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.

Gypsy: Parenting gone wrong, but perhaps not totally

Set in the 1920s, the meta-musical Gypsy tells the story of an ambitious mother, “Mama” Rose, trying to make her two daughters, June and Louise, succeed as stars in the American show business, then dominated by vaudeville but waning in wake of the rising popularity of the strip-tease genre. Based on a true story and more specifically on the autobiography Gypsy: Memoirs of America’s Most Celebrated Stripper published by one of the daughters Louise (known professionally as Gypsy Rose Lee) in 1957, Gypsy originally opened on Broadway in 1959 and has since been adapted for television and re-produced multiple times. With lyrics by Stephen Sondeheim, music composed by Jule Styne, the book written by Arthur Laurents, and production done in association with Storyline Entertainment, All Girl Productions, and RHI Entertainment, the 1993 televised version of the meta-musical directed by Emile Ardolino was able to bring the story of mother-daughter onto the small screen, starring Bette Midler as Mama Rose and Cynthia Gibb as Louise/Gyspy Rose Lee. To provide a quick synopsis of the plot, Mama Rose is the epitome of a show-mother: overprotective, persistent, and unrelenting in her pursuit to make her daughters steal the show. This is not, however, to say she is without flaws (more on this later). Her two daughters June and Louise are presented from the very beginning in juxtaposition to one another; while June is “dainty”, feminine, and talented at dancing and singing not to mention she has the blonde bob thing working in her favor (because why wouldn’t gentlemen prefer blondes *cough cough* said Marilyn Monroe), Louise is clumsy, tomboyish, and subjected to her sister’s shadow as a brunette. In the beginning, Mama Rose noticeably favors June over Louise, promising to make her a star, largely neglecting her less-talented but ever loyal daughter–that is, until June decides to ditch the whole “kiddie” act and leave behind her mother’s unfulfilled promises and overpowering control over her life to elope with one of the boys in the crew. With Mama Rose’s shift in attention from focusing all on June to now only Louise, we see a transformation in the mother-daughter dynamic and equally importantly, Louise’s shift in her self-image and the ideals she both internalizes and reflects regarding femininity. 

Frankly, from the very beginning of the televised musical, I constantly found myself rooting for Louise to be recognized by Mama Rose and receive the same attention and love June did, perhaps because I identified with her as a fellow brunette and with being at odds with the long-time representation of blondes (and not brunettes) as the standard of western beauty ever since I was a kid. However, I have to admit I was sourly disappointed when Louise went down the road oh-so less travelled and chose the fate of becoming a stripper–all for the validation and love she never was able to receive from her own mother. It was quite tragic and hard-to-watch because before choosing this fate, Louise never considered herself to be beautiful and her own mother never even acknowledged her individually. Her sense of self and arguably her ego and even sense of arrogance by the time she has become a successful stripper at the end of the musical made me question if any of the old Louise, the Louise that was thoughtful, caring, and selfless, was left. By becoming a stripper, Louise essentially subjects herself to the standards of beauty prescribed by society i.e. she tries to fit the mold, and unfortunately, I think she lost a lot–maybe even all–of her initial quiet, boyish charm (and a lot of the brownie points she had from me at the beginning). It was frustrating to me as well because in the context of today’s viewers, Louise provides yet another example of a female character needing to be sexualized for approval and validation by society, which does not portray femininity in a progressive way but rather reduces women to objects of lust.

I think it’s also quite interesting what a side-by-side comparison of Louise and her mother Rose reveals about their relationship and also about representations of gender and sexuality furthered by this musical. For one, it’s a bit ironic that Rose has very few men in her life or, more accurately, refuses to let them into her life and leave her again, while Louise’s work involves being surrounded by and appeasing the sexual desires of men all around her. But if you think about it, both are actually alone and perhaps even feel lonely if not for each other even though they might not realize/admit it. For Rose, her daughter Louise gives her a sense of purpose and for Louise, her distinction as the best stripper out there gives her a sense of pride and confidence she never experienced before. Approval by others gives her purpose for maybe the first time in her life–I know, sad but true. Second, by the end of the musical, there is an interesting reversal of events: whereas Rose barely gave any heed to Louise in the beginning as she was regarded as non-essential for the act, by the end, Rose is hanging on to Louise, trying to do anything even as small as turning on the bath to make herself feel useful and needed by her daughter. 

My feelings are still quite mixed on how Mama Rose and Louise’s relationship went downhill. The sticky thing is Mama Rose is like a double-edged sword: she both makes and breaks the rules of femininity in that she’s headstrong, fiercely independent, and essentially a girl boss willing to risk it all for her daughters without any man’s help–even Herbie’s–but at the same time she is unable to break free from the repressive misogynistic ideals of the entertainment industry. In fact, I’m shaking my head as I write this, but Mama Rose was an accomplice–no, she was the one who got Louise into strip tease because she was so blinded by the idea of success. She sacrificed her own daughter just to live her own dreams through Louise, giving into her own morals, and in doing so, losing Herbie and all his previous respect for her. She perpetuates the regressive ideals of femininity forwarded by the show business to exploit her daughter’s youth and “fresh” sense of sophistication in a selfish way. Short-sighted by her greed to make Louise famous, Mama Rose goes head-to-head with Louise by the end of the musical, struggling to stay relevant to her daughter. She calls Louise names like a “circus freak” and “the burlesque queen who speaks lousy French” to poke at her daughter’s sense of pride and conscience. Louise retaliates by remarking, “Nobody laughs at me because I laugh first” and ordering her mother to “turn it off.” The two do end up reconciling after the conclusion of the number “Roses Turn” with Rose admitting to her selfishness in pushing her daughter and Louise reaffirming her desire to be noticed by Rose, albeit sloppily. I was rather unsatisfied with their reconciliation because it seemed to just gloss over and even lend approval to Louise’s stripper transformation and fame as a justification/substitute for Rose’s initially neglectful but eventually overpowering control over Louise’s life. It implies that it’s okay to run away from one toxic relationship and pursue sexual objectification as liberation. Ironic isn’t it? That to be “free” of the limits imposed by her mother and society championing the ideal of the blonde dame Louise has to be risque and her persona sexually charged. Furthermore, the musical does not hint at any of the lasting damages that could be caused by internalizing such harmful representations of femininity and having such a rocky mother-daughter relationship that could manifest much later down the road. I mean, for starters (and to be rather blunet), what will happen when Louise gets old and she falls out of favor of the stripper business and gets replaced? Will she, too, try to relive her glory days through her children as Rose did? 

Let’s briefly take it from the top and consider how these (damaging) ideas of femininity slowly worked their way into Louise’s mind and created cracks in her relationship with Rose, starting with the number “May We Entertain You?” featuring Louise as a kid alongside her superstar-sister June. During this number, which repeatedly gets played even as the sisters June and Louise have become much too old for a kiddie number, Louise largely blends in with the boy ensemble, even playing the role of a cow in one of the numbers, hidden away from the audience’s sight. Her style of dress is boyish, featuring her in brownish overalls and a newsboy cap, as she longingly looks at Tulsa, hoping to be recognized by her crush but gets friend-zoned by Tulsa, who’s absolutely clueless or just not into tomboys like Louise or both. (A quick emphasis needs to be made here again showing how Louise was not considered pretty by society’s standards, her mother’s standards, and even Tulsa’s standards until she started stripping, unfortunately revealing the exclusive standards of femininity to a binary between the innocent blonde dame and the sensual stripper.) However, when this same song is played in a much later number “Let Me Entertain You” in Act Two by the stripper-version of Louise (i.e. Gypsy), all eyes are on Louise and she is front and center. She is also wearing extravagant–not to mention promiscuous–ball gowns and fur coats and jewelry that show off her body shape, which is in stark contrast to the loose-fitting, dingy, and modest clothes she wore at the beginning of the show. (And now I’m remembering that this song gave me a major ear bug and left me triggered but unable to stop humming along even when I realized that the song sung by the kids and by stripper Gypsy Rose Lee were one and the same….) 

In closing, Gypsy illustrates how femininity as presented by Louise’s transformation from the quiet and charming girl-next-door to a stripper as well as by the change in the dynamic of Louise’s relationship with her mother both reflect how gender is shaped by culture and how the performance of gender goes well beyond physical features of beauty.