Before we begin:
- This post contains spoilers.
- Sorry about the flowery language but I am an English major and I analyze crap for a living.
- So... this post is me reading way too much into the film and its messages and implications, rather than a straight-up movie review.
- Also, gifs will be used. Excessively. You have been warned.
Yes, I am a DIsney girl. I grew up watching Mulan and Peter Pan and Robin Hood and Dumbo a thousand times. (Yes, literally – my mother swears she will never watch Dumbo again.) So of course I absolutely had to see Cinderella. Let's see why...
One of the most classic DIsney princesses.
Played by Downton Abbey's actual princess Lily James.
With KING OF THE NORTH Robb Stark – sorry I mean Richard Madden.
And Immortal elf queen Cate Blanhett.
AND Burton goddess Helena Bonham Carter.
Yeah, seeing this film was pretty much on top of my to-do list.
To be fair, Cinderella was never my favorite Disney princess. I've always been more of a Belle with my bookishness...
...or Mulan with my Asian-ness and unconventionality (also she was the first Disney princess I remember seeing)
The animated Cinderella was, even to a five-year-old me, too sweet and nice and accepting of all the crap that was thrown her way, to the point of unbelievability.
My favorite character in Cinderella was Lucifer the cat, who was arguably the only realistic character in the film – for those of you who aren't feline owners, cats really are assholes who will deliberately mess up your stuff just cause they can. Proof: jump to 0:20 in the video below.
There are things i liked about the adaptation. Like how Cinderella goes through a character arc, with some development. Much like her animated counterpart, she starts out as the archetypical princess, "brave and kind" to the point of letting the less noble walk all over her, letting them reduce her to a slave rather than stand up for her basic rights. When her stepsisters literally tear off her clothes and jewels – which belonged to her mother – she shrinks back instead of protesting.
By the end of the movie she openly defies her stepmother's orders and goes to the prince, becoming arguably active (more on this later) and able to fight for her rights and happiness. While doing so, she doesn't change who she is intrinsically, holding on to her courage and kindness as she forgives her stepmother for the hell she put her through.
New adaptation, same old problems.
The story remains problematic in the same ways that the animation was. Cinderella remains passive and accepts all the crap thrown at her. I admit that there are things that she's pretty powerless – for a young woman in a medieval world, with no family or money, life alone is hard and dangerous, impossible even. I GET that. At least if she stays with her stepmother she has food and a roof over her head. I can see that she's in a difficult position and I will admit that "have courage and be kind" might be the best thing to do for a girl in her position. But that doesn't mean you take everything lying down.
Take this exchange (I'm paraphrasing):
Stepmother: Anastasia and Drizella are finding their rooms very crowded.
Cinderella: My room's the biggest apart from yours, maybe they'd like to share it. I could move to the –
Stepmother: The attic, yes!
She doesn't even make an attempt to stand up for herself, to say that, no, I don't want the attic, I want the room my stepsisters share NOW, I didn't give up my room to sleep in a room unfit for servants thank you very much. She just lets her stepmother boss her around, and of course once Lady Tremaine sees that Cinderella doesn't have a backbone, she will make her do whatever she can get away with – which, thanks to her unending endurance and kindness, is pretty much everything.
There's also the fact that she doesn't even try to get herself rescued; she is so passive that when the prince is literally downstairs and her stepsisters are trying on her slipper, she sits by the window and sings. (I can't find the gif or picture but you know which one I'm talking about right?)
She's completely accepted that going to the ball and dancing with the prince is all the happiness she's going to get in life. I do see where she's coming from: her self-esteem has been ground down to nothing, she's just some servant girl and he's a prince, he's going to be engaged to someone else. Yeah, those reality checks do bring you down to your knees. But when he's standing right under the window, asking if there's any other girl who would try on the shoe, I figure that the least you could do is open the window and yell to him. The chance to leave this house and to be happy is literally on your doorstep, and you choose now to be resigned to your fate of being forever mistreated. She's so passive that even Sleeping Beauty, lying there waiting to be kissed and woken up, is more proactive (look at the colors).
Then there's the problem that Cinderella requires a man to rescue her. Cinderella, who is a clever, resourceful, and of course brave and kind young woman, in the end falls back into the old "damsel in distress" stereotype. If she ever left it. It takes a prince (at this point, king, but I'll keep calling him the prince for continuity's sake), charging in on a white stallion and about ten other clichés, to free her from her stepmother's evil clutches.
Then, of course, she becomes a queen. She is empowered, in that she is the ruler of a kingdom, and also in that she's her own woman. While all this is great, it's still through the prince that she has power – not only the power to rule, but also the power of independence. Ironically, however, she's still not independent as she's reliant now on her husband for her livelihood.
So in summary here's why Cinderella, both the animated and live action versions, is problematic:
- Her passivity. It's one thing to be kind and tolerant, but quite another to let yourself be tormented and abused.
- Her ABSOLUTE passivity. She's resigned to her fate of being under her stepmother's control forever when her prince/king is standing under her window demanding to see her.
- She has to be rescued by a man. Despite her brilliance and courage, she cannot free herself from her stepmother and needs the prince to rescue her.
- She is only empowered through a man. Her power comes through marriage to the prince, both in the sense of literal ruling power, and power over her own life.
Is Cinderella still a story worth telling?
Given all these ideological problems, it's not surprising that a lot of people are arguing that Cinderella is telling the wrong message to the tens of thousands of little girls (and boys) watching it. Given the thousand words I've devoted to the topic so far, you probably think that I think the same.
But I don't. Because the central message of Cinderella – more obvious in the 2015 version than in the animated one but present nonetheless – is one of kindness. We're teaching children to "have courage and be kind" – qualities often overlooked in this age when badass warrior women are valued.
Like Merida with her arrow-shooting and horse-riding and defiance of marriage...
... or Elsa who releases her inner badass.
It's so easy to forget that there is power in kindness and courage, power in endurance and tolerance.
Children will grow up, and they will learn that being brave and kind is difficult. That it is much easier to be the Machiavellian, to be cruel, to be an asshole
Than it is to be kind even if it costs you...
To be brave in the face of adversity...
To have endurance and know that some day it will pay off and you'll get the happy ending you deserve.
We tell these to children, generation after generation, not to encourage them to be passive or resigned, but to instill in them the importance of goodness. It might be true that goodness won't pay the bills or save their lives. But it will make the world a better, kinder place. And if one in ten children grows up holding on to this message, and they in turn pass it on to their children, the world will be so much better for it.
That is why this story is worth telling amidst the Mulans and Katnisses of modern fiction. We have to remember that for women, being kind and compassionate is just as important as being strong and independent. May our daughters grow up to be both Cinderellas and Meridas.