What’s Changed With Feminism, Cinderella?
Happy birthday to Disney’s Cinderella, who turns 65 on Sunday.
Cinderella reflects the 1950s pre-feminist world. What’s changed since then?
The Cinderella Story
We all know the Cinderella story:
A lovely girl is despised by her ugly stepmom and stepsisters, who make her wear rags and serve them. But when the prince hosts a ball to find a wife, a fairy godmother turns rags into a gown — but tells Cinderella to be home by midnight, when the spell breaks. Cinderella meets the prince and they fall in love. But when she flees the ball to get home on time she loses a glass slipper, which the prince eventually traces to her. They marry and live happily ever after.
Cinderella and the 1950s Housewife
Cinderella, locked away, disempowered, and lacking any sense of herself other than “servant,” had few choices and little grasp of her potential.
Life was a bit better for your typical 1950s housewife. But in some ways it was similar.
Different women have different personalities, and if a 1950s woman held interests and abilities that revolved around homemaking and nurturing then life was pretty good.
But if she had the mind of a scientist, doctor, lawyer, business manager, writer, or pretty much anything that didn’t involve domesticity — or if she was a single mom struggling to raise her kids on low wages (because high-paying jobs were rarely an option for women) — then like Cinderella, she lacked life choices, or much ability to see her potential outside of one role. These women could feel locked into a life that didn’t fit.
Still, Cinderella didn’t gripe, perhaps hoping that if she were a good girl, things would work out. And in fact, Cinderella’s story tells women that this is true.
Most 1950s women didn’t gripe, either. But widespread malaise was eventually uncovered by the 1963 bestseller, The Feminine Mystique, which sparked consciousness raising groups and a re-examination of feminine fulfillment.
Also in Cinderella’s time beauty was important, and even associated with goodness. In fact, powerful women in Cinderella’s life were both ugly and evil — except for the fairy godmother.
In 1950s America beauty was important. And if the reaction to feminists — who sought more power for women — was any indication, then powerful women were deemed ugly. Because early feminists were stereotyped as unattractive.
And most famously, Cinderella was saved by a handsome prince. They married and lived happily ever after. Very much what most midcentury women hoped for.
Cinderella and the 21st Century Woman
At the beginning of the 21st-century things have changed and things have stayed the same.
Beauty remains important for most women since a woman’s worth is still largely judged by her looks.
And beauty is still associated with “goodness.” The good-looking are better liked by classmates, teachers, employers and jurors, for instance.
And there is still a stereotype that women seeking empowerment — like feminists — are ugly. That may be changing as feminists like Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Kerry Washington, Olivia Wilde, Emma Watson and Emma Stone step outside the feminist closet.
But opportunities have grown in leaps and bounds since the 1950s, when few women could imagine becoming anthropologists, psychologists, doctors, lawyers, Congress members, or President of the United States.
Women still have a long way to go. But we have also come a long way, baby.
Inspired by “Construction of the Female Self” by Jill Henke
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