Cinderella is important to me. I don’t claim to have gone through the same abuse she did, but I’ve had experience with verbal abuse in the past, and it’s still something that’s being worked out in my family. A few years back I watched Disney’s Cinderella and was struck by how strong and, frankly, empowered their Cinderella made me feel.
I know, I can hear you thinking, “The girl who sat and sang while polishing the floor and didn’t have to do anything to get her happily ever after except dance with a Prince and put on a shoe?” Yeah, that Cinderella. Let me explain.
Cinderella, by the time of the movie, has gone through at least ten years of abuse and servitude to her step-family. Throughout it all, she manages to retain her kindness and compassion for others, but she won’t sit silently and take it when she doesn’t have to: When Lucifer the cat ruins her hard work with the floors, she grabs a broom and says “I’m just going to have to teach you a lesson!” She does try to stand up for herself when she’s accused of putting a mouse in her step-sister’s breakfast, but quickly falls silent when she realizes it’s pointless.
She also doesn’t passive sit back and wait for someone to rescue her. She does stand up to her step-mother when the invitation to the ball comes, saying that “Every eligible maiden must attend,” meaning her. She has to work for what she wants — she has to do a number of chores that will keep her from making her dress. Then it’s all nearly ruined by her step-mother who, at the end, locks her away to keep her from trying on the glass slipper.
Lady Tremaine’s face when she sees that Cinderella has the other slipper and has triumphantly changed her situation is a moment of gold to me. At the end of the film, I was crying. Because Cinderella — a survivor of abuse — managed to get her happily ever after, away from the people who caused her so much grief in her life.
So why have I begun to see a trend in making Cinderella a badass warrior, as if it’s the only way to make her a worthy female character, as if this is the only way her story can have any value?
This, admittedly, was sparked by the author’s notes of a Cinderella retelling I read, Shadows on the Moon by Zoe Marriott, in which she states:
I never liked [Cinderella]. She seemed like a wimp to me and I hated that she sat around and waited for someone to rescue her. […] What if she wasn’t a wimp? What if she was strong and brave and out for revenge all along?
I can see her point of view. After all, most fairytales are full of messages to their audiences, and they didn’t want girls getting any funny ideas about independence or agency, amirite?
But on the other hand, when I read that, I was gutted. Cinderella is important to me. She managed to escape her abusive household not by killing everyone inside or becoming a badass warrior, but by doing traditionally coded feminine things and by daring a few nights of freedom and happiness for herself (one night, in the Disney film.)
I’m never going to wield a sword or any other weapon if I can help it. I’ve had to bite my tongue and keep silent while I’ve been yelled at simply so things don’t become worse. I’ve cried in my bedroom at night when I have spoken back to my abuser and a larger fight erupted. I’ve spent afternoons daydreaming while I worked about what it would be like to break out of my situation and get away.
Cinderella, to me, is empowering because she does all that I wanted to do and she did it in means I could conceivably do myself (besides the Fairy Godmother. But it’s nice to think that someone out there is rooting for you and will show up just in the nick of time, even if you know they won’t.)
I don’t want to see Cinderella become a badass warrior in order to give her character worth or an acceptable role model. I like my Cinderella as she is: Surviving, managing to hold on to her kindness and compassion, and still greeting each day with a smile, because the only other option is to sit down and cry and never get back up.
The original Cinderella tale can be critiqued, yes. But don’t throw it all away as being a tale about a passive, wimpy girl who can’t fend for herself. It’s really so much more than that.
The twig can sometimes be mightier than the sword.