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October 9, 2010

My wife wrote an excellent essay for her college English class comparing Disney’s Cinderella to Grimms’ telling of the Cinderella story.  I was tempted to retell her discoveries in my own words, but this would lack the insight she unfolds.  Here it is in full.

Imagine. Imagine Disney’s Cinderella story with trails of blood and empty eye sockets. A filthy Cinderella awakens on the fireplace hearth to the screams of her demanding stepsisters. Her mother is dead and her living father has completely abandoned her to an abusive stepmother and stepsisters. Encouraging children to imagine is the mission of Disney, but this kind of imagery is far to graphic for children, or is it? If it is too graphic, then how should Mr. Disney have retold such a gruesome story?  Grimms’ fairy tale Cinderella uses beautiful poetic moral imagery with gruesome consequences. Disney’s Cinderella replaces poetry with entertainment and moral imagination with unattainable idealism. What then is the effect that Disney has on a child’s moral character and imagination? Disney became the icon of childhood, while Cinderella became the youthful story of dreams. How do these characters, settings and events mold the imagination of a child?

The story of Cinderella is a redemptive tale of abuse, cruelty, and deliverance. The story’s maiden is stripped of honor and made a servant in her own home; stripped of identity and given the name Cinderella. Disney successfully softened these abuses by depicting Cinderella as conspicuously never dirty despite her hard labor and occupying a moderately nice private bedroom with a comfortable bed. Musically gifted birds and mice accompany her early morning sing-along song celebrating dreams and their hopeful fulfillment. Cinderella “remained ever gentle and kind in the hope that someday her dreams would come true.” Her hope motivates her toward kindness and goodness.

Harsh realities are not beyond Cinderella, having first lost her mother. Then her father, who was beloved, kind, and devoted, unfortunately met with an untimely death, but not before furnishing her with a cruel stepmother and two very ugly stepsisters.

In Grimms’ tale Cinderella is given a charge. “Dear child, continue devout and good. Then God will always help you, and I will look down upon you from heaven and watch over you.” A beautiful charge given to Cinderella by her mother before her death, this charge was her motivation for goodness. In her faithfulness Cinderella visited her mother’s grave three times a day to pray. Her father then marries a cruel woman with two daughters. In Grimms’ tale the two stepsisters are not ugly but beautiful with black hearts, who mock and abuse Cinderella constantly. Cinderella’s father allows the abuse, remaining virtually silent.  His untimely death in Disney’s version would appear to be a more humane end compared to his neglect in Grimms’ version.

Disney kept the story line simple; Cinderella only had one ball to go to and two dresses to try on. Then she is off to the ball with her mouse drawn pumpkin carriage and canine footmen with a horse in control of the reins.  She arrives at the ball to be swept away by love at first sight until the clock strikes twelve. The iconic glass slipper is left behind during the harried getaway. Later, the royal ministry arrive at Cinderella’s home where her stepsisters attempt to force their hideous feet in the abandoned glass slipper. Cinderella suddenly appears despite her stepmother’s attempt to lock her away. Without warning Cinderella and the prince are married and living happily ever after—the end. The message: dreams really do come true.

Disney leaves us wondering what happened to the stepmother and stepsisters. Should they have been punished for the abuse? Storybook romance, is that what this story is really about? Did they really live happily ever after? So many questions, but did Grimms’ fairy tale answer these pressing questions?

Grimms’ Cinderella remains devout and kind because of her faith in God and devotion to her mother. Her kindness is not based on the empty hope that her dreams will come true. Physical beauty does not only belong to Cinderella, but equally shared by her stepsisters. Disney’s portrayal of the stepsister’s physical ugliness subtly equates beauty with goodness, but Grimm equates beauty with goodness of soul.  In their greed to become queen the two stepsisters mutilate their own feet to fit the coveted slipper. The eldest cuts off her great toe while the other cuts off a bit of her heel. They leave a trail of blood behind them as they ride away one after the other with the fooled prince. Doves perched on Cinderella’s mother’s grave announce:

“Prithee, look back, prithee, look back, /There is blood on the track.

The shoe is too small; At home the true bride is waiting thy call.”

These same prophetic doves act as judge and jury plucking out the eyes of the stepsisters who live the rest of their days lame and blind. The poetry in Grimms’ fairy tale is gruesome and yet beautiful.  This is something Disney lacks completely.

Disney’s Cinderella is entertaining, sweet, and easy to swallow. But does this version of Cinderella shape the moral character of the child? Dreams and wishes do not build character.  Rather, they saturate a culture of young girls with false hopes who, without devout living based in faithfulness, flounder through life’s storms without an anchor. In Disney’s version faithfulness to parents and God is conspicuously lacking and consequences for bad behavior are desperately absent. The Disney culture has set up a very disappointing reality with no moral net to catch the fallen.  Songs and dances replace poetry while royal treatment and romantic love replaces moral imagery. I believe Disney is clever enough to create a richer and more poetic story than this lackluster Cinderella.


From → Literature

  1. Excellent! The comparison is stark. My grandma always said, “Beauty is as beauty does.” I think people forget that.

  2. U2isgr8 permalink

    And she can write, too. Buck, you have a keeper!

  3. I enjoyed reading this very much. The distinction about beauty unveils how insidious our modern changes can be all while remaining comfortable.

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  1. Disney vs. Grimm : Circe Institute

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