Cinderella – Uncynical Cinema and Sexism

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There has been some strong criticism of this new Cinderella, particularly in the States, saying it presents a poor role model and affirms old fashioned ideas of sexism. A number of well informed and highly educated people have decried the film for its backward thinking and dangerous gender politics but actually it really isn’t that bad. It isn’t that bad at all, quite the contrary.

Prior to the opening of the film Dr. Rebecca Hains, author of best selling book The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess Obsessed a Years, referred to the leading lady’s waistline saying that ‘from the release of the photos there was concern’ and that it showed ‘an unrealistic beauty image and exaggerated body type’. Her comments caused quite a furore but what is significant here is that Hains voiced her concerns having not actually seen the movie. Her objections are actually not fair. Certainly the protagonist is slim but not excessively so and the resulting fuss has ironically triggered a fixation on what is actually a perfectly healthy body form and an obsession about the way a woman looks.

Hains went on to say that Cinderella was not a brave character and that ‘if she doesn’t have a prince then she stays and accepts abuse’. This is clearly a common criticism of the story but once again in this instance it is inaccurate. It is made clear that the reason she doesn’t flee the house is because it is her ancestral home and she will not give it up. She could leave but to do so would be the real defeat, staying is courageous. You could argue that she is perfectly happy to move on once she’s got the keys to the palace but that is on her own terms and besides, she’s kind of the queen by then so I’m sure she is in a position to protect the family pile.

This Cinderella is forthright, dauntless, determined, patient, loyal and kind. Yes she is downtrodden but this doesn’t make her weak and when she is first given the opportunity to break out of her situation she doesn’t take it because of the cost it would have on others. There is no question of her falling for the prince on first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberly and when he choses her it is clearly based on her merits not her face (not just her face). Surely she needs to be given some credit for all of this. It is true to say that it is her relationship with the prince that delivers her from drudgery but everything she gets and everything she achieves is because of who she is, not what she looks like.

I understand the worries of commenters like Dr. Haines because fairy tales like this, and indeed Disney’s previous versions of them, have been problematic in the past. In this case though it seems that some people are so anticipating issues that they are finding them where they just don’t exist or without waiting to see if this new adaptation actually bears out their fears.

Another person to have publicly condemned the film is Dr. Rosie Campbell, professor of politics at Birkbeck. She called the plot appalling for its focus on beauty and what she called ‘the pinkification of the Disney role model’. I’m guessing she’s not seen any of the Disney films made post 1970. ‘It’s no wonder’ she continued ‘that we are struggling to get young women engaged with politics’.

On this point, it’s possible that I am also spuriously looking for evidence to back up my own point of view, but I thought there was a strong suggestion that by the end of her adventures this Cinderella was herself going to be a bit of a political force. She shows incredible diplomacy and fairness throughout and once she had been chosen for joint rule, in favour of those whose only advantage was the position of their birth, she had every potential of becoming a great leader. The narrative does say she became one of the country’s most loved monarchs and let’s assume for just a moment that this wasn’t just because she looked good in a blue dress. When the king endorses his son’s choice of partner it isn’t because he saw her on the dance floor, it was because he experienced her directness, her conviction and her compassion first hand. The fact is that this Cinderella is no simpering helpless damsel in distress waiting in the attic hoping for rescue.

The true cleverness of the film is that while it gives us a different version of the character none of it is a reinvention. It’s all potentially there in the original fairy tale, it just needed bringing out. This princess doesn’t need to be portrayed as a sword wielding warrior to be strong, à la Kristen Stewart’s Snow White, which is great because in reality most women aren’t sword wielding warriors. Cinderella here is a much better inspiration to the bullied and exploited as she is.

I’m certainly not suggesting that Cinders is suddenly an icon for equality and empowerment but neither is she a bad role model. This new Cinderella movie is not a great feminist parable but it does successfully relieve the traditional heroine of much of her chauvinistic baggage, despite what the critics say.

This considered, staying within the confines of the centuries old story was always going to carry with it some archaic notions of femininity and more problematic than Cinderella is her stepmother. In Cate Blanchett’s portrayal she has social desperation in an unfair patriarchal world as a motivation but the lady is still pretty evil. I mean she named her cat Lucifer for goodness sake, that’s more than having a dark sense of humour. The movie’s only older female character is shown as bitter, cruel and selfish and there’s no counterpoint. The under twenty fives might get a role model but their Mum’s don’t. Cinderella’s own mother does appear in the film and she is lovely but she’s gone before she’s forty.

In fact this element of the story is also newly emphasised. The deep tragedy at the heart of the girl’s story is no longer confined to the prologue, we see her happy with her parents and we see her lose them. They said Richard Curtis’ film About Time made people across the First World pick up the phone and call their mums and dads but that movie was nothing compared to this in terms of presenting parental mortality. If this film doesn’t make you hold your folks tighter then I don’t know what will.

Actually having said that there are those that may not connect with the film, in this way or any other. You do need a certain sensibility to get drawn in. If you are open to fairy tales though then you will get totally swept along with it, the design and feel of it all is just gorgeous. To have modernised this story would have been wrong, it’s the ultimate folk tale and it works best as it is. There have been over forty Cinderella films already, Disney themselves have made four or five, but we could well have the definitive version right here. Certainly it deserves to become every bit as much a classic at the 1950 animated version it is modelled on. Disney own this tale now every bit as much as Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm and that’s okay because they are the natural successors to those legendary children’s storytellers.

Lily James in the lead role is good casting too and not just because of how she plays it. She is pretty for sure but not impossibly so and this makes her more relatable. Apparently her initial audition was to be one of the ‘ugly’ sisters and you can see that she’d have made that work. (These step siblings are ugly inside not externally which is another way the film skirts outdated ideas of goodness equating to beauty.) I like the idea of James going for a supporting role and getting the big one in its place. It reminds me of when Stephen Moffat turned down Matt Smith for Sherlock but told him there was another part he was casting for a different show.

The other outstanding performance comes from Helena Bonham Carter as The Fairy Godmother. She is clearly having tremendous fun and so do the audience. The magic scene is probably the most predictable moment in a film where everyone already knows the entire plot but there is satisfaction in watching it play out. Interestingly this is the only section of the story where magic or fantasy is heavily involved. The King and the Grand Duke don’t end up hanging from a chandelier, the birds don’t help Cinderella get dressed and the mice don’t talk (not really).
In any other context the Fairy Godmother would jar with everything else in the film like a UFO in the middle of Top Gun or if they tried to put Batman and Superman in a film together but it doesn’t surprise us so it works. The lack of reliance on hocus pocus also further strengthens Cinderella’s sense of agency.

In many respects this new Cinderella feels like great old fashioned film making. It is spectacular, it is moving, it is compelling and it is epic yet it is all built round the simplest of stories. Director Kenneth Branagh has done a really good job recognising what is endearing about the centuries old narrative and its previous cartoon incarnation and building on these things. There aren’t necessarily any obvious standout scenes, although I found the ballroom scene and Cinderella’s final confrontation with her stepmother to be particularly memorable, it is just that the whole thing is totally and utterly charming. Cinderella is a treat for uncynical audiences of any age.

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