In Disney’s newest Cinderella—a live-action reboot of its 1950 animated movie—not much has changed, but the ticket sales and potential for new merchandise are fresh. This latest iteration of the famous fable raises an important question: is it possible to kill the princess myth?
The stories Disney sells for piles of cash are largely drawn from folk tales, shaped and re-shaped and passed down by poor and working-class women through generations. The story of “Cinderella,” for example, is so old that we actually don’t know where it came from. One mythographer managed to track down over 300 different versions.
One of the oldest is from ancient China, in which Ye Xian, a girl persecuted by her stepmother and sisters, attends a festival with the aid of a talking fish and leaves behind her golden shoe. But even in antiquity, the story was seemingly so well-known that it popped up halfway across the world: the Roman historian Strabo tells the story of the slave Rhodopis, who has one of her sandals stolen by an eagle, who gives it to the King of Egypt; he sets out to find the woman behind the magical shoe and marries her. The story appeared in West Africa, in Germany, and finally, in 17th-century France, where Charles Perrault embellished the traditional structure with a few of his own devices (pumpkin coach, glass slippers) and turned it into the story we know.
So if there’s any piece of art that can actually lay claim to being universal and eternal, Cinderella is it. But in Disney’s latest iteration, not all the cinematography in the world can save the retrograde creature Cinderella has turned into: a virtuous, submissive girl who only exists to make other women look bad, the passive victim who wins wealth simply by being pretty enough to please a rich man’s eye.
Some aspects of the story are constant, like the fact that the poor and abused woman will be rewarded in the end. What is not a given is that Cinderella would be victimized by ugly and/or old women (in some versions, her father is the abusive party) or that she herself will always be a submissive, doe-eyed sweetheart who must be rescued by a man. In the West African story, the princess makes her fortune by bravely journeying into a haunted forest; in plenty of other versions, she wreaks bloody vengeance on her abusers.
Disney picked and chose which details to include and exclude. The Cinderella it came up with is not so much ancient myth as a kind of magically enhanced Donna Reed. She’s a dimwitted and submissive housewife-in-training who proves her marriageability by staying cheerful while she does chores. She does not commit the cardinal sins of being ugly or ambitious (like the stepsisters) or surviving past the age of twenty-five (like her stepmother, the only adult woman in the story, and a well of unremitting envy and hatred). And her Prince is the only prize the perfect white woman of the 1950s could expect—an inoffensive cipher who has the earning power she lacks, and rescue her from her housework.
As old as this story is, Cinderella is still the primary myth American women inherit about class and femininity. In the pieces I’ve written for this publication alone, Cinderella came up in the story of Rory Gilmore, Anastasia Steele from Fifty Shades of Grey, and as a subplot on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, in which Kimmy tries her hand at “Cinderella-ing” by getting a makeover and flirting with a rich man at a party.
The idea that women can only ascend the class ladder on our backs is still nastily prevalent. From a myth about struggle and work, Cinderella has turned into a myth that tells women not to struggle or work, that nice girls don’t try to get ahead (in the new version, the stepmother and stepsisters are in debt; their struggle to get out of it by making advantageous marriages is supposedly the source of all their evil), that good things come to girls who passively make the best of what they’re given, and that a flawless performance of femininity is necessary to deserve a relationship—a relationship with a man being the only kind of power a woman should want.
The new Cinderella makes a few futile gestures in the direction of the 21st century—there are non-white people on screen, and Cinderella and the Prince meet each other more than once—but still, when Cinderella asks her stepmother why she’s cruel, the only answer is “because you are young, and good, and innocent,” as if women who are complex, experienced or worldly-wise exist solely to torment saintly teens. All of history has proven these ideas false: women can work for our own liberation, provide our own deliverance from abuse, and be valuable for reasons other than being lovable.
Disney will keep exhuming its old stories to make a buck. But by doing so, it’s exposing how threadbare its versions of those stories are. “Cinderella” is eternal. As for Disney’s Cinderella, well, as of 2015, she’s dead. It’s time for the myth to do what it always does: evolve and adapt, until we have a new story about the poor girls who fight their way free.