I don't want a more 'feminist' Cinderella

I’ve always enjoyed a good fairytale. 

Whatever the story, you were always guaranteed drama, romance, and the all-important happily ever after. 

Alas, over recent years, fairytales have developed a bit of a bad rep. The happily ever afters were suddenly seen as damaging and unrealistic (though not immediately smashing your glass slippers when walking was still considered completely normal). 

Many worthy criticisms – the lack of racial diversity, overwhelming heteronormativity, and the representation of disabled characters, to name but three – still fell by the wayside, as surface-level issues were addressed instead, and with no small amount of self-congratulating, too.

In 2018, for example, Disney was patting themselves on the back for making Belle in Beauty and the Beast more feminist. But rather than talking about the mild changes in the Beast and Belle’s relationship to make their connection more mutual – diffusing the faint air of Stockholm Syndrome in the process – what they were actually talking about was making Belle an inventor… of washing machines. 

This career change for Belle didn’t seem so feminist to me when laundry had never factored in her story before – wouldn’t she rather have invented a Kindle to carry all those books? Who said laundry was her problem anyway? It was a boring, shallow change, that I imagine was borne from sticky notes in a boardroom, rather than any real desire to empower Belle. 

So when I heard Cinderella was going to get similar treatment, not once, but twice, in 2021, I was both excited and skeptical. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s West End musical production had been hotly anticipated after being delayed by over a year thanks to the pandemic, while Amazon’s 2021 film adaptation boasted an all-star cast, including pop starlet Camila Cabello, Billy Porter, and the requisite cameo for James Corden.

I love Cinderella in all her forms – animated, Lily James, Brandy, Hilary Duff – but there was something slightly off in the way these new versions were being marketed. Both were being framed as Cinderella but better. 

And better, it turns out, simply means less romantic. In an attempt to make Cinderella more three-dimensional – not really something expected of the fairytale genre, given that they are morality tales full of archetypes – both new versions decided Cinderella needed to be defined by something other than love. But what could possibly be better than love? It seems to me that both are trying to reinvent Cinderella, mostly by misunderstanding her in the first place. 

For me, the moral of the tale is that kindness always wins, but both these new takes seem to have mistaken the message for ‘get a ring on your finger or else’. No wonder they were trying to update it.

What they misunderstand is that Prince Charming is almost a moot point. He is a coincidence, not the goal. Emerald Fennell, the writer of the West End Cinderella, who won an Oscar earlier this year for Promising Young Woman, has said that the story of Cinderella is of a girl who has to change herself to impress a boy. 

In my view, Cinderella is more interested in a night out than any royal that she has a slim chance of actually meeting. 

Fennell’s Cinderella is much different from the Disney version I grew up with. In fact, Fennell’s would eat Disney’s for breakfast. She has been reimagined as a rebellious goth, resplendent in Doc Martens and black lipstick – brandishing a spray paint can like a sword, with messaging as subtle as the chandelier in Phantom of the Opera.

My problem with this, however, does not lie with the black lipstick or Doc Martens. It lies with the suggestion that she is more appropriate than the previous Cinderella, more feminist, more empowered. Yet a Cinderella that shouts is no more feminist than a Cinderella who sings. She can wear bovver boots or glass slippers, but neither has any impact on whether she’s a ‘good feminist’ or not. There is really no such thing.

Cinderella’s situation has never been down to a weakness of character. Her kindness is no empty gesture, nor is it fearful. There is strength in it, too. Cinderella’s motto in the 2015 Disney adaptation is simply: ‘Have courage and be kind’. When her stepmother tries to break Cinderella’s spirit, staying true to herself is defiance all of its own. I don’t enjoy the insinuation that someone who doesn’t fight back with spray cans, or anger, is any less powerful.

Nor do I think that Cinderella’s happy ending – finding love – is an unworthy or less feminist goal. The new Amazon film, starring the former Fifth Harmony singer, reimagines Cinderella in a power suit. This Cinderella sees the ball as a marketing opportunity for her dress designs, not a chance to dance. She wants to be a businesswoman, not a princess. 

It even goes so far as to present the main conflict of the film as a tussle between love and independence, rather than the abuse of a merchant’s daughter at the hands of her cruel stepmother. Instead of sending the message that kindness ultimately wins, as is tradition, the film prefers to use Cinderella to make the argument that we have to fight if we want to have a balance between love, life, and work.

It dictates that it is not enough for Cinderella to be loved – she must want to launch a fashion empire, too. Of course, neither goal is invalid, but the focus of her story should not be what she does with her time, but rather, who she is at heart.

In fact, both West End and Amazon Cinderellas seem to take issue with how she spends her limited downtime; suddenly defacing statues and opening shops is more inspirational than making tiny clothes for friendly mice. But why does Cinderella need such activities in order to matter to modern audiences? What is this insistence that she must be talented, feisty, and possess the business acumen to be a role model in 2021? Why is love, as a moral, so easily dismissed?

Both of these iterations are disheartening for me, who has always loved the original.  

It is a failing of imagination to present the pursuit of love as an unworthy cause – you can see how a character who loses her parents early in life, only to be maligned by her stepfamily, might want that. A character does not become more feminist because they choose to be alone. Whether these Cinderellas end up with their respective princes or not, it remains disappointing to me that love was ever considered a plot point worth circumventing.

Looking at these updates, I think the commercial desire to update fairy tales for modern audiences has clouded our understanding of them – and Cinderella with it. Cinderella doesn’t need any additions to her character to make sense in 2021.

Rather than making any real attempt to modernise her story, these new versions have taken her constancy of character – or in the words of Love Island’s Liberty Poole, her ‘staying true to herself’ – and mistaken it for stagnation. 

The romance of the original isn’t unfeminist – just as giving Cinderella a fashion design course, or a hearty smear of black lipstick, doesn’t automatically make her one, either.

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