First Broadcasted on ABC in 1997, “Cinderella,” was deemed revolutionary, as Brandy Norwood was casted as the first black actress to play the role of a Disney princess. It also starred the notable names of the late Whitney Houston, Whoopi Goldberg, and Bernadette Peters. The use of actors of color in a live action Disney movie greatly signified the importance of representation and cultural diversity in an already predominantly white industry. In this essay, three theatre students will discuss Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1997 production of Cinderella, and how the musical paved a way for representation of people of color in Disney’s notorious projections of the realms of princes and princesses. This representation was exemplified through specific choices made in the musical productions authors, artists, and actors that lead to cohesiveness that this boundary pushing musical embarked.
Haley Hopkins is a senior studying Medicine, Health and Society. She is both a soccer player and Wicked! enthusiast.
Vida Raietpavar is a first semester freshman undecided on her major, but is leaning towards Medicine, Health, and Society. She plays for the Vanderbilt soccer team and was ignorant of all things regarding musicals prior to this class.
Mairin Boyle is a junior currently studying Medicine, Health and Society. She is a casual musical theatre fan quickly learning to appreciate it on a deeper level. She is also a long time Disney fan excited to analyze this production.
VR: In what ways does this production affect Disney’s largely youth fanbase?
HH: Disney already being a 70 billion dollar corporation with arguably the largest youth fanbase of any surpasses all competitors. They have created and established an unwavering platform in all communities, targeting young audiences with impressionable minds about dreams of princes and princesses as well as make believe, realms of happiness. Disney has been under scrutiny of being “too white” by only creating fair skin characters with little diversity and exemplifying racial stereotypes in some of their films. This production of Cinderella was groundbreaking in more ways than one. Brandy Norwood was the first actress of color to star as a Disney princess, with other african american supporting actors. The 1997 production of Cinderella went against the norm of the Disney princesses all being fair skinned and pertaining to a younger audience who resemble them. Young girls of color were able to see and experience the representation of a princess of color and relate to these hopes and dreams of being a princess. This representation of a minority population is so incredibly important because it instills the feeling of a place in society and greater self esteem, especially in these younger audiences Disney targets. It also creates a sense of identity for the youth fanbases in seeing older people who look like them.
VR: Are there any limitations to the progressive message projected within Rodger and Hammerstein’s Cinderella?
MB: It is difficult to think of limitations that pertain to a production that breaks down so many barriers. The color-blind casting used in the show is wonderfully welcoming and creates joyous inclusivity in royalty’s portrayals. However, one particular limitation that comes to mind is rooted in the origins of Cinderella. In class, we discussed these origins. The production uses scores from two white men in Rodgers and Hammerstein and is based on a Western perspective. To build on this, how inclusive can a show really be when it’s evolved from one, overused culture’s view? Can simply placing actors of color into predominantly white roles be considered progress? Although essential to do so, I think even more important is giving actors of unique color spaces to call their own. For example, in casting Filipino American actor Paolo Montalbán as Prince Charming, the character sought after by many women may be opposing previous emasculating or evil portrayals of Asian men. However, what this fails to do, and what I believe to be much more critical, is to show how being Southeast Asian illuminates one’s identity. Even Prince Charming’s main appeal comes from his class and wealth, which is rooted in whiteness. This allure is specifically noticeable in the ballroom scene where all eligible young women attend and drool over the chance to be with him. Although some may argue that this shows the production’s unique portrayal of a desirable Asian male, limitations to the progressive message show as his appeal is more tied to the potential of joining the royal family.
HH: How does this depiction of Cinderella compare to the other movies and princesses that Disney has created and what impact does this have?
VR: The defining factor that differentiates this depiction of this Cinderella from another Disney princess of color is in the way people of color are indisputably linked to royalty without race being an obvious limitation to the plot. When taking a step back and looking at most modern and progressive pieces of media that implement representation for people of color, the topic of race is usually involved in the story as a barrier. For instance, shows such as Blackish and Dear White People, whose casting is predominately black, always seem to talk about the struggles of being black in a white dominated world in the plot. And this isn’t just in these specific shows, it is a trend in mass media to cast people of color for the sole purpose of talking about the struggles that that community faces. It is as if people of color can not exist in entertainment without their skin being a topic of discussion. Disney was no exception. When looking at the 1995 animation of Pocahontas, a Disney film noted for its representation of Native Americans, we see how the romantic plot had racist depictions of Native Americans, portraying them as evil and hateful towards the white settlers. While the movie was meant to be inclusive for a specific community, the plot largely revolved around the differences between the Europeans and Native Americans. Their differences of race WAS the movie. We never see these issues with the other princesses, such as Snow White, Aurora, and Ariel, who were white with white romantic interests. More notably, these white characters fit the mold of the ideal princess Disney projects versus Pocahontas, who isn’t even considered a real princess due to her lack of royal connection. This portrays to the audience of Disney that people of color are not REALLY included in their depictions of princess fairytales.
Fast forward to Rodger and Hammerstein’s 1997 Cinderella. The most crucial theme created in the production of this movie musical was to maintain the same structure that Cinderella’s white princess counterparts had, while implementing a color-blind cast. This production did not diversify the cast and then change the entirety of the plot to talk about the struggles of certain races. It instead allowed race to just be a characteristic of Cinderella. This version allowed a black woman to play into the fantasy that Disney is known for that was believable and authentic to the audience. This is something that was not previously done by Disney and the most impactful part was not the differences between this Cinderella and the other iconic white princess, but the large similarities and equalities they shared regardless of race. It allowed an inclusion of people of color to Disney princesses that didn’t divide them based on their race, but instead pushed the notion that girls of any color can be real princesses.
HH: What is the significance of this adaptation of Cinderella and the legacy it leaves?
MB: The best way I can think to describe how revolutionary this adaptation of this classic story is to say that it was way ahead of its time. The legacy it leaves even surpassed issues from today’s age. Over 20 years later, there are huge issues of white-washing and lack of diversity in Hollywood. Today’s directors should take notes on this 1997 production of Cinderella. The apparent answer to its significance is the diversity of the cast. This production was a space where different races coexisted without any comment or question. This film was so good that you don’t even question a world where a black woman and a white man produce a Filipino son. It was never explained or treated like it was unusual, and they were simply left to exist and thrive. It entirely made sense, which I believe to be revolutionary. The film followed the same storyline as the classics but, adding to its legacy, added a much-needed twist. Disney movies are often plain sexist. Girls are always portrayed as helpless beings who need a man to rescue them. The 1997 production combats these stereotypes, which is a much-needed message back then and today. For example, the Prince tells Cinderella that a girl should be “treated like a princess.” She quickly corrects him saying, “No. Like a person, with kindness and respect.” The film also focuses on following your dreams and making them a reality—another vital message for today’s time. Finally, for many, this was the first time seeing a Black princess, which is momentous in its own right, as discussed previously. Overall, the film was revolutionary and sent timeless and essential messages to people everywhere to add to its ageless legacy.
MB: Is there a particular scene or musical number that exemplifies the unique choices made in this production?
VR: One particular scene that highlights the choices made in order to create a cohesiveness to the plot and the diverse cast is the opening scene. The usage of bright vivid colors in the scenery and over the top dresses and jewelry was used as a way to combat how noticeably different the cast was from each other. If instead the musical production artists had decided to have a more toned down, neutral color palette to the scenery, the differences between the cast would have been exemplified and obvious. This would have taken away from one of the main goals of the producers, to show diversity in a realistic manner without taking away from the plot. The bright colors ensure that boldness is the norm and the varying skin tones are just as normal as the different colors of flowers. When taking a look at the step sisters, their dresses are both bright in color and objectively obnoxious, with details of ruffles, bows, and pearls. These dresses add depth to their even more so obnoxious character and create a symmetry between the likes of them. It depicts that they are nearly the same person with similar dresses and fashion sense, even though one of them is black and the other is white. This is an example of how costume choices were used to combat highlighting racial differences in the production, but instead create unity and equality.
MB: Did the diversity of the cast evoke a different reaction/experience for you as a viewer compared to other versions of Cinderella’s story? Why or why not?
HH: I can speak to this question from a perspective of my younger self. Growing up, I watched and loved all things Disney. There is a certain magic in Disney’s storytelling that greatly influences the minds of both children and adults alike. Their films and messages within extends through generations and creates imaginative minds of all. I remember first watching the 1997 production of Cinderella. I was in first or second grade, scrolling the channels of my TV and saw that Cinderella was on ABC. I immediately clicked on it and was surprised when I didn’t see the classic animated movie I already knew and loved. It was not only a live action remake, but I noticed the diverse cast. I remember loving the soundtrack and multi-racial cast. I appreciated it then with the very naive, innocent child mind not understanding the capacity of how revolutionary this remake was. I have seen it many times since then, but now have a newfound appreciation for how important the representation is. It most definitely evoked a different response for me, but it was far from negative. Disney movies are already obviously sexist, often portraying women as the “damsel in distress.” The 1997 adaptation of Cinderella also contributes a feminist point of view in how Cinderella is independent and doesn’t rely on the needs of a man. Many credit Cinderella as the most important movie of the 90’s, and it’s easy to agree.