If you’re going to remake a cultural classic, you’d better do a great job with it. And that’s what the makers of Disney’s new, non-animated Cinderella did…for the most part. All the characters fit within the framework of Disney’s original animated film, but several of them were given new depth and quality. The wicked step mother, played by Cate Blanchett, was wonderfully sinister, and Blanchett’s acting abilities more than adequately covered a few pieces of poor writing. The step sisters had no more depth than the original, but they were humorously written and thoroughly unlikeable. Prince Charming’s character had depth added to him, both as the to-be king, and as a son trying to defy the conventions of tradition and expectation.
The only character that didn’t quite work was Cinderella, herself. Not because Lilly James was unlikeable or unbelievable as Cinderella, but because the Cinderella’s character is unlikeable and unbelievable for anyone who wants something more for girls than to grow up with unrealistic expectations of love and a lack of courage.
Early in the film, Cinderella’s birth-mom tells her, before her death, that she needs to maintain “courage and kindness,” and if she does, good things will happen. The kindness side of the coin is no problem for Cinderella. She repeatedly does the “nice” thing for her undeserving step-mother and step-sisters. Repeatedly she is used and abused, neglected and ostracized within her own home, after her father dies. She is kind to a fault.
What Cinderella lacks throughout the entire film is the flip side of her mother’s advice. She lacks courage. Throughout the film her abuse and neglect grow increasingly physical and psychological, yet she meekly accepts every insult and command. It is not until the very end of the film when (*spoiler*), after she’s won the heart of the prince and the confidence that ensued, that she actually stands up for herself. By then, however, she’s waited too long and she’s locked in the attic when the royal guards come to her home looking for the young maiden whose foot fits the shoe.
The remake of Cinderella, I understand, had to fit within the mold of the classic animation film. But when we consider the damage that film has done to countless generations of young girls – telling them true love is what you experience at first sight, that docility is the proper attitude of a good woman, that this is a man’s world and only a man can rescue you, that you are primarily an object to behold and be fawned upon – I had secretly wished that this remake would challenge those old notions. I’d hoped, not just for a kind Cinderella, but a Cinderella that could model courage and independence for my daughters.
Someone might respond, “Well, yes, she learned courage in the end.” And that would be true. But I must ask, why do female characters have to learn courage, while male courage is always assumed? When we watch films like Unbroken, we expect the male characters to be courage and resistant to unjust authorities. We expect males to defy their captors and challenge their power.
But we don’t expect this from our female characters. We expect them to learn courage. I would be fine with female characters learning courage if there were a plethora of other examples of female characters that don’t learn courage but already have it. But we don’t have very many such characters. We have docile victims. We have voiceless bodies that are pretty to look at. We have female characters who can only find their identities in the men they’re trying to snatch.
Cinderella’s kindness, without the courage aspect, is not genuine kindness. It’s fear. It’s co-dependence. It’s being a doormat. But young girls have had decades and decades of this message from Disney. And it’s time for change. This new Cinderella film cared enough about their male-lead to give his character depth he didn’t have in the animated film. They let him be a man of his own mind, challenging his father’s traditions, and slyly uncovering treasonous activities in his ranks.
Why couldn’t Cinderella’s character be given the same kind of make-over? Why couldn’t the writers of the film poke fun at patriarchy the way they poked fun at other things that “just are”? Why must Cinderella be little more than a sex-object in certain scenes – a movie for little girls, not at all intended to attract men (the assumptions about men aside, of course). Why couldn’t a truly, boldly feminine courage be set before us all?
Disney has come a long way in their last few animated films. In The Princess Frog Tiana doesn’t wish upon a star, but is told by her father that she’s going to have to work hard for her dreams to come true. In Frozen Anna and Elsa love each other first, and patriarchy and silly ideas of love are overtly criticized. Disney had a chance with this Cinderella film to go back and correct the mistakes of our forefathers and foremothers. And they missed it.
I care about this subject, not only because I’m a dad and it matters to me what message my daughters are receiving from our culture about love and women’s roles. But I care about this subject because at 33 years old, I have seen numerous young women (and men, too), friends and colleagues, who live their lives as if Prince Charming is going to rescue them, as if their identity is completely wrapped up in whether or not they have a man to hang on, and as if love-at-first-sight is “true love,” while that gritty, difficult process of giving ourselves to one another over time is foreign and unacceptable.
There were brilliant parts of the new Cinderella movie. And even the parts that were less brilliant can be easily covered over by the cool British accents. But the cultural message of patriarchy still dominates the story. The message is still clear: Beauty is niceness is docility is dependence is a woman’s place.
YOUR TURN: Have you seen Cinderella? If so, what did you think?