Cinderella: A new decade, a new way to love you

To the reader: what is your initial reaction to this title?

Is it perhaps, “But I’m a girl, and girls don’t care why [they fall in love]…”?

Probably not – it’s a statement that sounds out of the blue. It ties gender and sexuality together in a way that sounds old-fashioned and sexist.

And yet, when Julie Andrews says it in the 1957 film Cinderella, it strangely makes sense. Unconvinced? I almost am too, typing out these words. But there’s more to a movie than its script, and there’s more to love than a single emotion.

Here, we’ll be analyzing how Cinderella and Prince Christopher’s romance unfolds in two different televised musicals: the 1957 original production of Rodger and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (which I’ll refer to as the 50’s production), and its 1997 television remake, directed by Robert Iscove for Walt Disney Television (which I’ll refer to as the 90’s production). In particular, we’ll be analyzing the couple’s actions before, during, and after the famous song “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful”. First, we’ll explore the 50’s production for its idealistic yet old-fashioned fairy tale romance, and then focus on how Disney tries to put a more realistic twist in their 90’s production. Through scrutinizing the details in this song, we’ll find that the nuances of love change every decade; even within the same fairy tale, we can get drastically different relationships. And while both iterations might seem antiquated for a contemporary viewer, it’s important to consider how the norms surrounding gender and love have evolved over the years, and how they can still change for the better today.

1955: The Perfect Couple of Your Dreams

Let’s rewind back to Julie Andrews, playing the flustered and enamored Cinderella, finally meeting the prince of her dreams:

The night is nothing but perfect – prior to their lovers’ duet, the handsome Prince Christopher (played by Jon Cypher) has already confessed his love to her. They’ve even passionately kissed, despite the fact that they’re practically strangers. Now Cinderella is wondering if this is all a dream – after all, it seems too good to be true. It is in this dazed state that she utters those old-fashioned lines:

Christopher: “Are you [in love]?”
Cinderella: “Oh yes.”
Christopher: “And do you know why?”
Cinderella: “Oh no. But I’m a girl, and girls don’t care why.”

Cinderella (1955)

Cinderella’s lines make sense because this is a fantastical romance of the 50’s. She is the stereotypical ingénue – the innocent woman looking for true love, the model woman of conservative 1950’s America. Within minutes at the ball, she has found the man of her dreams. She doesn’t need to care why this love happened because this is her character’s destiny. When Cinderella wonders when she’ll wake up from this fantasy, she is already entrenched in the sheer magic of this romance. Her voice is angelic, her eyes are faraway and dreamy (note how the two actors almost never look at each other). She sings, “Am I making believe I see in you / A man too perfect to / Be really true”, a direct reflection of her thoughts. And long before the pair start singing, the string orchestra plays the idyllic chords of the melody. If the song cues in the fantasy of a musical, the fairy tale has already begun.

On the other side of this romance is Prince Christopher, equally the 1950’s stereotype as a masculine and handsome man. He too, is entrenched in this fantasy, bestowing flowery praises upon Cinderella. Indeed, “Why is the color of your hair the only color a girl’s hair should be?” is a statement that sounds absurd out of context, and yet within this narrative of true love, Cinderella really is the only girl for him. Where Cinderella is daydreaming however, the prince is direct and assertive. He follows up her flustered words with the bold affirmation, “I always want to know why I do anything! Why I feel anything!” Throughout the scene, he guides her through this relationship, initiating both the confession and intimacy.

The 1955 movie idealizes this couple as a pair of fantasy characters finding true love. The song lyrics serve to emphasis this fairy tale for what it is: something extraordinary and magical. The two ideal characters find their ideal relationship in mere moments, perfectly reflecting the gender stereotypes of the 50’s.

1997: Realism in a Fantastical Romance

More than 40 years later, director Robert Iscove and choreographer Rob Marshall would take a different approach to this relationship. Note that the premise and the song lyrics are almost identical: Cinderella and the Prince take a break from the ball. Their first dance is just as electric and romantic as the 1950’s, but that’s where the similarities end:

Instead of immediately going into a passionate kiss, the scene begins with Prince Christopher apologizing for what he perceives are his parents heckling Cinderella. The conversation then turns to Cinderella’s unpleasant relationship with her family, the Prince’s distaste of the ball, and the two going back and forth about an ideal bride. This is nothing like the dreamy conversation of Andrews and Cypher – they’re closer to conversation topics that you or I could talk about.

We also see that Brandy’s portrayal of Cinderella is very different than Julie Andrews’ performance. Where Andrews’ Cinderella was angelic and passive, Cinderella is more assertive, yet also more hesitant. When the Prince starts to tell her about his wish, she advises him (from personal experience):

Cinderella: “You know the trouble with most people is that they sit around wishing for something to happen instead of just doing something about it.”

Cinderella (1997)

Cinderella is pushing the Prince to be more active in fulfilling his desires. Yet at the same time, she is nervous about being at the ball at all, worrying moments ago that her past and family make her an outcast in this luxurious ball. It is no longer just a perfect fantasy for Cinderella, but a wonderful moment highlighted in the context of her normal life.

The Prince (portrayed by Paolo Montalbán) is also a vastly different character – a man conflicted between the duties of the royal throne and his desire for true love. And when he does find the person who can fulfill both, he is elated and nervous. When trying to explain his feelings to Cinderella, he rambles awkwardly, in stark contrast to the confidence seen in his 1950’s incarnation. Prince Christopher is again the one to initiate the song, but the choreography starts him off kneeling in front of Cinderella. This height dynamic also differs from the 50’s production, where the Prince stands powerfully over Cinderella the whole time.

The new composition and choreography deserve to be emphasized here. Alongside the new height dynamics, there is more movement from Cinderella and Prince Christopher. They sit and stand, walk around the courtyard, embrace, and separate throughout the sequence. There is more agency in the choreography of the characters. When Cinderella leaves the Prince’s side for a moment, singing the lyrics “Am I making believe I see in you / A man too perfect to / Be really true”, it reflects her actual doubt about the situation. Unlike the 50’s Cinderella, who sees this as a perfect fantasy, Brandy’s Cinderella has to actively contend with the reality of her background interfering with this ideal escape. When she resolves this doubt by immersing herself in her love of the Prince, the two come back and share a passionate kiss (which realistically happens after getting to know each other a little more). The 90’s production repeats the climax of the song; the repetition by the actors affirms their union after their initial hesitance. And after Cinderella runs off into the night, the two sing the climax one more time, illustrating how the characters themselves are connected even though the “magic” of the ball is now over.

This iteration of Cinderella and Prince Christopher is more human than before – their character conflicts and personalities come into play throughout the song. It is no longer a perfect romance between perfect characters, but a seemingly perfect romance amidst the colorful reality of two vastly different people. The backdrop is now the 90’s, marked by third-wave feminism and increasing diversity and globalization. By incorporating more motion and character dynamics into the song, Iscove and Marshall paint a different and more realistic picture of the fairy tale couple.

2021: So What is Love, Really?

And now we arrive in 2021, where relationship dynamics have again changed. To the 21st century viewer, the story of Cinderella may permanently be associated with old-fashioned, sexist stereotypes about gender and love. In every rendition, Cinderella is a beautiful, kind girl that finds happiness through the man of her dreams. To some, that may mark this story as nothing but a stagnant fairy tale, which can never be progressive due to the constraints of its fundamental story.

And yet we have seen how this relationship has been shaped into new dynamics over time, even within the context of the same musical and song. With the 1955 musical, we saw the idealized fantasy of the 50’s in full force, the dreamy couple singing of perfect love. In 1997, we saw a more humanized rendition, where the titular question is more one of doubt and excitement, and the love blooms within deeper character conflicts. Indeed, the story of Cinderella is by nature antiquated. But it’s equally a product of a popular culture that shifts with the times. For every decade and new audience, Cinderella represents a different version of love – one that reflects both the story’s roots and its audience.

So to the reader, I end with a parting question: What does the love of the 2020’s look like? And how will the story of Cinderella rise to answer that question?

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