in a broader story that made very little sense and failed in its most basic goal: to be a feminist retelling of Cinderella for young girls. 

Even the triumphant ending, where the prince’s young sister (Tallulah Greive) is put next in line for the throne and Cinderella gets a business investment, lacks any sort of emotion because no one needed any real perseverance or effort to change the order of things. All that happened was that a man fell in love, realized women were people and then encouraged his mother to tell his father that. 

Again, the underlying lesson is that things will just sort of work out, even in the face of intense abuse and oppression. And, while I do think that the whole “have a passion and a dream to change the world and go for it” is a good lesson, Cinderella has zero growth throughout the film; rather, she’s portrayed as a sort of enlightener and the rest of the country only has to realize she’s right. 

Instead of working to build a community to support other women, instead of struggling to adjust her reality to her dreams, the lesson is that a young woman can change the world, but only if she’s singular enough, only if she’s doing it alone and only if she’s better than every other woman around her.

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