Representation of Race + Gender in Cinderella: A Step Forward or Back?

In this dialogue, THTR 3333 students Angelica Park and Braelee Albert hash out the intersections between race and feminism in the 1997 Disney production of Cinderella, featuring Brandy as Cinderella, Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother, Whoopi Goldberg as Queen Constantina. Adapted from the 1957 version featuring an all-white cast and Julie Andrews as Cinderella, the 1997 remake of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical by Disney pushes the boundaries of race and gender, challenging the ways in which we perceive these traits as consumers. But the question is, does Disney push the boundaries of race and gender in their 1997 Cinderella remake in a progressive way, representing a step forward in diversity and inclusion on musical television, or one that scratches the surface and fails to stand apart from its white-cast predecessors?

Angelica: The 1997 remake features the first black Cinderella and a multi-racial cast (not to mention an Asian prince!) Do you think the producers’ decision to incorporate color-blind casting was helpful to promoting a progressive and inclusive representation of race on the musical television screen, particularly with regards to black people?

Braelee: The 1997 remake for one had black actors, so they did something right in terms of progressive representation…but frankly, this is just half the battle. After choosing a cast that is ethnically and racially diverse, the next step is to make sure everything aligns with that decision. Meaning, the relevant roles must be culturally appropriate and fitting for the respective actors to play. I feel that the production was very much a book full of privilege and it felt unfitting for the black actors in the musical. In other words, it seemed that they just found the most well-known black actors and entertainers, asked them to be a part of the musical, and just threw them in there without any thought of how they fit within the plot. 

And while Cinderella is very much a story of a girl who is not privileged, the role of Brandy or any other black woman still seemed incongruent to me; it felt as if a part of her identity was taken away in this production, rendering it almost bland and that the character could have been anybody identifying with any ethnicity. It was a role very well groomed for a graceful, white woman. And I want to emphasize that the problematic representation of race is NOT because of Brandy’s acting, but rather the role she was playing. 

Angelica: You talked about Brandy’s role as Cinderella briefly; can you elaborate more specifically on examples of how the representation of her character (or lack thereof) raises concerns from a race standpoint?

Braelee: Brandy seemingly was perfect for a soft-spoken princess like Cinderella, but as I watched the performance, there was just something off about Brandy. It was like she had lost who she was– her “blackness” per se. A lot of little things within Cinderella made it obvious the book was written for a white actor. But there were certain specific reasons such as a line she said which included a racially insensitive remark of not being able to swim while they danced in the ballroom as well as imagining being in the jungle (a negative connotation in the eyes of African Americans). 

I want to dissect the number “In my Own Little Corner” to illustrate some of these points regarding the problematic representation of black people and how even though it tries to provide a progressive representation of black people, it raises many concerns which cancel out any good the number does. The number repeats the phrase “I can be whatever I want to be” which is very progressive to hear in a black woman’s voice. However, I view this as accidental progressiveness because the real problem occurs when this inspiring message is diminished after you hear her moments later: “Just as long as I stay/In my own little corner/All alone/In my own/Little chair.” So the full message is that as long as she is in her lonely, not to mention little, chair, she can be whatever she wants to be in her own head but no further than that. The repeated messages of lonely and little, after first empowering these little black girls, must make them torn from that when they hear that same somebody that they aspire to be singing about how it is okay to be coerced into a corner in life by others into a small corner and continue to feel small and lonely– but oh yeah, you can be whatever you want to be as long as you keep it to yourself and stay in that corner that people put you in to belittle your worth. 

Moreover, the song continues to mock other cultures as well. Brandy had a line about being a heiress in Japan and you immediately hear a guqin-type string Asian instrument in the background as well as Brandy moving two fingers across her face horizontally in an attempt to recreate the Egyptian dance she was singing about during her line about being an Egyptian princess. 

Braelee: I looked at the number “In My Own Corner” from primarily a racial perspective, but I was wondering, could you provide your interpretation of what this song might say from a perspective of gender and femininity?

Angelica: Absolutely. The biggest shortcoming of this production in my opinion is that Cinderella’s power–her sense of autonomy–relies on external validation, specifically on the Godmother’s encouragement and guidance, which is clearly illustrated “In My Own Little Corner.” Cinderella initially sings in a lethargic monotonous drawl, “I’m as mild and as meek as a mouse / When I hear a command I obey.” But as the song progresses and Cinderella escapes further and further into her imagination, the instrumental accompaniment picks up and ascends into a more melodic scale, suggesting that Cinderella feels a sliver of hope that grows as she sings “I can fly anywhere” and that “I’m the greatest pre-Madonna in Milan.” But the catch is that she only feels free and unstoppable in her own imagination and only when she’s alone as you point out,  quickly moving to clean up after she accidentally knocks over a broom propped against the wall. 

Now, unlike past Cinderellas, Cinderella as played by Brandy has the will to challenge her current situations and to consider leaving as even an option, but I would argue it’s safe to say that Disney’s interpretation of a more empowered Cinderella still tries to play it “safe” and stay within the lines. For example, Cinderella never gets angry or challenges the opinions of her stepmother; she merely raises the possibility, for example, of being “an eligible woman in the kingdom”  able to attend the ball but doesn’t fight back or stand up for herself when her stepmother belittles her, saying she’s “common” and “laughable.” 

While Cinderella is self-aware of her limited autonomy, she relies on the fairy Godmother (an external figure) to give her the push and in a sense permission to go against the promise she made to her father to escape her misery. (I personally would like to see a Cinderella that doesn’t have to ask or feel obligated to ask for approval but instead knows what she wants firmly; but Disney would probably not allow that because it would stray too far from the well-mannered, graceful characterization of femininity that have kept their Disney princess brand selling for years.) 

Angelica: How did you feel about the representation of race in secondary female characters apart from Cinderella?

Braelee: From a racial representation lens, I would agree that Queen Constantina, The Godmother, and Minerva were all for the most part well crafted in terms of representing black people progressively. Whoopi as the Queen seemed to be in control of the room (along with being stereotypically deceitful, over-dramatic, and even fake-whining in order to get what she wants) and her assertiveness did not feel forced. The Godmother as played by Whitneywas very sassy and fitting for what we typically see a black woman play, but I think this is progressive as opposed to problematic and borderline-racist is because it would be more culturally appropriate than forcing her to fit into a role that was white like Brandy was. 

Braelee: On the flip side, I wanted to ask you, what were your thoughts on the representation of feminism with regards to these secondary female characters?

Angelica: The cast actually has significantly more female characters than males and of the few roles played by men, most are secondary to those played by women. I agree with you the progressive representation that Whoopi’s character Queen Constantina brings out not only racially but feministically. She doesn’t just get to call all the shots, showing her dominance over King Maximillian; the dominance she asserts and her strong-headedness to put on a ball against her son’s wishes also serves to generate conflict that requires the butler Lionel (another secondary male character) to basically serve her.

Queen Constantina (literally) has men falling for her.

Braelee: How do you think the 1997 version challenged traditional gender stereotypes and empowered/confined audiences to current gender “norms”?

Angelica: Personally, I have to say Disney’s 1997 version of Cinderella was probably the most progressive representation of the Cinderella’s I have encountered since my childhood. I think the show deserves to be commended for numerous aspects in forwarding a more empowered and active representation of feminism on the musical screen but at the same time, acknowledged in the ways that it “plays within bounds,” not straying too far so as to damage or soil the domesticated, tame, and pure concept of the “princess” that they’ve branded (and achieved a loyal following for) for so long.

In the remake, the female figures overall have a greater sense of autonomy, with the main character Cinderella even having a “head packed full of dreams” according to her stepmother. In effect, Cinderella is given a spine, a will of her own and greater depth to her character; and ultimately, she’s able to strike the prince’s fancy not just because she has a pretty face but because she’s “different” and “unlike any other girl I’ve ever met”, according to Prince Christopher himself. 

From the very moment they meet in the marketplace, the producers, actors, and musical authors make it clear that both Cinderella and Prince Christopher are looking for something, a way to escape the learned helplessness and restricting routine they have to fill on a daily basis. This is important because by giving Prince Christopher and Cinderella a common ground, something they can both relate to, Disney 1) makes their relationship and their fated meeting seem a lot less forced in my opinion and 2) provides substance to an otherwise damsel-in-distress “boy-saves-girl” fairytale. In the number “The Sweetest Sounds”, we see how both the Prince and Cinderella are brought together because they are unified by a common search, desire, and want (and not because society says so i.e. the prince has to find the girl):

“The sweetest sounds I’ll ever hear are still inside my head”

The kindest words I’ll ever know are waiting to be said.”

 ….

“And the dearest love in all the world

Is waiting somewhere for me” 

What’s interesting here is that both Cinderella and Prince Christopher sing the same lines off-key and out of sync with one another initially, reflecting their sense of confusion and longing as they wander around almost aimlessly looking for something that seems impossible to attain, but end up singing in harmony by the end when they’ve found each other. This suggests that the finding of the other was a mutual pursuit.

Braelee: What did you think about the role of the Fairy Godmother as played by Whitney Houston? Did Houston’s portrayal of the character contribute to a different representation of femininity?

Angelica: I think Whitney Houston’s portrayal of the Godmother was key to the (more) progressive representation of women put forth in the 1997 production. Her role is critical in that she has to essentially play the role of the missing parent and give Cinderella the guidance and encouragement she never had. Put bluntly, the fairy godmother is literally the mother Cinderella didn’t know she needed. She not only tells Cinderella things like, “She [your stepmother] can’t handle how fabulous you are” but also that “That’s the problem with most people–they dream about what they want to do instead of really doing it.” She makes Cinderella think for herself and become more independent rather than magically making things appear and work out without action on the princess’ part as previous versions of the fairy godmother have commonly portrayed; in the song “It’s Impossible”, Cinderella initially starts defeated, saying that “it’s impossible” to leave and that it’s hopeless for her. But by the end of the song, Houston’s portrayal of the Fairy Godmother as an active and positive role model has changed Cinderella’s mindset to embrace a more optimistic and empowered outlook, as noted in the way the heavy words “it’s impossible” have turned into a joyous harmony that “Impossible things are happening everyday.” The role of the Fairy Godmother is instrumental to painting a positive feminine representation in the 1997 Cinderella not only through song but also through dialogue and action as created by the musical’s authors; at the ball, the Godmother gestures Cinderella to go in by herself and tells her “don’t be afraid” and that “the rest comes from you.” Talk about a female icon. Period.

fake mom (left), a true mother (right)

Braelee: What do you think about how white characters are portrayed in this remake, particularly the stepmother? Do you think Disney did anything different with the representation of these characters to advance representation of race and gender in these supporting roles?

Angelica: Admittedly, the stepmother and stepsisters assume relatively static roles, playing the antagonist to Cinderella and superficially serving the same function as they do in previous versions (no surprise here). But I think the representation of the stepmother and the stepsisters here is much more nuanced not just simply because of the color-blind casting but because each character is developed in a way that’s not one-dimensional i.e. either just “mean” or “evil.” Whereas the stepmother in traditional Cinderella productions has typically assumed a detached parenting style ostracizing Cinderella from her stepsisters, what this production does differently is that it allows us to gain more insight into why the stepmother treats Cinderella so badly, what her motivations might be, and where she is coming from. In the “Falling in Love with Love” number, we gain a great deal of insight into the stepmother’s character when she sings that “falling in love with love is like playing with a fool,” accented by her deep vibrato, dramatic gestures, and swooning to suggest that she, too, was once in love.  

She continues to sing dramatically, with elongated and drawn-out phrases, “I fell in love with love one night when the moon was full /

I was unwise with eyes unable to see

I fell in love with love, with love everlasting

But love fell out with me.”

From these lines, we can infer that perhaps the Stepmother has a traumatic past experience that caused her to shut out love for good and to project that on Cinderella. It gives a traditionally one-dimensional female character more depth and that her “evilness” might be more complex beneath the surface, perhaps even a product of trauma, pain, and vulnerability.

Angelica: How do you think the interactions between the stepsisters contributed to a progressive/regressive representation of race?

Braelee: The dynamic between the two sisters was definitely adjusted for what I believe was more culturally appropriate, allowing Natalie Desselle as Minerva to feel less confined to what would have rather been another very white, privileged role. Even with progressive modifications made to Minerva’s character, Destelle was still referred to being as “strong as an ox” (showing off her muscles) while her sister who was referred as being a good reader (well-educated) which could definitely perpetuate negative racial stereotypes; however, aside from this piece, for the first time within the Cinderella productions I have watched, there was clearly a more assertive and dominant sister. Minerva was clearly her. They made sure she was the one coming up with the ideas as the other sister merely acted as her follower– metaphorically and literally (yes, they made sure nowhere in the movie was Minerva walking/following behind the other sister– Minerva was always in front). This was done intentionally. While this could be as a result of not wanting the other sister being the one to boss around Cinderella (a white sister bossing around a black sister would not have been good), I think it is a very important observation regardless because there were clear indications and actions taken to make this performance progressive, despite its problematic features.

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4 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I really enjoyed this conversation! I liked how you chose to discuss both the aspects of race and gender in Cinderella. I also found it interesting how you mentioned that it seemed like they cast the most famous black actors without thinking about how they would fit into the plot. I think that this is something to think about with color-blind casting considering how much race can shape one’s identity and affect their life experiences. Cinderella is originally a story with white characters so if the choice is made to cast a remake with black characters the life experience of black actors needs to be taken into account. I think that this show could have benefitted from incorporating more black culture and experience into the show considering they chose to cast black actresses as the main characters.

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  2. This dialogue was awesome I really enjoyed reading it. I completely agree with the idea that not acknowledging race in casting at all does in a form, remove dimension from the experience of characters and the depth of the performance by the actors. In regards to the specific inter-character relations that are presented in the film adaptation, I love how you described the role of Whitney Houston as the fairy godmother as the mother that Cinderella had never had, I really really love this sentiment. The observation you make about the stepsister minerva is very telling of potential considerations that the production team could have made as the film was made, I think this consciousness is really important in observing these musicals as visions into racial experience.

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  3. Our group focused on Cinderella as well. I thought that the conversation about the roles being culturally appropriate was very interesting. It was something that no one in our group considered when we spoke about the production, however, now I can see how there is another layer other than simply hiring multicultural cast members.

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  4. You guys made some excellent, really insightful points here! I personally was familiar with the issue surrounding the difference between color-conscious and color-blind casting, but I personally had failed to see all the ways that Cinderella can perpetuate negative stereotypes or not progress Black identity in the best way. I think perhaps this is rooted in my unconscious familiarity with the fairytale itself so I failed to consider the story as a factor, but that is definitely something I should check within myself. This is a white-originated and privileged story, and it is not enough to do the bare minimum with it. Very interesting perspective!

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