The other day, my husband told me about a conversation he had with a woman who claimed not to like Disney’s Cinderella because she’s a feminist. It’s not the first time I’ve heard such an argument, and I never cease to find it to be bullshit. I wish I could have asked the woman when she had last watched the movie, because I’m guessing it hasn’t been since puberty. So many of these knee-jerk dismissals of things like the classic Disney canon are based on vague recollections of movies the person half-watched decades ago, rather than the actual text. (And the actual texts definitely merit a second look as an adult, if only for the frequent what-the-fuckery, like how Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio is a hobo who hits on every remotely feminine entity in the movie, up to and including wooden carvings and the fish.) There’s this perception that Cinderella is a wholly passive character who just sits around and waits for a prince to rescue her, but that’s just not supported by the film itself.
For starters, Cinderella’s not going to the ball for the prince. When the invitation arrives, her stepsisters are the ones who burble at the idea of seeing the prince, but Cinderella presses for her chance to go because, dammit, she was invited too. She never equates her unspecified wishes and dreams with this invitation or implies that her whole world is riding on it; she simply wants to be treated like an equal, to have a night off and enjoy herself. When it’s all over, she’s thrilled to have been left with the one glass slipper and the memory of a dance with a hottie. The idea that he’s the prince, or that she could have a shot at marrying him, doesn’t even occur to her until the news gets out the next morning. Hell, she didn’t even seek him out at the ball; he’s the one who came over to her, and never managed to introduce himself while they were dancing.
Then there’s the tricky question of agency. This is the image that detractors seem to point to as the essence of the issues with the story: Cinderella weeping while the Fairy Godmother comes out of nowhere to solve all her problems. But that’s not quite what’s going on here. When she appears, FG implies that Cinderella actually summoned her. (“Nonsense, child. If you’d lost all your faith, I couldn’t be here.”) True, that would indicate a power that Cinderella doesn’t otherwise demonstrate–except when she’s singing. She harmonizes with herself in multiple parts on “Sing, Sweet Nightingale”, and immediately before FG materializes, Cinderella is having a conversation with the background music. Seriously, there’s no other way to explain her dialogue there. A little later, she duets with the prince on “So This is Love” without either of them opening their mouths. It’s not a direct correlation, but it’s enough unnatural shenanigans to underscore the repeated refrain that believing hard enough (not just possessing a belief, but the action of believing) will make a wish come true.
But that’s still passive, right? She’s not actually doing anything, just bursts into tears and gives up. Well, she did do something about going to the ball: she finished up an inhuman workload and found an outfit, which her menagerie did an extreme makeover on. She earned her chance and then was fucking assaulted, forced to watch in horror while her dress, a memento of her dead mother and a gift from her only friends, was destroyed. Of course she breaks down. Holy shit, guys, give the girl a minute. All FG is doing is restoring the balance, popping in like Sam Beckett to set right what just went wrong.
Of course, the dress was only presentable in the first place because of the mice and the birds. So let’s talk about them for a second, shall we? After all, the Tom and Jerry bullshit takes up over half the runtime (41 minutes out of 75, I shit you not; it is 23 sodding minutes before Lady Tremaine gets a line), and we meet two of the birds before we even meet Cinderella. The animals, then, drive the bulk of the plot. But this isn’t like Sleeping Beauty, where the supposed protagonists take a back seat to fairie face-offs. See, while the mice are the main ones we see in action, they never act on their own behalf. Ever. The one time we see them doing something for their own benefit is when they go out seeking food, and who’s the one that provides it? In addition to feeding them, Cinderella clothes them and teaches them to speak (which is something they value, apparently) and protects them from traps and the cat. This has created a cult of personality, where the animals all happily sing to her tune as they perform incredible feats of engineering in her service. Everything they do on-screen serves Cinderella’s interests, from acting as her lady’s maids in the morning to altering her dress to helping her escape her tower. In short, she has a small army of devoted minions at her command, who prove by the end that they’re willing to risk their lives against a sadistic predator if she needs them to. Do we say that the supervillain has no agency because he hangs out on his dark throne until the final battle, letting the underlings get their hands dirty until then? (Am I calling Cinderella an evil mastermind? Well, she has taken over a kingdom by the end credits. Just saying.)
In summary, Cinderella is fighting for equal rights and a fair leave policy. She is maybe a little bit psychic and can bend animals to her will. I’m not claiming that she’s a perfect template for a protagonist, or that there’s not some problematic bullshit at work here. (The love-at-first-sight thing is only part of a ludicrously compressed timeline; the entire story, barring the prologue, takes place in just over 24 hours, including the complete organization of a royal ball.) But this incarnation of the fairy tale gives us a heroine who’s snarky, determined, and industrious at the very least, a woman who unfailingly approaches her situation on her own terms even if she’s not exactly fighting to change it. She might not be a feminist icon, but she’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.