Disney's live-action version of Cinderella opened over the weekend, making a whopping $70 million at the box office, according to Deadline. This, despite the fact that this most recent version — starring Lily James, Cate Blanchett and Helena Bonham Carter — hasn't evolved very much since the animated version was released in 1950. Today's Cinderella is white and blonde just like she was back then.
According to Variety, Disney's strategy of remaking animated classics as live-action films is paying off, since the live-action versions of Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent also raked in cash. The studio is already plotting live-action versions of Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo and The Jungle Book.
Rebooting fairy tales is nothing new. But 2015's Cinderella feels downright regressive when you consider the 1997 Disney channel version starring Brandy, Whoopi Goldberg and Whitney Houston. Though it was released eighteen years ago, that film's multiracial cast — a black princess, a Filipino prince with a black mom and white dad — more closely resembles today's American movie-going audience than the Cinderella released this weekend. That's right: something made in the '90s feels more modern than something made last year.
To be clear: In the universe of Kenneth Branaugh's 2015 Cinderella, there are people of color. In an early scene, we see a brown-skinned maid and a black card dealer; in a market, there are shoppers of many races.
About 30 minutes in, we meet a black man in an actual speaking role. His character's name is Captain and he works for — and is friends with — the prince. There are some other people of color working in the castle; and when the prince gives a party, many international guests, of many different races, attend. The prince is set up with a princess played by a Latina actress, although — spoiler alert! — he's more interested in another young lady.
But the heroine of the story, the one whose face is on all the billboards seen around the world, the one whose beauty and spirit entrances royalty, the one who gets to be the star of the show, is white and blonde. She embodies the continued perpetuation of a Eurocentric beauty standard.
Cinderella opened in many countries around the world, doing big business in Indonesia, Thailand, Italy, Russia and Mexico. As Deadline reports, the flick had the biggest March opening and the top Disney Live Action production debut ever in China. You could argue that we're not just exporting a movie, but aspirational fantasies for little girls around the globe. Little girls who perhaps are being taught to long not only for the blue floofy dress but also for the ivory skin and long golden locks. Let's not forget that most of the globe is not white — and natural blonde is one of the rarest hair colors an adult can have. So why is the new Cinderella blonde? Why go with the traditional, unattainable vision? Why not mix it up? As a study detailed in The Hollywood Reporter found, diverse casts mean better ratings and bigger box offices.
The story of Cinderella has been told over and over again, in many different ways, in many different cultures, and Cinderella being white and blonde is not integral to the plot. One of the oldest versions of Cinderella — Ye Xian — comes out of China and was published in the 9th century, about a thousand years before the European story. (An animated version of that tale, titled Ye-Shen, aired on CBS in the 1980s.) Obviously the Disney version draws from the European tale. But the story is a fantasy — full of magic, transforming animals, midnight deadlines, and a girl who marries someone she's only met twice. The 1997 made-for-TV film more fully embraced the freedom that comes with fantasy, using actors from many different ethnic backgrounds. Even though it's almost twenty years old, the 1997 Cinderella still has plenty of fans, who post gifs and images on Tumblr. The multiracial cast made a huge impact. As one YouTube commenter put it: "A princess that looks like me, thats the coolest thing to see as a young black girl."
In the 2015 film, the prince tells Ella that he and his buddies are hunting stag because it's what is done; she argues that just because it's always been done a certain way doesn't mean it can't change. A statement that sounds like it's in full support of a non-blonde Cinderella. In addition, the narrator of the film — Ella's fairy Godmother — makes a point of saying that Ella sees the world not as it is, but as it could be. Surely in 2015 there could be a Cinderella who's African-American, Mexican or Chinese? As Whitney Houston sang: It's possible.