Cinderella’s corset impaired her organ function: What ‘feminist twist’ will Disney bring this time?

Following in the footsteps of box-office smash, Maleficent, Disney has adapted yet another one of its animated classics with the soon to-be-released Cinderella. But just because it’s live-action, hasn’t stopped Disney from forcing actress Lily James’ body into a cartoonishly unrealistic feminine silhouette.

The creepy similarity of Cinderella’s physique to her CGI Princess counterparts caused rumors that her waist had been “digitally shrunk” in post-production, but in a recent interview with E!, James refuted the idea. The actress said her tiny waist was just the work of a damn-tight corset, as in organ-deforming tight. So tight that James had to eat a liquid diet on days she was filming in it, because her digestive organs were unable to function. She explains:

When [the corset] was on we would be on continuous days, so we wouldn’t stop for lunch or a lovely tea like this. You’d be sort of eating on the move. In that case, I couldn’t untie the corset. If you ate food it didn’t really digest properly, and I’d be burping all afternoon in [Richard Madden’s] face, and it was just really sort of unpleasant. I’d have soup so that I could still eat but it wouldn’t get stuck.

So, that’s that. It turns out it isn’t some insidious new photoshopping technology distorting our reality and creating an inhuman beauty ideal for little girls to aspire to in utter futility — it’s just an old insidious technology, accomplished at the expense of the actress’ bodily well being. How comforting.

The official US trailer of the film features Cinderella’s wicked stepmother saying, “Wouldn’t you prefer to eat when all the work is done, Ella?” Interestingly, that’s exactly what Disney did to the actress. Ensured she couldn’t eat until she finished her work filming… Disney is the wicked stepmother.

But seriously, this new Princess flick has me wondering: What “feminist subversion” of Disney fairytale conventions will they throw in this time? Will she be the one to save the prince somehow, instead of him saving her? Girl power!

Kenneth Branagh directed, so I’d have thought this version might be interesting, but based on the trailer, it just looks blaaaand — sanitized and boring. (Although it is hilarious to see Rob Stark, the blood-thirsty, battle-worn Game of Thrones character, all Disneyfied into a squeaky clean prince with glaringly white teeth. Also, is that the black guy from Qarth fencing with the prince in trailer number two? What? Xaro Xhoan Daxos is chilling with Rob Stark — Branagh obviously just wanted to make Game of Thrones fan-fiction.) Other than that, I’m yawwwning.

It almost looks like they’re just telling the same exact story as the 1950 animated version. But that can’t be right. Disney is all about snarkily showing how self-aware and smarter than itself it is, lately. It has to pull something “feminist.”

Frozen got feminist cred when the true love needed to break the spell wasn’t heterosexual love from a man, but love between sisters. Similarly, Maleficent broke Sleepy Beauty’s spell when the two women shared “true love’s kiss.” But no, not in an awesome lesbian way, just, again, a familial way in the form of Maleficent’s motherly love for Sleeping Beauty. But the story of Cinderella totally lacks the ability to perform even this tepid type of subversion. Why?

Because, truly, the most anti-feminist aspect of Cinderella isn’t the fact that a Prince sweeps her off her feet and marries her after meeting for five minutes and seeing how physically attractive she is. That’s pretty bad, yes, but the worst thing about Cinderella is that, at it’s heart, it is a tale of women-against-women.

Cinderella’s shitty predicament, toiling away in the home, isn’t attributed to the male-dominated world in which she can’t go out and get a job to make a better life for herself. It’s attributed to her bitch stepmother holding her down and going against the wishes of the patriarch of the family, Cinderella’s loving father. It’s a story of women competing with each other for a man’s sexual attention. The impact of Cinderella’s story arc doesn’t derive from the happiness of her marrying the man of her dreams; it comes from winning against her evil stepsisters. Cinderella overcomes her adversity not by getting just any old man to take her away, but by getting the man she was specifically competing for against her stepsisters. She won because she had cute, dainty feet that were smaller than her sisters’! In their faces!

While I look forward to finding out what this adaptation offers that makes it stand out from the original version, I don’t see how it can plot-twist its way out of the anti-feminist women-against-women message at its core.

Susan Cox An American expatriate who fled to the wonderland of Canada, Susan Cox spends most of her time writing, reading, and cooking. Follow her @BLASFEMMEY.

Susan Cox
Susan Cox

Susan Cox is a feminist writer and academic living in the United States. She teaches in Philosophy.

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  • jo

    Gross. I don’t understand why we need another Cinderella movie. This looks regressive and worse than the pretty good “Ever After”.

    • yeah, that one at least had the whole fun Renaissance-era thing going on.

  • I read about The Corset in the LATimes (where the tone was all hee-hee-how-funny-and-cute) and had the same reaction. Wait, what? Unrealistic expectations caused by physically abusing a woman’s body are way better than unrealistic expectations caused by digital fiddling? Are you people serious?

    I missed the bit about burping though. That leads me to wonder whether in Ye Olde Days, when plenty of women were cinched down like that, they were all quietly burping to themselves. I’m getting this curious image of French court life with the bewigged and wasp-waisted ladies clutching their aromatic pomanders against body odor and burping.

    • Mar Iguana

      “That leads me to wonder whether in Ye Olde Days, when plenty of women were cinched down like that, they were all quietly burping to themselves.”

      Yes, they got the vapors. Unfortunately, quietly burping was the least of the problems caused by the waist and mind binding Victorian women:

      “A wide variety of symptoms were lumped under ‘the vapors,’ including anxiety, depression, bloating, fainting, loss of appetite, tremors, digestive issues, and behavioral problems. In an era where women were expected to adhere to very strict rules of behavior, free-spirited women like suffragettes were often diagnosed with this condition. The treatment most generally prescribed was rest, sometimes with the judicious application of smelling salts to revive swooning women.

      “At the time, medical professionals claimed that as much as a quarter of the female population was afflicted with the vapors. Given the wide variety of conditions that could be encompassed by this umbrella term, this is perhaps not surprising, especially since women who thought for themselves were often assumed to be suffering from this problem. Some Victorian women undoubtedly did have legitimate medical complaints that were left untreated, such as cancers, depression, underlying infections, and conditions caused by lacing corsets too tightly.”

      http://www.wisegeek.org/what-were-the-vapors.htm

      • catperson

        Yes, and in the crinoline era this dress is imitating, corsets were shorter and didn’t need to be terribly tight, because the vast skirts made the waist look smaller anyway. It was from the 1870s or so that tight lacing became really nasty, especially when the very slim line, fish-tail dresses were in during (iirc) the 1880s.

    • lettie

      Not in the bewigged french court of the 18th century. 18th century stays gave gowns the conical structure which was fashionable at the time, which is different from the hourglass look achieved by very tight corseting. They weren’t incredibly cinched, and were not necessarily uncomfortable to wear (relatively speaking). Tight-lacing only became fashionable much, much later. Which says a lot, I think, because the victorian era had a fascination for everything morbid, and in many ways women were worse off during that time than in the preceding centuries and this is reflected in the fashion.

  • Hatto

    The actress said her tiny waist was just the work of a damn-tight corset, as in organ-deforming tight. So tight that James had to eat a liquid diet on days she was filming in it, because her digestive organs were unable to function.

    I bet animals used in filming this movie weren’t starved and hurt. After all, our society takes animal abuse seriously. So advanced, aren’t we.

    • Right. Of course it takes animal abuse seriously. I mean, all those actresses and actors are vegan. And all the film crew. And the entire audience.

      Much as I would like to see Cinderella, or any other Disney type princess, with a more realistic waist (or maybe even a plump heroine), Lily James agreed to this and wasn’t harmed.

      • Meghan Murphy

        I don’t really think the point is whether or not she ‘agreed’… I mean, simply because a person consents doesn’t mean a thing is necessarily harmless…

        • C.K. Egbert

          She obviously was harmed if she couldn’t eat solid food for several days because her organs were so squashed that her body could no longer digest properly. Really, what does count as “harm”? That she didn’t die? That they didn’t hold a gun to her head while strapping the corset on?

          When people say that women “aren’t harmed” they really mean “harm that occurs to women doesn’t matter.”

          • Meghan Murphy

            Exactly.

          • I think that the BDSM community’s definition of harm is “bodily damage that the person did not consent too”, so according to the BDSM community’s logic, if a person consents to harm they are not being harmed. I reminded of how participants in the Milgram experiment were told that the shocks they administered were “painful, but not harmful”, as if that meant something. Pain is our bodies’ way of telling us we’re being harmed, so I find the “painful, but not harmful” statement rather questionable.

            I have also heard them argue that a “safe” sex act is one in which those involved know the risks. I am pretty sure that the general public’s definition of “safe” is “that which is very unlikely to cause physical or emotional harm”, so for them to call what they do safe is extremely misleading.

          • Zoe Nesin

            Close. There is a difference between “hurt” and “harm” that the kink community relies on and I think it’s applicable here too. Hurt is a response to a sensation and creates no lasting damage. Harm is the causation of lasting damage or impairment in addition to eliciting a sensory response. The actress in the corset was definitely hurt (caused discomfort), but not harmed (no lasting damage). Once the corset was off, her organs resumed their function as usual. All of this obviously relies on the consent of the recipient. In risk aware consensual kink, harm is never the goal.
            I think tight lacing a corset on someone who is going to be a role model for very young girls is crazily irresponsible and unethical, but probably not a whole lot more uncomfortable for the actress than any number of other things actors do or dress in for our enjoyment. Especially in movies where an actor wears a lot of make up or prosthetics there are often major health concerns (hyper- or hypothermia, allergic reactions, difficulties with costume contact lenses, etc.). The fact that she consented to it is not very surprising in the context of what she does.

          • “The actress in the corset was definitely hurt (caused discomfort), but not harmed (no lasting damage). ”

            That’s not necessarily the case. Damage from compression might not manifest immediately – and if there was wear and tear to the kidneys, liver, etc that ended up being linked to what she endured during the shoot, do we really think that this information would be made public (and possibly interfere with the sales and marketing of this product)?

          • C.K. Egbert

            So what…? Hurting women is totally okay as long as they aren’t mutilated? That’s putting the bar extremely low. Most abuse and torture, including sexual abuse, doesn’t involve “harm” by that definition.

            Both hurting AND harming women is unacceptable, just as torture is unacceptable because it causes physical and psychological pain or distress, not because it “damages” someone’s body.

            Also that “distinction” ignores the emotional distress that inevitably accompanies physical discomfort or pain and possible permanent psychological harm as a result of the abuse that is inflicted.

          • Zoe Nesin

            I was not advocating that anyone be hurt or harmed. Just clearing up the half right statement made in the previous comment. Pain is a sensation that we can feel for a number of reasons. As a sufferer of migraines and cluster headaches(suicide headaches), I know it can happen due to no real attributable cause, be incredibly severe, and not be the result of physical damage.

            The actress was not psychologically distressed by this. She described only a minor amount of physical distress. She was doing it voluntarily and enthusiastic about the job. I sort this into the same category as people who run marathons and obstacle races.

            Really the distinction here is that emotional distress does not always accompany the physical sensation of pain. Do people exercising heavily have emotional damage from pushing past the “wall” or even to the point of actual injury (tennis elbow, torn ACL)? No.

            Again, as an actress, she has to deal with all kinds of discomforts, being separated from her friends and family on location and really, really long hours. I know many people who wear corsets as part of historical reenactment and they have to be worn for a much longer span to cause organ damage.

            Hurting or harming people against their will is absolutely abuse. I was not talking about things done to people against their will. A skydiver who voluntarily jumps out of a plane isn’t going to have psychological damage. If I, who am incredibly afraid of heights, was forced to skydive, it would cause lasting psychological damage. We’re talking here about a person who endured a level of discomfort voluntarily in order to take advantage of a career opportunity and tells it as a funny story later on.

            No one is trying to force all women into corsets (although many wear Spanx and that is a similar issue) and I’m sure her waistline is presented in the movie as being natural instead of the result of industrial strength foundation garments. This is the problem I have with the outfit – little girls will see her, believing it’s natural and possible to have that little waist if they just starve themselves enough.

  • I think the worst thing about the Cinderella story is that the woman shuts up and does what she is told, even though the person she is submitting to is described as evil by the narrative. Then she gets magically rewarded for you total lack of a spine. It’s a story that clearly teaches girls (and women) that submission is a good thing. A horrible message in my view.

    I actually liked the plot twist at the end of Frozen. I think romantic and sexual love is generally over-valued, so it is nice to see a film that shows that other kinds of love can be valuable too and that women do not need to be paired up with someone to be complete (though Anna is still paired up with someone.) I would like to see gay and lesbian relationships featured in kids’ films one day, but I don’t want to see such relationships put forward in a way that implies that romantic and sexual love is everything and that other forms of love don’t mean anything unless one has found their “true love”. This is why I got annoyed with that “Gone Home” game. It was celebrated as this triumph for gay rights, but its romantic narrative is just like the cliche, heterosexual, “our love is so forbidden, but we will be together anyway, since love is the most important thing ever and we can’t live without one another” narrative.

    As for the corset, I got nothing to say except that sex-negative feminists are not the ones dragging humanity back to the 1800s.

    • FrustratedRadFem

      Did you see the finale of Legend of Korra? Where Korra (main female character) and Asami (female team member) end up together?

      I never really liked the cinderella story the lion king and Mulan were my faves I wanted to swift as a coursing river and as mysterious as the dark side of the moon when I grew up.

      • Yeah, that Legend of Korra ending was great. Even if you don’t interpret it as a lesbian romance, it’s just rad to see two very close female friends prioritizing their relationship together.

      • I haven’t seen the end of Legend of Korra, I have only recently gotten into that show (and the original Avatar: The Last Airbender show.) I know I am a bit behind when it comes to popular television shows, but I have a negative reaction to hype, so I usually only develop an interest in things after the hype around them dies down. Don’t worry, you didn’t actually spoil anything for me. Now I am curious to see just how strongly a lesbian relationship is implied. Don’t tell me anything else though, LOL.

        And in case this was not clear, I am not at all opposed to lesbian romances in the media. I am only obsessed to the glamorisation of obsessive love (or rather, mindless infatuation.)

        I also like Lion King and Mulan better, not just because the older films were more blatantly sexist, but also because they just aren’t that good in my opinion. I guess the older films were good for their time, but to me the stories seem way too simple given the lengths of the films and they all seem to include long, pointless scenes, which I guess are meant to be funny, but aren’t. Of course, whether or not a film is entertaining is purely a matter of opinion. The reinforcement of traditional gender norms on the other hand, is a real, empirically demonstrable problem.

    • I liked “Frozen” a great deal (minor reservations about the “evil wolves” cliché and of course the teensy waists). Anna learns not to rush into relationships and is a fearless heroine who saves lives.

  • Oh my goodness…I literally caught myself watching the trailer after reading this unable to breathe, subconsciously constricting my breath watching that frighteningly and dangerously small waist on display for millions of aspiring little girls. 🙁

  • Miss Prankster Pixie

    I have to wear corset for medical reasons, so I have looked into their safety, dangers, and social history a great deal.

    They’ve laced in the actress way too tight, and from the look of how the steels bend, they didn’t get her to correctly season the corset beforehand. This would mean that she was shrunk down to 16-18″ from the outset, rather than getting her body used to being in the contraption, as well as getting the corset to actually mould itself to her body. Tight lacing in such a way not only would cause organ damage; but risks breaking her bones; and if the steels snap from not being correctly seasoned, they can cause a stab wound to the person wearing the corset. It is more likely the fabric would have torn than the steels snap, but it’s still a risk they took with the actress.

    It is possible to wear corsets safely, as long as you don’t tight lace, and correctly season over *many weeks*… but it looks as if Disney threw out those safety measures, and just stuffed her in there without a single care for the brutalisation she would feel.

    And I can attest, a tightly laced corset, worn for 10 hours, with no seasoning, feels like someone has taken a baseball bat to your back. She would have been crying for the first month of filming this.

    FTR: to the above poster, as hilarious as the image is of the French courtesans burping, at the time before the French revolution, corsets were actually worn for orthopaedic support, rather than waist cinching. It was only in the mid-1800s that the tight lacing fashion occurred. And it was considerably more controversial then than now, with men actively writing against the use of corsets. Women put children or young teens in corsets, so they grew up with their bones changed in shape, and their back muscles would have been weakened, so even if they wanted release from the stays, they were forced to carry on using them. There are myriad accounts of women asking for advice in newspaper columns for advice on how to prevent their teenage children from cutting the lacing at night… yes, sadly, these children and women wore their corsets for 24 hours a day… another brutal practice.

    Which Disney is attempting to promote with tight lacing this actress. I feel awful for the numbers of young women who may now go out and buy corsets from cheap online sellers, and they don’t know a thing about safety. Hopefully the pain of being in one will deter them from anything dangerous… but I do worry.