The fairy tale feminist - a literary dissection of the The Little Mermaid and Cinderella
Updated: Mar 19
I could start this piece with a neat little definition of feminism. ‘Equality between the genders’. You should know that by now, but there, I said it again anyway.
A couple of months back Keira Knightly proudly proclaimed on the Ellen DeGeneres show that she has banned her 3-year-old daughter from watching some Disney Princess movies, such as The Little Mermaid and Cinderella. The former shows a princess who literally loses her voice for a man, and the latter, Knightley claims, portrays a princess who ‘waits around for a rich guy to come and save her’.
Whilst I absolutely agree that these films probably don’t portray women in the strongest, most typically ‘feminist’ light, I feel that censoring these films from your daughters only serves to fuel a toxic type of feminism which the world really doesn’t need.
The definition of feminism which shrinks women down to a simple ‘independent’ and ‘strong’ only serves to demonise women who are unable to be that in this day and age. When since did feminism become about being independent only, rather than giving that independent choice of how to live your life?
People seem to forget that you can be absolutely dependent on a man and still be a feminist. Some women don’t have the resources to go out, get an education, and earn a living for themselves, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t believe in gender equality.
At this point, I feel like I can hear you scrunching your face/raising your eyebrows. Allow me to introduce another facet to my argument.
Let’s talk about ole Cinders. Cinderella isn’t a complete victim in her story. She works and works and works, and finally rebels against her evil sisters and makes it to the ball they specifically told her not to go to. Sounds pretty brave to me. Do you think that while she was cleaning that floor and scrubbing her sister’s asses, she didn’t once think ‘damn I need to get out of here’? Of course she did, except in her time that kind of independence only would have come if she married someone, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with dreaming of marrying a hot Prince. Cinderella definitely dreamed of being a free woman, but by being the product of her time, she could only achieve that freedom through a man. Unfortunately, that’s the case for many women in reality even today. Does that mean they’re not feminists? Of course not. It just means that they are bound by society.
Ariel in The Little Mermaid is a little bit of a different case. She gives up her voice for Prince Eric, who she falls in love with at first sight. She makes a deal with a witch to try and win him over, only for her efforts to almost be thwarted by the witch herself, who disguises herself and takes on Ariel’s voice and almost marries Eric. Two women fighting over a Prince? Yawn. But we’re ignoring quite a slightly-maybe-feminist factor here. Ariel, a Princess, is the one doing the courting here. She’s not just sitting around waiting for the guy to come to her. The film teaches that if you like a guy, go get him, rather than sitting around shyly and hoping for the best. Of course, don’t go losing your voice in the process.
The portrayal of Prince Eric might just be one of the more problematic things in this movie. Can a guy really be so dumb to go marry a girl because of her voice? (I hear some of you gals saying yes. Pls can u just let me make my point.) In so many Disney films, the main male character is reduced down to a ‘I-like-pretty-girls-and-I-fall-in-love-at-first-sight’ kind of guy. Prince Eric is just another one. Maybe it’s not even Prince Eric that’s the problem here, it’s the portrayal of love. Both of the main characters fall in love with superficial characteristics, lacking any sort of emotional depth.
The same is the case in Cinderella. Gal is sad at home, gal goes to ball, guy likes gal because she hot, gal has to go, guy is too wasted to remember what she even looked like, so has to go around having random other gals try on her shoe. Oh, and did I forget? He pledges to marry the gal that the shoe seems to fit. It’s a toxic portrayal of male characters who are presented as easily swayed, and lacking in any kind of emotional intelligence.
The Princes and Princesses are depicted as slight airheads in these representations, but perhaps the most toxic depictions are not of either of these characters, but are rather of the antagonists in both films.
These movies portray women as the biggest enemies of other women. Cinderella’s evil sisters are everything that is stereotypically wrong with a bad woman. Ugly, jealous, and bossy. Of course, these traits don’t necessarily define a woman as bad or evil, but in the context of Cinderella, the sisters are a complete antithesis to everything she is, which is pretty, kind, and softly-spoken. These movies go wrong when they make it look like both of these types of women can’t coexist in the same space without desperately wanting to tear each other down. The problem in these movies isn’t the fact that Ariel goes almost losing her voice for Eric, or Cinderella gets swept away by a Prince, it’s the demonisation of a specific type of woman and the dramatisation of the dynamic between the two opposing personalities.
Essentially, these movies aren’t stories of Prince ❤️ Princess, they’re stories of power struggles between different women. Is this completely un-feminist though? Not really. The demonisation of the ‘ugly’ woman is un-feminist, but the existence of a power struggle between two women does not constitute anti-feminism.
That’s because in the context of the time in which these fairy tales were set, women tearing down other women was the norm. Unfortunately, even now that’s the case, from female foeticide still being a huge thing in India, to women tearing each other down in the workplace around the world. Does the portrayal of these issues make these movies anti-feminist? I feel like they do the complete opposite - they shed light on an issue that is still rampant in our society today.
But in the context of these stories, we must not forget that these are tales written by men, who are reporting on how they saw women and how they think women interact with each other. Misogyny was a huge thing back then, so guys liked to portray women as catty, bitchy, and petty. They saw women as being either one or the other, never anywhere in between. You were either the Madonna or the Whore.
And with that, we also must not forget that kids watching these movies will interpret them in different ways. Girls might find that they identify with one character more than the other (I am addressing Keira Knightley at this point, and I know she’s not reading but I’m trying to express what I’m saying in relation to what she said). You can’t just wipe out a whole character because it doesn’t represent your feminist values. There is more to the world than your own worldview, and children need to be taught that from an early age rather than being taught what values to adhere to. Censoring cartoons and movies from your kids because they don’t fit your type of feminism is toxic. Girls should definitely be taught to be strong and independent, but girls should also be taught that there are other girls out there who aren’t as privileged as them. Girls (and boys too) also need to be taught emotional depth, and being honest with themselves when they feel something. Liking and pursuing someone isn’t a bad thing, but teach your kids where the limit between healthy love and unhealthy infatuation lies. Lastly, don’t depend on films and cartoons to teach your kids everything about life - you have a responsibility towards them too. If I grew up watching The Little Mermaid and Cinderella, and still grew to be a feminist, then you can get your kids to do the same too.
Cover painting is La Belle Dame sans Merci by Frank Bernard Dicksee.