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.