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Before Cinderella’s release, looking at movie adaptation of fairytales through a feminist lens

Sony Pictures’ forthcoming offering Cinderella is groundbreaking in many ways, but most of all, in its commitment to show its heroine as an independent woman with agency. What are the other movies that may have dared to push the envelope in terms of being feminist narratives?

Pratishruti Ganguly
Sep 01, 2021
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Sony Pictures’ Cinderella is setting many precedents — a Cuban-American singer cast as lead in a mainstream movie, or altering the gender of Fairy Godmother to feature Billy Porter in the role. The other significant change fostered by the movie is its commitment to show its titular heroine as an independent entity beyond being Prince Charming’s betrothed.

The trailer is bold — it makes no qualms about revealing the possible outcome of the posed crisis. The heroine is not a damsel with no agency, she wants to be a businesswoman in her own right. She wants to “make a life for herself” to escape the drudgeries of her current life. She doesn’t want to go to the royal ball to find herself a husband. Instead, she hopes to showcase her creations to find an investor to kickstart her designing career. She dons a pantsuit instead of a gown, and rejects the advances of the prince, claiming a life inside the confines of a palace is no less restricting than her life inside a dingy basement. It is written by a woman (Kay Cannon), its feminism, unmistakeable.

However, Cinderella may not be the first ever retelling to turn the original story upon its head to address the genre’s inherent misogyny. Take for example, another Cinderella adaptation Ever After: A Cinderella Story (1998). Directed by Andy Tennant, Ever After centres on Danielle de Barbarac, the daughter of a wealthy widower in 1502 Renaissance-era France. Featuring Drew Barrymore as the protagonist, the film is widely regarded as a post-feminist interpretation of the popular Grimms fairytale.

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Fairytales have been our constant companion during our formative years, either through books, or animation films and TV shows. We’ve fantasised about Snow White getting whisked away from her evil stepmother, and Sleeping Beauty waking up from her eternal slumber when kissed by her prince. The saviour was always a man, the saved, the woman. Ever After has a heroine who reads. Her acquisition of knowledge is her act of rebellion against a family bent on subjugating her. She is kind yet practical, and knows her way around the world to survive.

She does not meet the Prince at a rogue ball and decides to be taken a wife. Instead, she debates about politics, economy and inequality with her royal suitor. It also inverts the rescuer-rescued dynamic by portraying a heroine who saves her beloved from a band of gypsy bandits.

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If we were to look at Disney’s animated feature Tangled (2010), a reinterpretation of the based on the German fairy tale Rapunzel, we’d realise Rapunzel’s journey is fuelled by her desire to investigate the floating lanterns that illuminates the sky every year on her birthday. Despite spending a lifetime in captivity, Rapunzel is incredibly learned, who has taught herself astronomy and literature, sewing and chess. She manipulates the thief Flynn Rider to sneak her out of her tower, a characteristic feature previously only reserved for men in movies. Similarly, Mother Gothel’s motivation to remain youthful and beautiful is not a queue of admirers, but her own desire to be powerful and self-sufficient.

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However, not all purportedly feminist narratives subvert the genre in its entirety. Before the release of Disney's Beauty and the Beast in 2017, Emma Watson had extensively spoken about how her costumes did away with corsets. She didn't want her character to propagate a "corseted, impossible idea of female beauty."

Although Belle (Beauty and the Beast) isn’t a passive, hapless heroine, she is the one engaged in all household chores. Just like her father, she is an inventor — she invents a washing machine to alleviate her burden of washing clothes. However, her labour is unpaid and mostly unaccounted for.

When the talking cupboards encase Belle in exquisite finery and jewels, she shrugs them off, because she does not identify as a princess. She is defiant in her rejection of wealth, because it is not her own earnings. It's unfortunate that the same protagonist wraps herself up in a yellow ball gown at the end, where she shares her first dance with The Beast. Like in Into The Woods, despite showing a married character’s dalliance with a prince, the character’s ultimate fate is death — almost cementing her position as the transgressor. The baker’s wife ultimately succumbs to patriarchal notions of romance and her life is cut short.

Glaring inconsistencies aside, several filmmakers have at least attempted to level the playing field in terms of injecting their female characters with agency. It is not enough, but at least, Cinderella (2021) will hopefully set new records with its treatment of feminism as not just tokenist and/or well-intentioned, but emphatic and definitive.

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