I was never a fan of Cinderella as a child; there was something about a grown version of Pollyanna that did not appeal to me. As an adult, I've come to appreciate the original Disney cartoon and the many upgrades to the story writers have produced over the years. So after the advancements of Ever After, Into The Woods, and Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella (both the 90s Brandy-starring and current Broadways versions), I was hoping that this new Cinderella, directed by Kenneth Branagh and written by Chris Weitz, would rise to the occasion and give the story more substance.
After all, how much longer can we keep telling young girls to be submissive, beautiful, and competitive with each other for princes' attention (which we all know is totally necessary to achieve happiness)?
Unfortunately, this time around, Disney gave us the same story with slightly improved production value. The ways the film presents femininity is problematic, especially for the young girls for whom it's marketed
Lily James, the actress who plays Ella/Cinderella, caught fire because she revealed to The Washington Post that she went on a liquid diet in order to fit into her corset and that “it was like torture." James tried to defend the corset, saying it made her feel like a princess, and asked: Why was all the focus on her body anyway? To her, I'd ask: drinking your food and fitting into improbably-designed corsets makes you feel like a princess? If Cinderella is supposed to be all about personality and goodness, why does she have to be a petite and blonde? Why does she have to have "ugly" stepsisters? James' comments may have noble intentions, but the reality is that she’s not changing the system—she’s reinforcing it.
Ella has no female friends. With the exception of one scene where she speaks to a former female servant, the majority of female interaction in the film is negative. Her mother is a blatant idealism, and her fairy godmother is merely a plot device. Lady Tremaine—her wicked stepmother—is presented to be bitter and hateful because Ella is “young and good” whereas she is…I’m guessing old and bitter? Each female character is, unsurprisingly for Hollywood, completely underwritten. It is sad, dangerous, and altogether an upsetting story for children when the women are one dimensional.
Ella endures all of this abuse at the hands of her step-family because of her mother’s last words to her—"Have courage, and be kind." This is probably the most dangerous aspect of the movie. We live in a world that tells women to put themselves last and to be good and kind for other people’s sake rather than our own happiness. I could forgive the movie for many things, but to have the moral enforce the idea of staying in an abusive domestic situation because they have to “have courage and be kind?” Ugh. Please.
To paraphrase a much better updated fairytale, children will listen—even if they don't. We tell girls to be good all the time, let’s start telling them to be happy and take care of themselves instead!
Image c/o Jonathan Olley/DisneyPrincess Weekes is a part-time bookseller and a full-time writer with a Master’s in English from Brooklyn College. A former intern at BUST magazine, she has since written articles for The Mary Sue, BUST and maintains her own video channel under the name Melina Pendulum, discussing the intersection of pop culture, feminism and race. She is currently working on a fantasy novel about black witches during the Jim Crow era, while attempting to purchase every liquid lipstick the world has to offer.