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Suffrage or Just Plain Suffering? The Princess Problem in Fantasy

Cinderella (2015 poster)It’ll never be easy to create a Cinderella who isn’t a victim.

This has clearly been a challenge for Disney, whose live action version of the classic fairy tale opened earlier this year. Modern fantasy heroines should appeal to their young female audience as strong yet compassionate, intelligent yet humble, warriors, princesses, majestic ice-castle-builders. Cinderella’s strength is that she endures. Beloved father dies, cruel stepmother neglects, party invite is forbidden. Assistance comes from outside: fairy godmother bewitches, mice drive, prince whisks away.

It’s a story everyone knows, but that hasn’t stopped previous reincarnations of classic tales being revolutionised. Sleeping Beauty’s spell is broken by Maleficent’s ‘true love’s kiss’ – that of motherly love for a daughter figure. Frozen let go of stereotypes in its depiction of spell-breaking love as not heterosexual love from a man but in love between sisters. So why does Kenneth Branagh’s recent offering apparently seem not so much a nod to its 1950’s forebear but a bounding body-blow back into the past?

To be fair, there are tweaks to please a modern audience. Some work. Crowd scenes are diverse. Cinderella meets Prince Charming not at the ball but in the woods, where Cinders delivers a lecture on animal rights. The prince determines to marry for love, and his search for the owner of the glass slipper is for a partner rather than an object. Despite all this, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Cinderella’s main role is one of passive acceptance. She accepts her family’s abuse, sleeping in a cold attic, being given a derogatory new name, all with a stiff upper lip and the occasional song.

Cinderella at the Ball by Gustave DoréThe easy explanation to give is history. The history read by 17th Century author Charles Perrault, whose version of Cinderella seems the most influential to Disney’s and to some extent the history read by Walt Disney himself was almost singularly concerned with the deeds of great men. This reflects the contemporary perspectives of patriarchal authority and superiority. Problems now ensue. If women aren’t thought important, why bother writing about them as anything other than passive observers of history? Say that aloud to spark millions of loud conversations on the ride home from the cinema.

But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. That was then, and this is now. Studies since have explored and discovered the many roles women played in all levels of society throughout history. Limited by culture, wealth, and social status they may have been, but there’s no excuse for female characters in fantasy to ever be only passive and reactive. So a fantasy novelist or screenwriter can no longer point to a few particular women in the genre; Hecuba, Lavinia, Morgan le Fay, Isolde, Galadriel, Arwen, Polgara, Ce’Nedra, and hide behind their assertion that they reflect historical accuracy because the only important women in history were exceptions such as Good Queen Bess.

Cinderella by liga-martaDisney gives us another reason. Cinderella promised her dead parents to care for their house, and to always “have courage, and be kind”. To be kind to Disney for a moment – this is a nice message to a world of bad internet and casual cruelty. Branagh, also director of Thor, has been quoted that he wanted to explore kindness as a kind of super power. It’s also a way to get around the ‘victim’ issue – Cinderella’s endurance is courageous, not victimisation. Her aim of attending a party may seem wet by modern standards, but Cinders does show some agency in trying to get it. Denied by her stepmother, Cinderella determines to update an outfit of her own. It’s worth noting that Perrault’s Cinderella is too femininely humble and passive to even ask. So that’s progress. A woman knows what she wants, asks for it, and does her best to get it – can’t this be called a feminist trait?

This notion of virtuous endurance has its limits though. Cinderella submits to quite serious neglect and abuse for the sake of ‘cherishing the house’? A disturbing message to young girls everywhere there. Not every situation is worth accepting, and fairy godmothers and quick fixes are far from a guarantee.

Speaking of endured suffering and worrying messages, there is the issue of That Dress. The sight of Lily James, who plays the eponymous princess, in the famous blue ball gown raised rumours of digital manipulation, such is the tininess of her waist. These rumours were soon quashed however; James’ cartoonishly unrealistic figure was merely created with a damn-tight organ-restricting corset that reduced James to eating only soup during filming, such was the digestive discomfort said corset produced. It’s comforting to know that some cruel photoshopping technology isn’t distorting reality to create a false body image for girls to aspire to in complete futility – it’s just recycling cruel outmoded technology at the expense of an actor’s physical wellbeing. “Wouldn’t you prefer to eat when all the work is done, Ella?” her stepmother says in the film. Interestingly, this is exactly what Disney has done to James. Disney has become the evil stepmother.

Cinderella by LeUyen PhamThankfully, there are many fantasies with realistic, well rounded female characters. Characters who take the initiative, drive narrative forward, master their own will and choices, and are treated as equals to men, even when their culture forbids it. Robin Hobb, Sir Terry Pratchett, Robin McKinley, and Kristin Cashore are all such pioneers. However, this doesn’t mean I want to read of more plucky peasant girls who wake up, throw off the shackles of her society and decide to invent feminism. Any more than I want to read of more honest country boys who discover they’re the lost heir to greatness with the help of their magical father figure.

Perhaps the main issue with women in fantasy is the temptation to avoid asking the hard questions. This is why female characters tend to fall into the Arthurian dichotomy. You can be Morgan le Fay: cunning, evil minded, adulterous, sexy warrior witch. You can be Isolde: delicate, honourable, naively idealistic and emotionally damaged. Or be Guinevere somewhere in the middle. There are many shades in between, of course. I haven’t read everything, but the point is there.

Cinderella by Momo-DearySo, paradoxically, it seems female roles in fantasy must still be filled with circumscription and subordination, to remind readers why our mothers and grandmothers suffered for the vote and equal rights. And to remind readers what many women’s lives are like today, where their rights are restricted by culture, poverty, or everyday sexism. Perhaps these are the hard questions authors should address to bring more to their female characters than the suffering princess or the heroine who dresses up in a chain mail bikini to fight. To engage with the conflicts and difficulties women face, to challenge our concepts of gender and sexuality. Surely these would result in more interesting stories than a girl who lets everyone step on her only to be rewarded with a husband and a pretty dress?

Perhaps that dress is an apt symbol for Cinderella and so many of her sisters in fantasy – a beautiful covering for a thin, outmoded concept. It is these beautiful surfaces that present the most disturbing message and it is one that exists, and belongs, in the distant past – even farther back than the animated film to which this 2015’s Cinderella is so beholden.

Title image by Leuyen Pham.



  1. Avatar Elizabeth says:

    But what if you genuinely ARE an Isolde character – endurance and honour are your virtues and you believe in them passionately? You need to read about people like you. Growing up, I found it so hard to find relatable female characters OUTSIDE fairy tale. You cannot control everything that happens to you – as a child, you barely control ANYTHING that happens to you, and stories like Cinderella give you strength. There is also the religious aspect – trust in the greater plans of God etc. And please don’t say no one is religious nowadays, because that’s simply not true.

    I don’t mean here that I condone abuse. Or think you shouldn’t escape it. But Cinderella’s sufferings can symbolise so much more.

  2. Avatar Moo says:

    I think the Isolde/Cinderella-characters are default, they will never go away and people who relate to them will always have lots of stories where to find them. So I’m more for the other option of diversifying and strengthening female characters. I’m not meaning that every female has to wear chainmail and do a lot of physical fighting, a girly girl in frills can also be just as strong as a warrior. I think it’s important to have both character types and then another 20 other types.

    I can’t take reading another book or playing another game where women’s ultimate power is to endure a lot of hardship while remaining positive, kind and pretty. I detest it.

  3. Avatar Erica says:

    There are plenty of ways to be strong. A character need not be a swordswoman/man or warrior queen/king in order to have agency and make choices that drive astory. Cinderella is, perhaps, one of the more “passive” of the fairy tale characters, as in the versions I recall, her FGM simply shows up and decides to send her to the ball. But there have been plenty of retellings where she takes on a more active role.

    And that gets to another point. Arguments about the historical prevalence of adventurous and rebellious women notwithstanding, I thought the cool thing about fantasy (as opposed to historical fiction) was that we’re not constrained by the limitations of history. One reason I enjoy fantasy more than historical fiction is because it allows for societies where women can be heroes in a wide variety of ways. Why on Earth would any 21st century writer want to write a story where most women are passive chattel, unless this is actually an obstacle for important female characters to overcome?

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