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Cinderella: The Feminism of Kindness

CINDERELLA

Despite being generally praised by the media, the new live-action Cinderella movie has faced a lot of criticism for being anti-feminist. Cinderella, it’s been said, is too weak, is a terrible role model, is “more of a doormat than an actual doormat.” Her movie is an insipid attempt to sell little girls the idea of princess feminine perfection, tiny waist and all.

What absolute rubbish. Once again, the idea of “feminist media” has been twisted around, so that anything short of sassy female characters dishing out one-liners and kicking butt is seen as “weak” and “anti-feminist.”

This movie is not flawless. But it utterly enchanted me, and the more I think on it, the more powerful and important that sweeping sense of magic and romance seems to me.

The movie’s key message is “Have courage, and be kind,” an important and inspiring message that isn’t heard often enough. Some might focus on the “be kind” part and argue that it encourages girls to always be sweet and put themselves second, even in the face of cruelty, but, as the movie shows, there are many ways a person can have courage, and many ways a person can be kind.

As the movie makes clear when Cinderella meets her fairy godmother, Cinderella’s not rewarded with magic for passivity. She’s rewarded for kindness. And also, in a way, for “nothing.” For just a bowl of milk, given to a stranger in need, something that costs her absolutely nothing to give. It’s nothing, and yet means everything to another.

Perhaps some people might argue that she’s rewarded for putting her own feelings second, for stopping crying and saying her feelings are “nothing” and helping another instead. But perhaps the moment of “it’s nothing” is the point. Cinderella’s concerns are nothing to others. She just can’t go to the ball. Her family are just cruel to her. What is that to a stranger? What is that, in particular, to someone without food or a home? And what, conversely, are the needs of a stranger begging for sustenance to a girl whose hopes have just been utterly shattered? In the end, it cost each “nothing” to help the other, but that kindness meant everything.

And the fairy godmother’s response to Cinderella’s self-dismissal is also important, because Cinderella has missed a key element of her mother’s message to “have courage and be kind.” Yes, kindness is being patient around her step-sisters and helping her family as she can. Yes, it’s being kind to other living creatures and befriending mice in the attic. And it takes a lot of courage to continue to be so kind in the face of such cruelty. But, for Cinderella, the kindness that takes the most courage is being kind to herself. Asserting that she matters, standing up for herself, refusing to let other people crush her dreams.

I must admit, I had a moment in the movie where I wondered why she didn’t just leave. Why she didn’t evict the stepmother and sisters from her house. Why she didn’t do something. That was what any sensible, “strong” character would do, right?

But it isn’t. The idea that anyone with sense and self-respect would fight back is insidious, and it does not match up with reality, not even in a modern, non-fairy tale setting. Cinderella is initially a victim of micro-aggressions, each of which seems perfectly justifiable in the moment. The abuse escalates gradually, until it becomes a norm that Cinderella feels that she cannot escape. It’s the metaphor about the frog: toss it in boiling water and it’ll hop out again, but put it in cool water and increase the temperature slowly and it’ll stay there until it dies.

Yes, her stepmother uses Cinderella’s kindness against her. But that doesn’t mean Cinderella’s kindness is weakness. It’s psychological abuse, beginning with Cinderella offering to switch bedrooms with her step-sisters out of kindness, where everything the stepmother says seems mostly reasonable, where arguing would make Cinderella feel like she was being the selfish and unreasonable one.

Every time her stepmother subtly belittles Cinderella with “kindness” of her own, the hesitation is clear on Cinderella’s face. She senses that this isn’t right. But she dismisses her doubt, and the abuse grows. That is not weakness. That is the reality of abusers using a victim’s own kindness against them. Cinderella’s great strength is not just that she stands up to her stepmother in the end. It’s also that she retains her own kindness, remains true to her personality — she doesn’t have to become someone she’s not to escape.  If anything, her escape is framed as her embracing the full meaning of “have courage and be kind,” and having the courage to be completely herself, regardless of how others may respond.

Unfortunately, a message of “be yourself” seems tainted in the context of this movie, thanks to the rumors that Lily James had to go on a liquid diet in order to fit into her ballgown. There’s been a lot of outrage about contorting an actress in order to give her an unrealistic Disney Princess waist. So it’s lucky that it’s not true. Check out what Lily James actually said. She ate soup on the days she filmed in the ballgown, because it was easier to digest in her properly fitting corset. There’s potentially an argument to be had about her wearing a corset at all, but taking “I kept burping in my co-star’s face when filming romantic scenes so I switched to eating soup for lunch on those days” and presenting it as an actress going on a harmful diet to shrink her waist beyond natural proportions is insulting. It’s insulting because it undermines criticism of the instances of actresses actually going on extreme diets and makes those seem similarly baseless. It’s insulting because it attacks a petite actress as somehow unnatural and unhealthy. And it’s insulting because it once again focuses on an actress’s diet to fit in a pretty dress over her actual acting.

But some critics are really eager to find any way to dismiss this movie, because it’s Disney, because it’s a princess story, full of magic and romance and gorgeous dresses, where kindness, not physical strength, is the ideal. Cinderella is refreshing in how earnestly “Disney fairy tale” it is, with no cynicism or irony, and that does mean that the movie and its protagonist is pretty darn “feminine.”

And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Yes, it’s a problem if this is the only perspective that girls ever get, but that doesn’t mean it should be eradicated entirely, especially when it’s done as well as Cinderella does it.

Kindness is not weakness. It is great strength, and Cinderella understands that. I only wish critics felt the same way.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

10 thoughts on “Cinderella: The Feminism of Kindness

  1. I totally agree with everything you said about! Maybe Cinderella wasn’t a warrior princess, but that didn’t make her any less strong in her own way. I did like the part where her friend/former servant asks her why she just didn’t leave, and she replied she felt like she owed it to her parents to stay and make sure the family home was being taken care of. So Cinderella did acknowledge that it was partly her choice to stay. I also like the part where she heard Kit was looking for her and wanted to marry her and she CHOSE to go him herself (before the stepmother found the slipper and locked her up). And that is what I think real feminism is: women making choices and taking responsibility for those choices. Anyway, the whole point of the movie (and the original Disney cartoon) is how Cinderella was strong in the sense that she handled all her troubles with dignity and grace and even went as far as to be the bigger person in forgiving the stepmother and stepsisters. And that’s pretty awesome.

  2. “The idea that anyone with sense and self-respect would fight back is insidious, and it does not match up with reality, not even in a modern, non-fairy tale setting.”

    I love narratives in which women do fight back. Many of my favourite novels are in the high fantasy mould, where the protagonist fights back against some kind of oppression, often with snark on her side. I love these novels, and I love these women with all my heart.

    But they aren’t the narratives I need. The ones I need are the ones with women like me, women who sometimes don’t fight back, don’t speak up, don’t want to rock the boat. The women who show me that not standing up for yourself doesn’t mean you have less worth as a person, or that you deserve whatever misfortune befalls you, because what these narratives tell me is that *I* am still worthy. Sometimes I feel like I must be the only woman in the world who simultaneously hates myself for not being more assertive and rages against the patriarchal structures that have made me so 😉

    Women who fight back give me something to aspire to. Women who don’t make me feel less alone.

    1. Oh, if I could tell you how many times I’ve raged against the patriarchy while wishing I could stand up for myself! I have so many awesome comebacks in my head that have never made it out of my mouth =)

      I think there’s a place for heroines who stand up in subtler ways, too, in fiction. Maybe they’re not butt-kicking assassins or putting all oppressors in their place, but they’re pursuing their goals, making a happy life for themselves, or trying to solve their problems in ways that hold true to their beliefs. Like what Rhiannon has pointed out about Cinderella’s feminism. My favorite novel of all time features a girl trying to figure out whether she stays true to her promise to her dying mother or pursues her goal of becoming a writer, while at the same time she struggles to tell the truth about a murdered girl. It’s a quiet story in some ways, but in other ways, such a big, beautiful one about staying true to what matters.

  3. Yes! I agree absolutely with everything you’ve said. Its something I just hate with modern tv shows and movies that the women that are seen as cool, feminine role models are the ones that kick ass, fight, kill people without flinching. No one seems to agree with me but I find Arya in Game of thrones a perfect example of this. A 10 year old girl that kills grown men and smiles while doing it isn’t a cool feminist, she’s someone to be pitied because she will probably have a lot of psychological problems as she grows up. Its scary that fighting and hurting people is seen as the way to be feminist. Being kind and loving doesn’t take away from being feminist and to be honest the world needs role models like Cinderella just as much as the kickass women because the world needs to show little girls that they can be strong and true to themselves without lashing out or being tough or masculine.

  4. I think female characters who fight back and take no shit, has been important role models for girls the last decades. And many girls still need to stand up for themselves.

    The problem is when it gets out of hand, or when it is the ONLY way a protagonist kan be strong and cool. Because Nicola (above), you´re not alone. And no one is always strong, sometimes we are weak, and many of us don´t have the self confidence we wish we had. Not just women, even men feel this way.

    We need different protaginists. Strong girls yes, but also girls with flaws. Girls who doesn´t always do the right thing. Girls who aren´t always fighters or warriors. Girls who aren´t always smart or “perfect”. Just like male protagonists.

  5. I’d like to see this movie criticized for the right reasons (the sea of whiteness/lack of diversity really, really pisses me off) and not for this “Cinderella is weak!!1” bullshit. Thank you for putting it all so eloquently, as always.

    1. Thank you! And YES to the lack of diversity. The presence of two non-white characters only emphasized the fact that ALL of the protagonists were white. Diversity can apparently only be added by inventing new secondary characters, not by diversifying existing ones.

  6. I just want to say how much I love this! And I love that you stayed kind the whole way through. You didn’t attack anyone or their opinions. Really well said and wonderfully thought out.
    I’m writing a “Cinderella & Feminism essay right now and am definitely taking notes on some of the things you said!
    Cheersx

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