In this op-ed, Teen Vogue writer Gianluca Russo explains why the Cinderella Story franchise should expand in the areas of representation and inclusion.
In the age of the rom-com resurgence, it’s no surprise that Hollywood has decided to release another installment of the famed A Cinderella Story franchise. What began in 2004 as a modern retelling of the iconic fairy tale starring Hilary Duff and Chad Michael Murray quickly spiraled into a cult classic yielding a decade and a half of follow-up films with different actors and plots, but essentially the same premise: A down-on-her-luck young woman falls in love with a handsome, charming, popular man who rescues her from the grasp of her evil step-family. It is truly — please forgive the pun — a tale as old as time. However, as whimsical as it may be, the franchise has a major problem with representation, and it’s time for an inclusive update.
A Cinderella Story was subsequently followed by three similar films: Another Cinderella Story (2008), A Cinderella Story: Once Upon a Song (2011), and A Cinderella Story: If the Shoe Fits (2016). (The original film also sparked variations across other networks, including Nickelodeon's Rags and Myriad Pictures’ After the Ball.) And now, a fifth installment of the classic story is set to be released this fall. Starring Laura Marano and Gregg Sulkin, A Cinderella Story: Christmas Wish tells the story of...well, you can probably already guess.
These various adaptations of the classic Cinderella fairytale are certainly fun, with the right amount of cheesiness and romance. But as made clear by the recently released trailer for A Cinderella Story: Christmas Wish, they all fall short on one major aspect: representation. Each of the five versions of A Cinderella Story are all too white and all too thin, an unfortunate trend that is embedded through much of Hollywood. In fact, a 2017 study by USC Annenberg’s Inclusion Initiative found that 70.7% of the characters in popular films that year were white, with only 12.1% black characters, 6.2% Latinx characters, 4.8% Asian characters, 3.9% characters of mixed-race, 1.7% of Middle Eastern descent and less than 1% being comprised of Native American and Native Hawaiian individuals. What's more, several of those statistics had barely changed in a decade.
The data on the matter is clear: Hollywood is still very white. Additionally, despite the tremendous progress of the body positivity movement, film and television are severely lacking when it comes to body diversity. A Refinery29 study found that out of the top 100 films in 2016, over 50% of teenage girls being shown on screen were “extremely thin,” and only four female leads or co-leads were greater than a size 14.
In every single film from the A Cinderella Story franchise, the two actors playing the modern versions of Cinderella and Prince Charming are thin, and the majority of the actors playing the romantic leads have been white (it’s important to note that Selena Gomez and Sofia Carson brought representation to their respective films, but we’ve yet to see a black or Asian actor portray a modern-day Cinderella). Numerous studies show that representation matters in entertainment, particularly in stories aimed at young people. The importance is undeniable. So why, then, make another version of A Cinderella Story that focuses on two white, conventionally super-hot people?
While some might ask why we need another Cinderella Story at all (FWIW, each movie essentially shows a young woman who needs to be saved by a suave, powerful man — not exactly the feminist take we've seen from other stories in 2019) it remains valid for people to want to see themselves represented in fairy tales. Whether it's a guilty pleasure or a fantasy, there’s certainly nothing wrong with enjoying stories like Cinderella, and everyone should get a chance to see themselves on screen. With that, Christmas Wish seems like a missed opportunity for a modern-day fairy tale to be used as a platform to amplify diverse, underrepresented, and marginalized voices.
It’s worth noting that traditional retellings of iconic fairy tales have been getting it right, going all the way back to 1997 when Brandi starred in The Wonderful World of Disney’s TV remake of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella (with Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother, no less). Recently, the casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel in the upcoming Little Mermaid reboot signified a momentous celebration for representation being weaved into these age-old stories, as did the casting of Auli'i Cravalho, Queen Latifah and Shaggy in ABC’s upcoming live event of the same title. Fairy tales are arguably impactful, which is why the need for inclusion is so vital. These classic stories resonate with many, promoting universal themes that we can all apply to our lives today — which is why modern-day versions are continuously so appealing. And while traditional retellings are becoming more inclusive, there is a desperate need for modernized fairy tales that are just as diverse as the classics.
In addition to racial representation, it’s vital to include people of size in these stories, especially when they’re aimed at a teenage audience. While not a fairy tale in the literal sense, Danielle Macdonald killed it in Netflix’s Dumplin’ and was subsequently praised by critics and fans not just for her performance, but for the ways in which audience members could finally see themselves as the romantic lead of a rom-com. Imagine how powerful it would be to see Danielle playing Cinderella, Rapunzel or Aurora, without her weight being necessary to the plot? Having fat actors in romantic roles — fairy tale or not — signifies that love is attainable at any size, a message that many fat teens are led to believe is not true. And because fairy tales imply a fantasy life, casting a plus-size lead would show that being fat is not distasteful; rather, it can indeed be part of your happily ever after.
Media and pop culture have a responsibility to fairly represent their audience by elevating the voices of marginalized people and telling their stories. To create a modernized fairy tale in 2019 that fails to acknowledge the inclusivity of the actual modern world is not only a missed chance for Hollywood to break societal norms and embrace representation, but ultimately a loss for those who continually crave to see themselves reflected on screen.
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue