Cinderella is one of those classic fairy tales that all kinds of little kids (and not so little kids) grow up loving. It’s the kind of story that many of us can relate to: our hero is treated unfairly by people in power, but she works hard and lives virtuously and one day a magical person comes into her life and rewards her for all her suffering. I think most of us would like to think that all of our suffering will one day be rewarded, whether it be the twenty-something paying their dues by slogging through a terrible job in hopes of moving upward and onward to something better, or the ten year old, indignant that their parents insist on cleaning their room again, wishing and hoping for their Hogwarts letter to take them away. Maybe it’s that we’re waiting for our proverbial “prince” (whatever form they may take) to sweep us off our feet.
There are so many versions of the story of Cinderella, and while the core story stays mostly the same, each version sends a different kind of message about what kinds of virtues are worthy of reward, and what kinds of rewards are worthy of which virtues. The results are a mixed bag, especially when we take a critical eye to some of the more popular versions of the classic fairy tale. We have to ask ourselves, should we really want to be like our Cinderellas, and do we even really want her prize?
One of the most recent retellings of the story is Disney’s live action Cinderella from 2015, starring Lily James. As Saika pointed out, the trailer was uninspiring (at best). I’m glad I saw the trailer after the movie, because the movie itself is a lot better than the kind of film the trailer makes it out to be. This version gives some great narrative parallels between Ella and Prince Kit, so when they end up together it’s fairly believable. Both lose a parent at a young age and again when they’re young adults, and both struggle to live up to the ideals of their parents. Kit thinks of himself more as an apprentice than a princely heir to the kingdom, and feels the weight of obligation to sacrifice his desire to marry for love in order to provide for the security of his kingdom by marrying for advantage. Ella puts up with her step-family’s abuse in order to care for her family’s estate in honor of her parents’ memory. She promises her dying mother that she’ll be courageous and kind (a theme that’s rather beaten to death throughout the film), but she’s also honest, humble, and loyal. Her kindness manifests as selflessness, and when she exhibits kindness to an old woman, Helena Bonham Carter appears as her fairy godmother. Ella’s virtue is rewarded with a night at the Royal Ball. Prince Kit’s love is a sort of natural consolation prize for being so beautiful and so good that he pursues her to the altar. Ella doesn’t exhibit any more feelings than fond friendship for Kit, but she immediately consents to marry him when he asks.
This, of course, leads us to where this version falls short. Lily James gives a great performance, but the role embodies the most traditional feminine white girl stereotype I’ve ever seen. Ella is strong and courageous and works hard, but all in very lady-like ways. She’s fairly satisfied with her reward of half a night at the fanciest party in town, and doesn’t even really understand that the prince is in love with her until the eleventh hour. Prince Kit, in a very stereotypical heterosexually masculine way, bends heaven and earth to find his lady and make her his queen. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea. When speaking of her role as Broomhilda (“Hildi”) von Shaft, the damsel pursued by the hero in the modern fairy tale Django Unchained, Kerry Washington pointed out that Black women almost never get to embody that role in our culture, to be someone worthy of great sacrifice and struggle. Her character’s personality is pretty flat, and while she’s certainly gorgeous, we only really have Django’s word that she’s worth it. But white women have played the part so often it locks them into that stereotype, and so this Cinderella perpetuates the idea that they’re the only ones good enough to pursue, and that men should be pursuing them. The only real role a person of color plays in this film is the captain of the guard, a special adviser and friend to Kit. That’s really not good enough, for 2015.
If we go back to 1997 we get a version of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (also by Disney) that brings an incredible amount of diversity to the cast. Yes, this is the one where Brandy plays Cinderella, Whitney Houston her fairy godmother, and includes Bernadette Peters as her stepmother, Paolo Montalban as the Prince, and Whoopi Goldberg and Victor Garber as his parents. If you’re keeping track at home, that’s more people of color in major roles than white actors. But this is the remake of a 1957 musical, so a lot of the values carry through. Cinderella’s primary virtues are purity, innocence, and imagination. She dreams of adventure in jungles or living the royal life, and her dreams carry her through while she toils at her chores. While the 2015 Cinderella’s tagline could be “have courage and be kind”, this one’s might be “impossible things are happening every day”. Cinderella doesn’t really earn her trip to the ball or the prince’s love by being a good person, but by innocently keeping the faith and hoping against hopeful possibility (and probability) that someday her circumstances will change. She and the prince fall in love at first sight, mostly because they’re so beautiful. While the evil stepsisters’ song “The Stepsisters’ Lament” is supposed to be funny, it makes a good point: “Why would a fellow want a girl like her, a frail and floppy beauty… why can’t a fellow ever once prefer a usual girl like me?” In this version, beauty is closely equated with goodness. The reason why I think we put up with it is because it stars people of color, and so challenges our stereotypical standards of beauty—at least, in the sense that only white, delicate ladies are truly beautiful.
A year after this movie came out, we get Ever After: A Cinderella Story, starring Drew Barrymore. Barrymore is certainly white, but she’s no waif. She plays Danielle de Barbarac, a 16th century French woman who after her father’s death begins a life of servitude to her step-family at the age of eight. Now eighteen, she works hard to maintain the declining estate herself and adores a copy of Utopia, a gift from her father. Danielle uses her wits to ensure the return of her family’s servant and the prince himself when they’re ambushed. Leonardo di Vinci serves as a godfather, and makes her a pair of gorgeous wings for her to wear to the Prince’s masquerade. Having previously lied about her identity, at the masquerade her stepmother exposes her true identity to the prince, who angrily refuses to listen to Danielle. Danielle is sold into servitude to a disgusting baron, but fights her way to an escape. Just as she leaves the mansion with nothing but the clothes on her back, her very apologetic prince arrives. He proposes, she accepts, and Danielle spares her step-family banishment, instead giving them jobs serving in the royal palace.
This version of the story is told as historical fiction, but our Cinderella is a very modern feminist hero. Danielle is a hard worker and certainly a victim of emotional and physical abuse, but she’s also passionate and articulate with a thirst for knowledge. She faces every situation with great courage, and it’s clear she doesn’t need the prince to save her, ever. Danielle is pretty and virtuous, without beating you over the head about it. Her virtue doesn’t manifest in generic “goodness” or “humility” or any real traditionally feminine virtue, it’s in strength of mind, body, and character. Supposedly her prince makes himself worthy of her not because he pursued her to the ends of the Earth, but because he apologizes for his behavior. But I’m not totally convinced. His character development is rather slow, and it seems to me that the only real reason why he might qualify as a “reward” for Danielle is because he’s royalty, and it’s a vehicle for Danielle to get to a position in society she deserves. So while Danielle definitely exhibits the kind of virtue we’d love in our Cinderella, I don’t believe her story rewards her properly for it.
There are so many ways we can approach the story of “Cinderella”. Because it’s been done so many times by so many people, in order for it to stay relevant we need to be careful about how we tell it. It’s fundamentally a story about how “being good gets you stuff,” and on that level that’s not a bad lesson to teach kids (of all ages). But we can’t get lazy with our definitions of goodness, or our idea of what a proper reward might be. Goodness is a result of our choices and how we respond to our situation, not just something we innately are or are not. The Cinderella of 2015 does a pretty good job of sending that message. Ever After shows us a different set of criteria for goodness that challenges old school assumptions about what makes a good woman. Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella from 1997 inverts the traditional narrative about beauty equaling goodness by casting a racially diverse group of actors. Beauty still equals goodness, but we now have a Black woman standing as the standard of that beauty. On the other end, our rewards are also different. The story traditionally ends with our Cinderella marrying a prince and living happily ever after, but that can easily send the message that the highest good a woman should aspire to, the greatest thing she could possibly receive, is a good husband who can provide a comfortable (or lavish!) lifestyle. With more and more people marrying later (or not at all) with more variation than ever before, the chance of living up to the ideal of the young heterosexual couple marrying after falling in love at first sight to live a life filled with traditional gender roles is about as rare as a unicorn. We can find modern Cinderellas, but her story is, unfortunately, often stuck in the past.