Gender Roles in Film

According to Siann, “Sex is defined as the biological differences between males and females and gender is the manner in which culture defines and constrains these differences.”(Siann, 1994:4) We understand gender roles within a particular country through their adaptation to their cultural and social history.

Gender role theory emphasizes environmental backgrounds and the impact of socialization, or the process of conveying the idea of norms, beliefs, values and behaviours from individuals to groups. The division of labour is able to indicate the contrast of gender, social behaviour in our societies which has changed over a long period of time.

Similarly, Zipes notes that “In each historical epoch (fairy tales) were generally transformed by the narrator and audience in an active manner through improvisation and interchange to produce a version which would relate to the social conditions of the time” (Zipes, 1975:125).

Cinderella, in its numerous personifications, not only represents the aims of the composer and his audience, but is shaped by and forms the social and cultural ideas of its era. This essay examines the historic and social elements of life during the 1950s and present with a close analysis of Cinderella (1950) directed by Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske and Wilfred Jackson and A Cinderella Story (2004) directed by Mark Rosman.

A significant case which took place in 1950 was the passing of Walt Disney’s 12th animated film, Cinderella in Hollywood. Cinderella is one of the most well-known stories around the world. This story appears in the folklore of many cultures. There are almost an astonishing 1500 different versions of this story in the world today.

The story is based around a kind-hearted young lady (the heroine), who struggles at the hands of her step-family after the death of her mother. The heroine has a magical guardian who comforts her conquest over her cruel family and obtain her greatest wish by the resolution of the tale. The guardian is sometimes a representative of the heroine’s dead mother. In most tales she is referred to as the ‘Fairy Godmother’.

Most of the tales include a magical event sparked by an item of clothing (commonly known as the glass slipper) that causes the protagonist to be accepted for her true worth. During this 1950 period, the man (or husband) was employed outside of the home. He was the sole employee. His job was to provide for the family and to care of them financially.

Whereas, the woman’s role was to stay at home, do the housework and cooking, while attending to the children. She was not expected to be employed, but to remain home as an alternative, regardless of any educational personal history that she may have had. Her status was to keep up with the comforts of home. In the incident of discipline, the father was the one to deal with the children, during which the mother agreed with his decision.

Filmmakers have taken this historical context into account and “the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form” (Mulvey, 1989:111) as the father was the leader of the home, the mother’s primary decisions included what to prepare for dinner, how to host a party, and how to dress the children for school. Often, the mother was a member of the PTA (Parent Teacher Association). The tradition stood in a place that the children would idolise their father and obey the rules.

Although, taking Lacan (1992) into consideration, with many films like Cinderella, a different perspective is shown as the imaginary was thought of where the illusion of wholeness and flawlessness is the ideal ego that we aspire towards. This identifies the idea that dreams have always been a main principal in people’s lives; just like Cinderella as she struggles, she puts this aside and thinks of a more optimistic world to live in.   

On a daily basis, Cinderella was unprotected to the unkind words and mistreatment of her stepfamily. Her dreams were the only thing that’s keeping her motivated. Likewise, A Cinderella story follows the same living circumstance with the “evil stepmother” and having bigger aspirations in life. High school senior, Sam Montgomery (played by Hilary Duff), lives with the duties her stepmother, Fiona who is so fixated with herself.

Along with Fiona are Sam’s wicked stepsisters who give her the admiration of a servant rather than a family member. Sam is determined to attend Princeton, where she discovers her lifeless routine and becomes to feel complicated as she meets her “prince charming” online.

In spite of this, once her anonymous cyber prince charming is revealed to be her high school’s popular quarterback Austin Ames, Sam makes a rush back to reality. At the ball, she leaves her cell phone behind just before the clock strikes midnight. We see that Sam eventually books up her courage to reveal her true identity as her chance at “happily ever after” depends on it.

Cinderella’s character in Cinderella and A Cinderella Story share a similar appearance, although the features are more distinctive in Cinderella as she conforms to the classical figure of a gorgeous young woman with beautiful features. She is of average height with soft skin and has a friendly face. Her lips are pink, and her eyes a sparkling blue. Cinderella’s hair is a strawberry-blonde (golden blonde in her childhood) and medium-length.

Other than her stunning dress codes at the ball, she was seen in a maid’s outfit which is dark brown with long, light teal sleeves and a brown, knee-length skirt. The colour brown is often associated with quality, for example, a comfortable home. It is a colour of material comfort and artlessness.

Also, from a negative perception it can give the impression of cheapness in certain conditions. This connotes a woman of dullness and indigence as her status in society isn’t high or recognized by her true beauty. In contrast, her first ball gown was a frilly, sleeveless, pink-and-white dress with pink ribbons and a sash with beads around her neck just before her wicked stepsisters forcefully ruined it. This braces Cinderella with a role of a strong feminine character of elegance and gentleness in society.

Complementary to this, Caviness reveals that religious examples of Eve and the Virgin Mary remind us that “women had special power to destroy or save others.” (Caviness, 2001:2) Sam refuses to work at the diner and reveals what she has discovered about her dad’s inheritance. Without sex, Cinderella’s character uses her independence to show that not all women have to flaunt themselves at a man, also that standing up to others can save herself and destroy others.

Meanwhile, at the ball, Cinderella appears in a glistening silver ball gown with a low-cut neckline and white peplum sleeves, and her glass slippers where her toes are topped with sparkly hearts. Her hair is pulled up into a variation of a French twist that is complimented with a light silver band over it. She wears a simple black necklace around and long evening gloves, which cover most of her arm. As this is Cinderella’s perfect moment of independence the white illustrates her goodness, innocence, virginity, and purity.

Correspondingly, with A Cinderella Story, Sam conforms to the classical Cinderella figure as she wears a peach apron and she usually has her hair up in a ponytail during work. At her homecoming dance, Rhonda (who is like the fairy godmother figure) gave her a beautiful white bridal dress made up of lace and a mask to signify her purity and goodness of status in society.

However, Sam also deviates from the conventional Cinderella as on several occasions such as the basketball game, she wears a blue tank top which is less feminine with blue jeans and a burgundy jacket. As A Cinderella Story is a more contemporary version, Sam shows more confidence for women in society at the same time as the tops show her belly a little.

Additionally, she is happy with her body and isn’t a woman who plays the role of the self-conscious female. Her feminine looks come into play more towards the end of the film where she is seen wearing a pink top, jacket and pants which plays a huge role of “girly” teenagers today.

As Cinderella is resourceful, made clear by her using her mother’s old fashioned dress and visualizing a beautiful ball gown, sewing clothes for the mice, and planning to redesign her mother’s dress to make it more up-to-date. Moreover, she is rather clumsy as she drops her footwear many times in the original movie.

Equally, Sam in A Cinderella Story falls over as she has to work at the diner with roller skates on along with some stepsister brawls demonstrating clumsiness within her working role. Both Cinderella and Sam just want escapism from their evil step mother and step sisters, their gender roles share a mutual aim.

Together, Disney’s Cinderella and A Cinderella Story, connote the stepsisters as “ugly” and a role which has been present since the 1950s until present is that the stepmother will always favour her biological children; therefore they attempt to stop Cinderella and Sam from going to the ball and homecoming.

Unlike the Grimm version where the mother was threatened by Cinderella’s superior birth, it is Cinderella’s superior in the Disney’s version that poses a threat to her “ugly” stepsisters. Beauty allows the romantic attachment and acceptance into higher statuses of society.

Just like A Cinderella Story, Sam has been humiliated by the girls of her school as they perform a play of her and Austin’s love. Sam walks away but Austin realises who a real woman is and how much more she is worth in comparison to the fake girls who want Austin’s attention for his looks and not his personality. This massively defends Inness’ point that “Even as popular culture produced powerfully normative images of women, it is also depicted uncertainties about domestic ideology and gender roles.” (Inness, 2001:104)

Nowadays, more women are independent and stand up for themselves and aren’t always the typical “dumb blondes” or play the role of “women in the kitchen”. Media have enriched the notion that men are more logical, therefore, better scientists than women, so less women go into scientific fields.

As with A Cinderella Story, we see that employment has risen for women since the 1950s and both men and women have equal rights to an education and employment outside of the home. Comparable to Sam, she seeks for an education at Princeton to show that women can get somewhere in the world.

In Cinderella and A Cinderella Story, we see the men represented in both films are much wealthier than women where women have less status and class. During the 1950s, post war fortune had afforded middle-class white women a life of comfort previously unforeseen by their mother and grandmothers.

Both the fairy godmother and Rhonda guide their Cinderella characters and they know what ambitions they aspire to and believe there are able to dominate them. With Walt Disney, we see Cinderella as a young woman who clean which was considered as a person who was poor in the past; however, we can take a different perspective that if you are a pretty, young girl then you have everything going for you.

Cinderella conveys the message that a woman is more concerned about a man’s social status and material fortune, than a man does about a woman’s status or fortune. If a woman is of a lower class social status, but beautiful, there is a likely possibility of getting married or getting a man. Other than relating to the 1950s era, in A Cinderella Story, the message is still apparent in the 21st century. If a woman is wealthy, but ugly, like Cinderella’s step-sisters, then they’ll have to settle for whoever they can get.

All fairy tales and romance novels revolve around a young girl’s interest in a man who makes a major difference in the world and who is sought after by many other women. Austin has a father will a wealthy job who is willing to make him so far in the world, in contrast, Sam has to earn for herself in her step mother’s diner and obeys to every demand, until she hits reality. There is a tendency in Cinderella films, for her figure to be a woman who looks up to the ‘dream man’. Cinderella admires his looks and high status of popularity in society or school.

Then again, Silverman implies that “it is no longer tenable to align men on one side of the power line and women on the other.” (Silverman, 2006:106) There are elements of truth in this as, the ‘Prince Charming’ always finds his way towards Cinderella, even when they are aware of her true background and everyday life. Not only does he admire her true beauty, but he accepts her for simply being her. From the beginning of the film, we always know that they belong together.

Additionally, with A Cinderella Story, both Austin and Sam receive acceptance letters into their chosen university which conveys a message that men and women have equal chances to further their education and either’s intelligence is higher than other’s regardless of their upbringing and social status. Disney’s Cinderella, has a dominant focus on popular culture as everyone wants the beautiful blonde hair, gorgeous dresses and to be admired by such a charming, handsome man.

Commencing from an early age, mainstream media places images in our brains, informing us what is appropriate for our gender type. Young girls are obsessed with images of princesses, who enlighten them that the solution to happiness is being stylish, beautiful, and discovering a prince who will rescue you. In both versions of Cinderella this is very obviousas Cinderella is saved not only from the Disney version in the castle but from reality and weakness of social status.

Furthermore, it was considered that young men were taught that to be successful, you must be handsome and have a well-developed physique. In both versions of Cinderella, we are reminded that women shouldn’t desire for anything, least so to rise above their social rank. Typically, the ugly sisters belong to a high social class (A Cinderella Story has the money from Sam’s passed away father inheritance to present this; although, she becomes to realise that it all belongs to her) Cinderella is treated like their slave, while she cleans, takes orders and balancing home life with life outside the home.

Also, the ‘ugly’ sisters aren’t as intelligent or attractive, so their aspiration to have a man is even higher than Cinderella herself. They show jealous facial expressions at the ball of her attractiveness and attention from the ideal ‘Price Charming’ and try to destroy every chance that she has with him.

Nowadays, in society, there is immense pressure from all regions to conform to a certain ideal of beauty; we are overwhelmed with all kinds of images and media forms telling us who to be and what to look like in order to live the ‘fairy tale’ life. These concentrations can turn out to be so overwhelming, that many people will go to extreme lengths to transform something about themselves.

Orenstein (2006) has a problem with the amount of princess imagery around us all. She writes that you cannot go anywhere today without someone bringing up the idea of a princess, especially if you have a young daughter. The author opens her article by recalling a time that her daughter was called “princess” by a waitress, who brought her “princess pancakes” and tried to guess “the princesses’ favourite colour.”

The author goes on to ask the reasonable questions, “Does every little girl have to be a princess?” Why is it essential for young girls to be feminine, wearing pink, and playing with dolls?

And of course, the question remains if our society still embraces these feminine stereotypes and roles that were more common when our grandparents were growing up? (Orenstein, 2006:1-7)

It is no wonder that there is such a huge obsession as the princesses like Cinderella are possibly the most popular Disney characters besides Mickey and Minnie Mouse. They are directly identifiable to us in terms of their name, story, story, relationships, and dress and so on.

Once we start looking closer though, we observe certain resemblances between the princesses in terms of attitudes and physical types. Towbin presents these four conventional qualities to female Disney characters: “(a) A woman’s appearance is valued more than her intellect, (b) Women are helpless and in need of protection, (c) Women are domestic and are likely to marry, and (d) Overweight women are ugly, unpleasant, and unmarried (14).” (Towbin, 2004:28)

It is perceptible that Cinderella and A Cinderella Story have quite a different ending, conversely in reality, they point in the same direction. They end with viewers noting what features make up the ‘ideal woman’.

All aspects considered, it is obvious that gender roles have transformed since older eras, especially female ones. This essay has discovered that female roles have more involvement with employment, freedom outside of the home and independence. With the analysis of Cinderella and A Cinderella Story it is evident that elements of gender role theory such as the process of conveying the idea of norms, beliefs, values and behaviours from individuals to groups.

The division of social class is able to indicate the contrast of gender. Just as Erens justifies, “politically motivated filmmakers will intend to generate certain ‘politically correct’ interpretations of their films.” (Erens, 1990:104) Filmmakers create an environment where, the lower class females always have more strength than the higher class males, just like Cinderella and Sam as they find their ‘happy ending’ through being their real selves. Notably, with modern times, the evolving of Cinderella demonstrates that it now politically correct for women to have the same equalities as men.

Even if a woman isn’t the perfect ‘Cinderella’ figure, she should always maintain a strong persona, rather than the men coming across as the powerful ones. This essay has also found out that stepfamilies are stereotypically evil and there is always a woman who is the perfect mother figure (specifically, Rhonda with her guidance to get Sam to the homecoming dance and gain more confidence) combined with, a fairy godmother who guides Cinderella to the ball.

Females have overcome the authority from men that comes along with tradition in a way that they must obey them and their evil step parents. Cinderella has always been a beautiful, young woman, however, A Cinderella Story clearly challenges this stereotype as Sam wears different clothes like her blue tank top and burgundy jacket.

The story behind Cinderella will always be the same relating to political and historical context, on the other hand, gender roles are evolving more and more which leads to extra differences than similarities between the two.


Caviness, M.H. 2001. Visualizing Women in the Middle Ages: Sight, Spectacle, and Scopic Economy.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

Chaudhuri, S. 2006. Feminist film theorists. London: Routledge.

Erens, P. 1990. Issues in feminist film criticism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Inness, S. A. 2001. Kitchen culture in America: Popular Representations of Food, Gender, and Race. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Lacan, J. and Miller, J. 1992. The ethics of psychoanalysis 1959-1960: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. London: Tavistock/Routledge

Mulvey, L. 1989. Visual pleasure and narrative cinema. Pp.14-26, Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Orenstein, P. 2006. What’s Wrong with Cinderella? The New York Times, 24th December, pp. 1-7 
Siann, G. 1994. Gender, sex, and sexuality. London [England]: Taylor & Francis.
Towbin, M. 2004. Images of Gender, Race, Age, and Sexual Orientation in Disney Feature-Length Animated Films. 2014. Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, 15 (4), pp. 19-44. Available from: [Accessed: 4th Mar 2014].

Zipes, J. 1975. Breaking the Magic Spell: Politics and the Fairy Tale. New German Critique, (6), pp. 116-135. Available from: [Accessed: 27th Feb 2014].  


A Cinderella Story, 2004 [Film] Directed by Mark Rosman. United States: Warner Bros. Pictures

Cinderella, 1950 [Film] Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske and Wilfred Jackson. United States: Walt Disney Productions

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