Melissa Grey’s tweets on the subject have been getting a lot of attention, and they gave me something to think about too.
I probably only watched Disney’s original Cinderella once or twice as a kid. I didn’t much like all the mouse vs. cat stuff that frequently pushed Cinderella’s story to the background. I also had a hard time understanding the distorted voices of the animals, so I had to infer what they were singing about through context.
Anyway, I didn’t know what it was like to grow up in an abusive home. My family was great. My knowledge of people being mean or unfair to other people was limited to teachers telling the class, “Bullying isn’t nice, so don’t be a bully.” I thought bullies were no big deal and that everyone gets over it eventually. I thought some peoples’ parents or siblings weren’t as nice as others, but that everyone got over that eventually too. I never had an understanding of the concept of abuse, the extent of some abuse, or the devastating effects it can have on victims.
More recently, when it became popular to look back on the older Disney princess movies with a critical, feminist eye, I easily dismissed Cinderella as ridiculous. I thought it was silly for this young woman to put up with how her step-family treated her like a slave. I thought it was awful to show audiences a girl who just waits around for a prince to come along and save her. I claimed that if I were in her place, I would have told my step-family to shove it and then gone off to create a happy life for myself, prince or no. But Melissa Grey is right. That’s not how abuse works.
Victims of abuse are often led to believe that things are as good as they’re going to get. They are led to believe they are not worth caring about or loving. Often, defying their abusers isn’t an option, and they don’t realize they can seek help from others outside. Maybe they make excuses for their abusers. They might learn to become distant from others, angry, or depressed. Perhaps they’ve been taught that their abusers’ behavior is their fault. Maybe they’ve been led to believe that feeling helpless is normal.
Cinderella dealt with terrible abuse, but she stayed bright and hopeful. She kept smiling. Despite her situation, she believed that she could still find happiness. From this point of view, the silly love at first sight, fairy magic, glass slipper stuff at the end isn’t really the important part. Having the courage to go on her own to the ball was her success. Confirming that she was worth being loved was her happy ending. And for once, the heroine marrying the prince is a good ending to the story, even if it’s not the goal every princess should have.
In reality, if Cinderella and her prince were just regular people, they’d probably start dating and getting to know each other. Even if it didn’t work out between them, Cindy would at least come away knowing it was true that she could be loved and appreciated by others. She could go forward with that confidence and make sure she lived her life happily ever after.
I don’t know if this theme of surviving abuse and finding love was really the focus of the people who made the animated film, but it is there. I was quick to dismiss the story without thinking about what important lessons could be gained from it, especially by people who share Cinderella’s situation as they’re growing up. It’s easy to criticize something as a whole when you see its flaws, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t value there too.