Disney is a mega media conglomerate that has been creating children entertainment since the companies first animation Steamboat Willie in 1928. Disney and its ideologies have evolved significantly since its inaugural year. Walt Disney understood that education wasn’t limited to being taught in school systems. Walt knew that popular culture had a strong role in the forming of youth minds and that he could use that to instill values to them. (Giroux 2010)
Disney has produced many children shows that hold a degree of educational value. As an African American cis-gendered male, Disney definitely had an impact on my childhood. The educational messages delivered are both intentionally and unintentionally by the conglomerate. These educational messages can be anything from the common ABC’s or what it takes to be a part of an exceptional social class and I will explore just how that is done.
I am going to be analyzing Disney’s motion picture Cinderella through a Marxist lens. The purpose of this essay is to apply a Marxist critique to Disney’s Cinderella, revealing the films portrayal of social class and other hegemonic elements. I will demonstrate each character’s relationship and how those relationships determine their social status as bourgeois or proletariat.
Cinderella’s mother passed away which left Cinderella and her father to live life with just the two of them. Lord Tremaine, Cinderella’s father, always treated Cinderella like she was royalty although they were a part of the working class. After some time goes by after passing of Cinderella’s mother, Lord Tremaine decided that he would like to remarry so Cinderella could have a mother in her life again. The new wife of Cinderella’s father seemed to be a kind widow with two daughters of her own named Anastasia and Drizella. Cinderella’s father passes away while Cinderella is still a young age and that is when her step mothers evil intentions came to light.
Cinderella’s step mother forces the orphan inside of their homes attic and ultimately make Cinderella the families servant. The step mother spends all of Cinderella’s father’s fortune on her two daughters Anastasia and Drizella while she is simultaneously neglecting the needs of Cinderella. Although she is not living an ideal lifestyle, Cinderella stays motivated by day dreaming of a better life that could be living someday. While doing the housework, Cinderella befriends several animals such as her dog Bruno, her horse Major, as well as some mice and birds. The step mother of Cinderella had a pet cat named Lucifer that was despised by all of the animals.
A scene comes about showing a very upset king for the reason being that his son Prince Charming has not found wed and had children yet. Since he has a major desire for grandchildren, the king orders his staff to set up a massive ball with the goal of finding his son a wife. The king invites every woman in the kingdom to really expand the prince’s options. Cinderella receives an invitation in the mail and is very ecstatic about the upcoming ball. Her step mother discovers the invitation and promises Cinderella that she can attend the ball with the condition that Cinderella finishes all of her chores and finds something nice to wear. This promise was made by the step mother because she knew that Cinderella would outshine her daughters Anastasia and Drizella.
Cinderella excitingly begins to modify an old dress that once belonged to her birth mother, but her work is constantly interrupted by her step mother and sisters demands. Their demands soon become overbearing which result in Cinderella having no time prepare herself for the ball. Luckily for Cinderella, her animal friends all come together and create a beautiful dress for Cinderella to wear to the ball. Jealousy sets in when Anastasia and Drizella realize Cinderella has repurposed some of their belongings which prompts them to rip the newly made dress to pieces. The step mother and sisters are picked up to head to the ball while Cinderella stays home weeping in sorrow.
While weeping, Cinderella is greeted by her fairy godmother who comforts her by saying that she will be attending the ball. The fairy godmother uses her magic saying to convert a pumpkin into a chariot, mice into horses, and Major and Bruno into her chauffeurs. The fairy gives Cinderella one rule being that she needs to leave the ball before midnight because that is when her spell is going to wear off. Cinderella finds herself dancing with Prince Charming when the clock strikes midnight and the spell begins to wear off. She quickly flees the castle while being chased by Prince Charming and his servants. Prince Charming fails to catch Cinderella before she gets away but did find her glass slipper that slipped off her foot while running.
The king ordered Prince Charming to marry whoever the mystery maiden is that the glass slipper belonged to. The king initiates a search party to go house to house to find the owner of said glass slipper. When the king’s workers arrive to Cinderella’s household, Cinderella is locked into the attic by her step mom to avoid being discovered as the slippers owner. The animals band together once again and free Cinderella from the locked room for her to come out just in time to place her glass slipper on and bring light to the fact that she is who they are looking for. Cinderella and Prince Charming get married soon after the discovery and live happily ever after.
The framework that I have selected to critique Cinderella with is with a Marxist lens. Marxist theory stems from studies done by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The duo of Marx and Engels studied social organizations until concluding that the history of society is built on the struggles between classes. Marxism is defined by Ott & Mack (2014) as “the mode of production in society (i.e. its underlying economic structure and practices) determines the social relations of production (i.e. its class structure)” (pg. 24).
Karl Marx believed that “historical materialism”, a notion that regards social life as being a reflection of the distribution of resources, the driving concept for Marxism. Marxism focusses on the ownership, production, distribution, and consumption that takes place in society. Each individual person’s social class and even identity are determined by one’s role in the line of production. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.4
The social consciousness that is obtained is then kept and used to engrain hegemonic ideologies into social institutions. Institutions that are influenced by these ideologies are law, education, media, family structures, and more. These institutions are all a part of what Marx referred to as the cultural superstructure. The cultural superstructure is a result of the Economic base. Per Ott & Mack (2014), the economic base is comprised of forces of production, natural resources, technology, labor, power, etc. (pg. 25).
Marx stood by the idea that a capitalist society is unfair because it divides people into two polar opposite classes. The first class being the proletariat class is composed of individuals who are the work to maintain their place in society. Bourgeois, the second class, is for those who rule and own the means of production in society. Bourgeoisie are seen to exploit lower classes in efforts to maximize the amount of the upper class earnings.
The movie Cinderella depicts many attributes related to Marxism. Although Cinderella is the main character in the movie, all of the characters play a part in their Marxist society. The role of Marxism in the film creates the characters self-awareness of their class position and other societal struggles. In the opening scene of Cinderella, the camera begins to show the extremely elegant castle that the royal family lives in. The camera then motions towards the small run-down homes of the working-class community. By showing this comparison of the two neighborhoods, the director is making it appoint to show the significance that class association plays in the film right off of the bat.
Marxism plays a significant role in the life of not only Cinderella, but the animals lives as well. Cinderella’s step mom makes it obvious that she favors her cat Lucifer over Bruno the dog. Lucifer is given privileges that the other animals could only imagine receiving. Lucifer is fed delicious food before any of the other animals are given only scraps to eat. Lucifer has his own luxurious bed to sleep in every night while Bruno on the other hand is stuck sleeping on an old mat. At one point in the movie, Cinderella was even demanded by her step mother to begin calling Lucifer “your majesty”. These are all examples of how the movie places Lucifer into the upper class. Cats and dogs are foes in real life, so using the two to depict proletariat and bourgeois is a perfect example.
Cinderella’s dog Bruno and the step mothers cat Lucifer show traits of Marxism in their relationship with each other and their treatment by others. In one particular scene, Cinderella is seen telling her dog Bruno that if he continues dreaming about chasing Lucifer the cat that he will wind up getting kicked outside to sleep every night. The idea that if Bruno doesn’t give up his dream and learn to like Lucifer, then there will be consequences to pay is an example of the social class rankings in the home of Cinderella. The proletariat must appreciate the bourgeois in order to achieve what they want in life. Lucifer clearly sits atop the animal’s social rankings making him apart of the bourgeois while Bruno the worker dog as well as the other animals join the proletariat. Bruno continuous dreams of him chasing Lucifer reflects Karl Marx’s (1969) claim that the history of mankind is built from never ending struggles.
Bruno chasing Lucifer in his dreams depicts the proletariat fighting to catch up to the bourgeois. Lucifer terrorizes Bruno and the other animals because he understands that he sits atop the social hierarchy. Lucifer antagonizes Bruno by brushing his tail across Bruno’s body and making Bruno want to take a bite out of him. Cinderella halts the teasing and Bruno does not end up biting Lucifer in the end. Lucifer’s actions show how bourgeois treat the proletariat however they want, but the proletariat are unable to retaliate against the bourgeois. This example places Lucifer in the bourgeois category because he has the power to control the actions of the other animals. All the other animals can be ranked as proletariat because they have to cooperate with the demands of the bourgeois to live a good lifestyle.
Cinderella insisted that Bruno learn to like Lucifer because it would benefit Bruno in the end by giving him privileges like the sleeping inside. Bruno argues Cinderella on that idea, but Cinderella does not back down from her point of view. This demand shows the false conscience engrained into Cinderella’s brain. Cinderella thinks that the only way to live a good life is if it is one similar to the bourgeois lifestyle, although she isn’t sure why she feels that way.
The depiction of the bourgeoise and the proletariat are also seen in the animated kingdoms political hierarchy. The working class all live in beat up homes that do not even compare to the castle. The king inhabits an enormous castle that is filled with luxuries. The castle is staffed with servants that wait on the king hand and foot while on the other hand the working class citizens struggle to make ends meet. This example is a direct representation of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat class differential in the film. The royal family live with an abundance of resources to use while the working class must fight tooth and nail just to get by.
In the film, the king informs his staff that he is unhappy about the fact that he is getting old and the prince has yet to find a wife to have children with. The king then thought of the idea to host a ball in hopes of the prince finding his future wife. The king eventually hosts the ball in his castle to which he requested the entire kingdom. The king’s ability to use his resources to host a ball that brought out the entire kingdom shows that he sat at the top of the kingdoms hierarchy, thus placing him in the bourgeois category.
The royal family in general holds an inflated economic status over those living below in the working class. This economic advantage is an example of hegemony. Hegemony is when one group has the power to dominate over other groups or in other words, bring out the entire kingdom by giving them hopes that they can join the family.
The hope given by king to all of the fantasizing women shows how proletariat admire the bourgeoisie. False conscience that has been embedded in the minds of the lower class is how this admiration is built. The proletariat live unsatisfying lives and could only dream of living the life full of happiness like the bourgeoisie. During the scene where Cinderella and Prince Charming were Waltzing at the ball, it is hard to look past Cinderella’s level of happiness. This depicts how the proletariat fantasize over living luxurious lifestyles similar to those a part of the bourgeois.
Disney has the ability to influence young malleable minds with the discourse that they decide to embed in their films. Cinderella is a classic film that has been watched by many generations and will continue to be watched by many to come. Some may not realize at first, but the films depiction of social class closely demonstrates Marxist ideologies.
These depictions are seen in Cinderella’s household with the conflict between each character’s classes. Cinderella is treated unequally by her step mother and sisters and which places here toward the bottom of their social hierarchy. Cinderella is depicted wearing torn up clothes and this represents the struggles that proletariat experience. Prince Charming is a handsome male who is a part of a dynasty of leaders. The pristine manner that he is placed in resembles the false conscious created that believes life of bourgeois is superior. Cinderella overall is loaded with elements of struggle and oppression due to social class.
- 4. K. Marx, Selected Writings, L.H. Simon (ed.) (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), 211.
- Ott, Brian L.; Mack, Robert L.. Critical Media Studies: An Introduction (p. 26). Wiley
- Giroux, Henry A.. The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence (Kindle Locations 422-423). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.