If Cinderella’s Shoe Fit, Why Did It Fall Off? and Other Questions About the Timeless Tale

By Natalie Stigall and Chloe Hodge

We sat down and had a discussion on Cinderella (1997). Focusing mainly on the casting, we talked a lot about the importance of the diversity in this production, how unfortunately normalized white-centered stories are, and how this is harmful. Though this cast was diverse, was the story and the world they were playing in? We examined this question; tune in below for our thoughts.

 
*Authors’ Note: We also had a discussion before this conversation started about how important it was to us both, as two white women, to not overshadow voices in discussions about race and the perspectives and stories of BIPOC, but how it’s also important for us to examine our privilege and help bring light to issues that need to be discussed and examined, particularly in the world of theatre, but in every aspect of life. At some points we felt uncomfortable talking about things that quite honestly we don’t entirely know how to talk about yet, but we think that’s the point.  Because even though we, Chloe and Natalie, sometimes pretend we know a lot (for example, we love analyzing Chekov like nobody’s business), we really know nothing at all.

Natalie: When you take a look at Disney princess stories in general, a large majority of them are white-centered, with only a few (such as Princess and the Frog) written specifically for representation of BIPOC characters and stories. Cinderella was not one of these, which seemed to make the decision for color-blind casting a bold move. What are your thoughts on how this relates to the storytelling of the piece and the reception of the casting? 

Chloe: I’ve got to give you a little background on my viewpoint before I answer this question. A few years ago, I read an article by Matt Dicinto about why “diversity encouraged” is not enough, and I’ve been a pretty firm believer in that since then. BIPOC people need stories written that are FOR THEM, not that they can just be stuck into, because the white story should not be the universal story, yet it is. On top of that, there is also an importance in these stories not being solely about BIPOC oppression or struggle; people should have normal stories of them just existing (like white people have gotten beaucoup of for forever). I think BIPOC people should be able to play whatever role they want, be it written for “diversity encouraged” and not explicitly stated that it’s written for a “white is the norm” type role, or be it a role written specifically as a BIPOC role, like Moana or Tiana, as you said, but the lack of roles written specifically as BIPOC roles is a major issue to me. This reminds me of Mimi Onuoha’s article we read during Miss Saigon week, “Why Broadway Won’t Document its Dramatic Race Problem” about how lots of times on Broadway, a production that may give actors of color a large amount of roles creates these parts as being “one-dimensional, stereotypical, or vestiges of a not-too-distant racial history.” That being said, I think the color-blind casting and the “diversity encouraged” mindset of the producers of this version of Cinderella was such a huge step forward for 1997 because it gave normal roles to people of color, and not just any roles, these were roles that were not one-dimensional, or if they were its just because the character was a one-dimensional character (see: stepsisters). Would a color-blind casting of Cinderella be enough in today’s world? Absolutely not. The entire storyline just wouldn’t be enough, the whole thing would need to be rewritten, maybe like a situation similar to The Wiz, specifically for BIPOC roles. But was it a start for 1997, and quite honestly, pretty amazing when situated in its time? Yes, I think so. Yes, BIPOC people were still having to play roles written for the “white norm” which should not be the “norm,” but they were finally being given space to be what white people have been able to be, no questions asked, for forever; princes and princesses, kings and queens.

So finally, with this production of Cinderella, we got people in roles that may not “normally” have been considered to be leading prince or princess material, like a Black Cinderella in Brandy and a Filipino Prince in Paolo Montalban. I, like some of the original producers, was appalled but not surprised that a few people at Disney were so opposed to having a Cinderella that was anything but white all the way up to the premier, but think that this group’s conscious decision to make this production inclusive was so forward thinking for the 1997 movie industry (sad that a step towards EQUALITY is forward thinking, right?), even if Disney may have eventually agreed on it just to gain Whitney Houston’s followers, and it opened a lot of doors for people. I do not think the color-blind casting had any affect on the storytelling of the piece; even at the parts that seemed to be “plot holes,” such as a BIPOC queen and a white king having a Filipino child or the prince not being able to rule out half the kingdom in his search for his mystery princess because the girl he danced with was not white; I think the producers from the article were right in that the story was so immersive and full that you’re so into it by this point you as an audience member don’t even think about these things as questions. The only way in which I think the color-blind casting changed this storyline was making it more accessible to more people; in this storytelling of Cinderella, BIPOC watching could look at this cast and see themselves in the characters on screen.

Chloe: Let’s talk about the plot of Cinderella. Being a Cinderella aficionado yourself, can you touch on this? Can you compare this purposefully racially and ethnically inclusive version of a story written with white people in mind to a story that was originally written for BIPOC?

Natalie: I think that the comparison is definitely an interesting one. When you look at productions such as the Wiz, which was written specifically to center and give creative agency to BIPOC performers, you see that Cinderella was not written or rewritten in any way to have this same effect. Robert Freedman talks about changing some words in “Stepsister’s Lament” to re-write  the white-centered lyrics such as “neck being white as a swan’s,” but says he did so almost in secret, without asking permission. There were also some executives at Disney that expressed backlash for having two strong, Black leads, wanting instead to market a “multicultural production” with a white Cinderella. The idea of having a Black Cinderella was certainly opposed by certain producers. If you look at it in the reverse, however, to instances such as Natalie Wood being cast in a non-white role in West Side Story and Jonathan Pryce as the Engineer in Miss Saigon, you have producers that were opposed to having a BIPOC in a role originally designed for them. I think this speaks to the larger problem of the huge lack of representation and systemic racism in the entertainment industry in general. In a more modern parallel, I remember reading about some of the backlash Disney received in its recent casting of the new live-action Little Mermaid. The casting, in my opinion, is immaculate (I mean, Halle Bailey and Daveed Diggs, like the talent in those two alone is astronomical). There were a lot of angry people on Twitter, however, that pushed back at the casting of Halle as Ariel because “her hair wasn’t red,” which is really just another way of saying they didn’t want Ariel to be Black. Frankly, I think this “reasoning” about these stories being “realistic,” particularly in regards to the fairy tale genre, is ridiculous. They’re fairy tales. If you can willingly believe that a pumpkin can turn into a carriage, and the mouse can turn into a horse to pull that carriage to get Cinderella to the ball, then why is it so hard to believe that the Filipino prince has parents that don’t match his race? If you want to talk about plot holes, let’s talk about how the slipper literally didn’t fit another single foot in the entire kingdom (like was Cindy the only size 6 in the entire kingdom?) or how the mice could sew. So to answer your question, while I think that these originally Eurocentric stories don’t do much to actively induce diversity in their writing, that doesn’t mean that these stories can’t be diverse and inclusive, and Brandy’s Cinderella proves this. This could mean that more of the task of giving that creative agency to BIPOC performers falls more on the performers and creative team themselves, but this is why change is so necessary. Especially since these Disney princess stories, many of which are Eurocentric and feature white characters, are such a big influence on little girls growing up, it’s so important to have representation so that girls from all backgrounds, races, and ethnicities can be inspired by someone that looks like them. I vaguely remember an old Disney channel commercial from when I was around seven or eight years old, about how “anyone can be a princess if they believe they are.” Well then, that’s it. Practice what you preach, Disney (@ the rest of the world too. Seriously, Ariel does not need to have red hair.) To digress just a little, on the topic of Disney marketing and live-actions, if you take a look at the 2015 Cinderella remake, you’ll immediately notice that the cast is not diverse at all. While I love a good Richard Madden moment *swoon*, the casting in terms of diversity and inclusion takes major steps back from where Brandy and Whitney’s version worked to make strides forward. Nobody really questioned it, however, at least not in the way the new Ariel is being questioned. This trend of it only being a big deal when there is diversity and inclusion in casting just speaks to how biased casting is the norm, and how this needs to change. 

Natalie: Let’s shift the conversation to dance, since who better to ask than a dancer like you? In Cinderella, we see a lot of waltzing as the dance of choice at the ball, which is a traditionally German/Austrian (aka Eurocentric) dance. How does this compare to the choreography and movement such as that of which we see in shows such as the Wiz? What about in comparison to the dancing in a show such as West Side Story? I’d love to hear your thoughts. 


Chloe: Ah yes, throwing it back to my dance days. You’re right, most of the choreography in Cinderella is either at the ball where the characters are doing some sort of waltz or ballroom dancing variant, or it’s in the streets with background dancers doing what I call Broadway style dancing; it really doesn’t fit into a normal category of dance for me like jazz, hip-hop, or ballet, it’s just Broadway-geared choreography. Both these styles of dance are very Eurocentric to me; they are sharp, concise movements, everyone does the same thing, there’s no point in the music where anyone is given a chance to improv or show any sort of individuality. In contrast, in choreography such as The Wiz, West Side Story, and even Fiddler on the Roof, the dancing is decidedly individualistic. It is full of movement and fun, it is full of life and passion. Each character, whether main or an ensemble member, has these moments of individuality in these more culturally-centered-and-embracing shows, such as snapping and breaking out in WSS, having an individual movement for each character in The Wiz, or having characters do the same thing for some pieces but then break off and have one member do something that stands out like in Fiddler. In my opinion, there’s almost no better way to express yourself than through dance, and I think you can really see the differences between this show written originally with white people in mind and the shows written originally with BIPOC in mind when comparing choreography between them.

Chloe: Just to wrap up our discussion on the casting of this production of Cinderella, do you want to speak on the production team’s role in this diverse cast?


Natalie: Yes. I think the production team’s willingness to fight so hard for such a diverse cast, especially when some of the people opposing them were big shot producers at Disney, is part of what made the 1997 Cinderella remake so successful. Craig Zadan emphasized quite clearly their commitment when making the film by saying that they “weren’t interested in a white Cinderella. Still aren’t!” This statement and their mentality from the get go is part of the reason for the casting: the production team went in with a backbone despite “nervous” (racist) Disney producers. I think this is an important detail to note, because so often people throw around the term color-blind casting without the commitment. So many instances creative teams have sworn by color-blind casting yet still ended up with white leads because let’s be honest: color-blind casting is sometimes just a blanket term for encouraging diversity without following through, or a performative phrase. This is why a lot of creative teams have now switched to pushing for color-conscious casting, or the deliberate decision to acknowledge color when casting and push for inclusivity and diversity in the casting process. Given this definition, I think we could even make an argument that some of the casting in Cinderella was color-conscious, as it was a deliberate push. Perhaps that’s what made it so successful.

I like to think the photographer said, “Now a serious one,” but Whitney obviously didn’t get the memo.

BONUS

Chloe’s Crushes: an article about her varying taste in men and how they perpetuate gender roles

By Chloe Hodge

While no man stacks up to my love Tommy Shelby of Netflix’s Peaky Blinders, two have come dangerously close recently, and they are none other than Davey Jacobs from Disney’s filmed version of Newsies (2017) directed by Brett Sullivan and a young Hugh Jackman as Curly from Oklahoma! directed by Trevor Nunn. Okay. What? These two fools are nothing alike. One wears assless chaps and the other a sweater vest—what’s going on here? Well I’ll tell ya. They’re both stereotypical manly men, which I occasionally fall prey to (see: Tommy Shelby). But if they’re so different, how do they both portray a stereotypical version of masculinity? Follow me down this dusty path (think Oregon trail type dirt road or a New York City back alley, your preference) and I’ll walk you through it.

Let’s examine how both Davey and Curly perpetuate the stereotype of masculinity first, I think that’s a great place to start. Both Davey and Curly make their respective entrances with a bang. Curly comes in singing, and Davey comes in basically fighting. (Not really, but he’s got some serious sass for him to clearly not know what he’s doing). Both entrances demand your attention; they create the immediate impression that these two men are going to stand out in their respective shows. Davey starts off as a hard-headed know-it-all. Curly? Well…same. Davey refuses help and claims he can figure out how to sell “papes” all by himself, while Curly does…whatever he’s doing. 

Hugh Jackman as Curly

Attempts to woo Laurey even though she’s said she’s not interested like 10 times already yet he refuses to back down? 

I don’t know. He supposedly has a job, but he always seems to be hovering around Aunt Eller’s house to me. 

I digress. Both men are VERY sure of themselves and their rightness. Davey has to mention multiple times throughout the play that he and his brother are only taking this job because their dad lost his job, so they’ve become the primary breadwinners. Stereotypical gender role? I think so. The masculine figure is supposed to bring in the money for their family, no matter if that masculine figure is only a teen and also babysitting his little brother? What are his parents doing? They better be on a job search. Curly, though he has literally nothing to his name except the clothes on his back and a lunch basket at one point, is just known to be the breadwinner in he and Laurey’s relationship, no questions asked. He was prepping to be the masculine-type breadwinner for his future family even before his wife liked him back.From the beginning  of the play, it was evident that he was saving up money working as a cowboy (see: assless chaps), but when poor Laurey finally gave into his pestering, he did note that he’d have to sell all his cowboy gear (he already sold it all to buy her lunch basket that had perishable items but was not in an icebox, but I guess he forgot this) to buy them stuff to settle down on a nice farm somewhere that he, of course, would tend to.

More traditionally masculine roles between these two, you ask? Say no more. 

Davey takes care of his younger brother, he is the protector in this relationship (very manly), while Curly is Laurey and Aunt Eller’s protector from weirdly perverted and very creepy Jud Fry, the farmhand. At one point Curly even takes his protective role on so hard that he attempts to talk Jud out of wanting to take Laurey to the barn dance by singing a song about how everyone would miss Jud and talk great about him if he were just dead…and follows that by pointing out that sturdy rope hanging from the ceiling. Like, come on Curly, that was just a little tone-deaf, even for a weirdo like Jud. 

Curly and Davey’s respective stereotypes of masculinity didn’t always have such nice parallels throughout the two musicals, like Davey’s traditionally masculine leadership position in his organizing and rallying together of the newspaper strike and Curly’s general respect in the community just for being a manly man, but their traditional masculinity stereotype parallels will converge one last time in this post in the form of their front and center dance numbers!!!

What’s a musical without shutting the hell up sometimes and just dancing??

Boring. That’s what.

And in these musical dance numbers, it is pretty traditionally masculine to be in the lead. Davey’s big dance break was in the tap number “King of New York,” where he took on a masculine leadership position among the other newsies by dancing in the middle of them with Katherine, but also kept his position as “one of the boys” by dancing alongside everyone else. Hugh’s, oops, I mean Curly’s dances were a few more in number, but my favorite example to watch was the dream ballet sequence, AKA a good fourth of the entire musical (really, why was that so long?) Curly comes in and immediately literally sweeps Laurey off her feet. He waltzes with her, leading of course, he spins her, he lifts her, he smiles that dreamy smile at her, he LEADS. Stereotypically masculine. Perpetuating gender roles. Curly leads, Laurey follows. Davey leads, the other newsies follow.

Okay, no sense in beating a dead horse. On to my next point, the breaking of these traditional gender roles through these characters! Whaatttt? Yeah, it needs to be addressed, my argument still holds, but these are good points as well.

Neither character does it frequently, but Curly only has one instance in which I felt like his actions or character didn’t just scream traditional masculine role at me through the TV, and that was near the beginning of the musical, before plot advancement, when he was clearly more interested in Laurey than she was him (or so it seemed). Stereotypically, the girl is the one who is crazy over the guy, and she has to convince him to settle for her (see: the beginning of Grease, Grace from Peaky Blinders, etc.) but Curly was putting his manliness aside for just a second to pine over a girl. 

Davey had a few more instances of breaking the stereotypical masculinity mold; first and most obviously, he stuck out in appearance like a sore thumb amongst the other newsies. While they had this rough, gritty, work-hard type manly appearance, Davey rolled up with a crossbody satchel and a nicely fitted, totally buttoned up plaid vest (I was wrong earlier, it wasn’t a sweater, but pretty close and equally as nerdy). 

Ben Fankhauser as Davey

 Not that this isn’t totally rockin’, not to mention very practical for his first day on the job, but traditionally, the masculine stereotype is the dirty hands, sleeves rolled up, not caring about appearance deal, so Davey’s matching fit threw him off from the rest of the group. Another aspect of Davey’s character that didn’t quite fit the traditional masculinity role is, admittedly, also an example I used for his perpetuation of the traditional masculinity role; taking care of his little brother. While it is traditionally masculine to be the protector of the family, it is not stereotypical of a masculine role to care for younger siblings or act as a babysitter of sorts. Taking care of younger children is usually a feminine role. Davey taking on this role and looking after his little brother breaks the stereotypical representation of masculinity the rest of his character portrays.

Alright. Now to wrap this bad boy up. I have reached my last point: I thought it would be interesting to address what masculinity was considered to be at the time of these musicals being written and see how that reflected in these two characters. Oklahoma! was written in 1942. For those of us who are not good with historical dates (personal callout) this was smack dab in the middle of World War II. How do we think this affected the portrayal of what was masculine and not? Well, the hardy, muscular soldier (you can just go ahead and translate this directly to that scene where Hugh Jackman comes out shirtless with suspenders on and knife in hand) definitely became sought after, but according to nationalww2museum.org (thanks Google!), there was another group who wanted to be sought after just as much. The men who did not get drafted into the war created their own home-made version of what masculinity is through the muscley laborer man (i.e., same thing, minus the uniform) who did all the work the women couldn’t do back home, so no matter if you were actively in the war or not, you were perpetuating the same masculine stereotype as the ideal figure. Personally, I think this can be seen almost exactly in what Curly was written to be. He is a hardworking, good ole American muscle man who takes care of his women. Newsies, on the other hand, was written in 2009. Although the Iraq War was going on at this time, the wartime era was definitely not as prevalent throughout the nation as it was in 1942. Maybe this was reflected in Davey’s character being a little less stereotypically masculine. Maybe this tiny difference was because gender roles in 2009, though heavily present still and very stereotyped, were not quite as in your face as they were in 1942. Who knows. Either way, it was interesting to look at.

Seriously, I’m wrapping things up now, I promise.In conclusion, both these guys, though written in different times and set in different times, perpetuate stereotypical masculine gender through their characters even though they seem to be nothing alike. Are there some slight variants from this at times? Yes. Does that cancel out the rest of the perpetuation? Nah. Are these characters a product of their time? Yeah probably. Does that make it okay? No. It’s annoying and a bit bland. Do I still think they’re cute? Yes. I do. But not as cute as Tommy Shelby, and that’s the real takeaway. Hope I didn’t bore you to death.

Tommy Shelby, supreme leader of the hot guys

Till next time