As a role model for our daughters, Disney’s Cinderella leaves something to be desired. It’s something I’ve thought for a while, but I was reminded of it this week when Dancing With Fireflies mentioned the need for strong female role models in YA fiction. Apparently, it isn’t much better in juvenile fiction, either.
To be fair, Cinderella isn’t all bad. With her kind heart and perseverance, the eponymous lead is miles ahead of the passive female characters in many stories, and the plot, with its heavily female cast, easily passes the Bechdel Test. When I first saw it in a movie theater at the age of eight, I enjoyed it. As an adult, though, it bothers me. Consider:
- Cinderella has a goal, but that goal is essentially to find and wed a wealthy man. This may have been acceptable in 1950 when the film was first released, but it lacks something in this century.
- The prince Cinderella wins as her prize is so two-dimensional he’s a virtual MacGuffin, a rich man with a title who can dance. Yes, there’s a solid foundation for marriage!
- The only memorable male characters in the whole plot are Jacques and Gus, the mice who provide comic relief through their foolishness. Cinderella patronizes them for the whole film, and when they want to help the other mice provide their heroine with the fancy dress she needs so badly, the other mice shoo them away. “Leave the sewing to the women. You go get the trimming. And we’ll make a lovely dress for Cinderelly.” Who’s we, anyway?
This may seem like a rather androcentric set of complaints to be making about a film primarily marketed at girls, but consider: how would you feel about a film for boys where the only female characters are the helpless princess, who needs to be rescued, and a pair of incompetent ditzes?
Enter Cinder, the 2012 novel by Marissa Meyer based on this same fairy tale. I loved reading this book when it first came out, and I still do. Meyer’s Linh Cinder is to me the epitome of a well-written strong female lead:
- as a cyborg, Cinder suffers from discrimination, but still does what’s right, even at significant personal risk.
- as an ace mechanic, Cinder demonstrates competence in a field that is stereotypically male.
- Cinder loves her prince not because of his appearance or title, but because she knows him, and knows he’s a genuinely good man.
- Cinder is motivated not simply by love, but by the desire to save her country — and by extension, the world — from domination by the evil lunar queen.
Along the way, we have three-dimensional secondary characters, both male and female: the cruel stepmother, the greedy stepsister Adri, the naive stepsister Peony, and the mysterious Doctor Erland, each with distinctive personalities and motives. Comic relief is provided through the android Iko, whose penchant for excessive emotion is described as a “programming defect.” And even Iko provides help in ways no one else can.
As Cinder’s story continues in the follow-on novels Scarlet and Cress, we learn that Cinder isn’t merely a good person — she’s also a great leader. She isn’t perfect — Cinder is constantly afraid of becoming just like the people she fears most — but she’s a legitimate action hero, and I think, a good role model.