I love Disney. I’ve loved Disney since I could talk. When I was a little girl, I had no less than three separate Disney princess outfits and a box stuffed full of Disney princess dolls. Now this tells you two things – firstly, that I was a fairly spoilt child, and secondly, that Disney’s influence over many children is immense and not to be underestimated. I grew up watching the perfect women with their perfect singing voices, hair, smiles and doe-eyes find their perfect men and live happily ever after. Five year old me wanted that for herself and she wanted it badly.
I’m now 20 and I still enjoy the odd Disney princess film, although I watch them now with a very different eye. I no longer see everything that I want to be, but precisely what I am not. I am not waifish thin, I am not docile. I don’t see myself represented in these characters and, to an extent, that is okay. They are indulgent, romantic fantasies that are products of their time which I enjoy with an awareness of that. Disney have made a couple of fairly decent, though by no means perfect, efforts to keep up with the times recently. However, with Kenneth Branagh’s new adaptation of Cinderella, it’s as though we’ve leapt five steps back and then some. Allow me to put this out there: it is now 2015, and feminism has seen some wonderful recent victories, but are we honestly still creating film roles – for adaptations of children’s stories, no less – that necessitate an actress having to go on a liquid diet to play the part? Fucking seriously?
I study a lot of seventeenth and eighteenth century literature, and plenty of the critical stuff I read talks about how far women have come since then. But apparently, we’re still stuffing women into corsets.
In response to criticism of her size, Lily James, who plays Cinderella, asked ‘why do women always get pointed at for their bodies?’ I quite agree with that sentiment. Women’s bodies shouldn’t be policed or scrutinized – but nor should they be forced into punishing corsets, or shrunk down to represent a cartoon figure. The issue that James overlooks is the fact that those that will not be scrutinizing her body are the many children who will likely simply accept it as a desirable, even a normal body-type to which they should aspire. James claimed that she was ‘corseted so tightly I couldn’t eat’. What a blindingly problematic, backwards message to send to young girls. Don’t eat, gals! Then you can wear pretty gowns and go to fabulous parties, just like Cinderella! Of all that has been said in praise of the film, this is the message that hits home for me because of its almost obscene visual obviousness. When I’m watching the advert for Cinderella, I am in spite of myself worrying about the four slices of toast I just ate rather than feeling heart-warmed by Cinderella’s ‘thoughtfulness’ or ‘bravery’ or whatever the filmmakers want to call it in the name of a positive spin. I’m a woman who is fairly aware of the proliferation of harmfully idealistic body images in society but faced with Cinderella, even I can’t help but feel a bit shit about myself.
To be clear, this article is not a tirade directed at Lily James. It must be infuriating to have your body subjected to such scrutiny. But this speaks to wider issues. White, male, straight, cisgender men tend to see themselves represented on film and television in such a wonderful range of ways. They are lawyers, doctors, action heroes with dark, complicated pasts. Women do not share this representation in mainstream cinema – particularly women of colour and trans women. In Bad Feminist, Roxanne Gay exclaims her frustration in rarely seeing herself represented adequately in a cinematic sea of white women and tired stereotypes. As an angry, slightly outspoken feminist with a fairly normal body shape who likes to eat A LOT, I do not see myself represented in Cinderella, though I am privileged because I am white. I could not even begin to imagine Gay’s frustration.
This idealistic image of perfect femininity is tired and anachronistic. I no longer aspire to be the sweet, tiny, docile princess, but this does not mean that millions of little girls do not. Little girls – and grown up girls – deserve a better representation of what it is to identify as a woman in all its beautiful, diverse forms. Disney needs to leave the corsets to one side and start addressing this need with a little more urgency.