“And yet through it all, Cinderella remained ever gentle and kind…”
~ Narrator, Cinderella (1950)
IT IS a strange thing – not many people remember this key takeaway from one of the most iconic Disney princess films of all time. When we think of Cinderella, many tend to remember the magical glass slippers and the promises of true love with a “Prince Charming.” However, tucked away and often forgotten are lessons of courage and kindness Cinderella conveys despite all the adversities she faces. Cinderella’s endearing qualities have always been the driving force of the narrative—her pleasant and pure disposition gains her not just the heart of the prince, but also the sympathy of the viewers—are what truly deem her as a “princess” figure for young girls.
Yet for most of us, this fairy tale, like many other classic Disney princess films, remains locked away in our childhood as a relic of innocence. Apart from the film’s merit as a chance to indulge in a magical fairy tale, it seems that to many viewers, princess films only serve as a reminder of their empty promises and regressive notions of finding happiness through princes and romances, especially in the face of current feminist discourse.
It is no surprise that the original Disney films and fairy tales can be criticized to be derogatory to female empowerment due to their overt focus on romantic ideals of the princess meeting her “one true love”–recognizing her individuality only in relation to a prince or some male figure. In an opinion article titled “How the Disney Princess Movies Went From Fairy Tales to Feminism” by Megan Batt*, the negative implications people fear the princess stories encourage are clear; “Girls want to be swept off their feet by a strong man who will shower them with love and walk down the aisle wearing a dazzling crown.”
Recent Disney princess narratives, however, have been diverging from these seemingly backward notions. “Elsa”(Frozen (2013)), “Merida” (Brave (2012)) and “Moana” (Moana (2016)) represent strong-willed and independent princesses. The focus of many of these “new” Disney princess films are not on romantic relationships or finding one’s happily-ever-after, but on conquering individual fears and fearlessly expressing oneself.
Despite this, Disney has not abandoned their old entourage, reproducing new versions of old Disney princess films in a series of live-action adaptations. For the past few years, Disney has been returning to their old princesses through several remakes; the most recent one, Aladdin (2019), was just released last month. Before looking at the “new” princesses, perhaps we can consider what it means for Disney to revisit old films. In Cinderella (2015) and Beauty & The Beast (2017), the princess stories are not merely reimagined, but refocused to emphasize the true wonder and lessons that have previously been overlooked.
Upon analyzing the recent live-action adaptations, it seems to me that Disney not only gives its viewers the chance to relive their childhood but also provides a flexible cinematic space to enhance the princesses’ pre-existing qualities to better suit the times. Just as the glass slippers and her Prince Charming are important to the narrative, it is Cinderella’s (portrayed by Lily James) more bold and refined character in the live action Cinderella (2015) film that shines through. In a scene added to the adaptation, Cinderella has her back upright as she paces in circles with the prince on her horse: her only intent is to defend the stag that the prince and his horsemen are hunting for game. She is unfazed in front of the prince and stands up for what she believes is right.
Compared to the older film, Cinderella is given new definition that brings out her already existent qualities of gentle bravery, as the camera work of the scene allows the audience to focus more of their attention on her individuality— rather than it being just a first romantic encounter between the prince and his future princess. The mise-en-scene of the shot is carefully curated to draw attention to Cinderella alone— she wears a light blue dress in contrast to the rest of the scene that is shrouded in green. Even Prince Charming’s coat is a lime green, perfectly blending in with the forest. The pastel blue dress and white headscarf paint a gentle image of her, but due to the tattered nature of the cloths, it lends her a rugged quality that enhances her boldness.
In the 1950 film, her interactions with the mice (Jaq and Gus) and other animals in the household hint at this characteristic, but with the stag scene in the 2015 version, her redefined agency reminds viewers that she is very much her own person rather than a princess waiting to be saved by her Prince Charming.
Likewise, both Belles from the original Beauty & the Beast (1991) and the recent adaptation demonstrate their free-spiritedness and non-conformist nature. Their refusal to merely accede to the Beast’s temper and demands is after all, a major plot point of the narrative, and contributes to the development of the relationship between Belle and the Beast.
However, the live-action film adds specific scenes that are definitely in line with current feminist discourse: she effectively finds another means to get the laundry done (rather than do it herself) whilst she teaches a little girl to read. Rather than portraying her as a mere bookworm with an inquisitive nature, the film displays her skills and resourcefulness, and subtly mocks the old notion that girls should not need to learn how to read. Belle’s song, “Belle”, characterizes her as a “peculiar” and “funny one” as she constantly fails to meet the village’s expectations of a young woman her age. Her own rendition of the song however, “Belle (Reprise)”, highlights her desire to transcend this “provincial life” and seek for more rather than prescribing to the domesticated woman stereotype.
With the new adaptation, the director explores subtle feminist notions; the original princess’ non-conformist nature fits in perfectly with the new reenactment of Belle. It is also no coincidence that Emma Watson, one of the most high-profile feminists of today’s world, was selected to take on the role of a Disney Princess. By playing the princess in the remake, the actress aligns herself with Belle, and advocates for the lessons of empowerment that can be learnt in the film. New Belle teaches girls around the world to understand that learning to read is a simple right they deserve, and teaches everyone that they should learn to fend for themselves and pursue the things they believe in.
So perhaps Disney was calling for a return to these princesses to prove that the beloved princesses themselves— when not simply generalized with the rest of the plot line— were as capable of empowering young girls, women, or anyone who needed a little bit of magic in their lives. Looking back then, we can return to the question— what does count as a good representation of our beloved Disney princesses? In order for them to still be the respective princesses that we know from the fairy tales, it is undeniable that the essence of the story still needs to be maintained. Yet through the timely adaptations of the decade, Disney gives us the opportunity not just to return to our childhood, but to rediscover the magic that perhaps, we never realized was there.
* Study Break
**Aladdin (2019) was released in Seoul, South Korea on May 22, 2019.