The other day, my mom and I met up to watch a matinee of the new live-action Cinderella. I’ll be honest, I scoffed when I first saw the trailer. I was certain the movie was just an uninspired attempt to fill Disney's coffers. And of course, this movie could never, ever come close to rivaling the almighty glory that is Ever After.
In many ways, my assumptions proved right. There was no big twist to the story, no wholly re-imagined way of looking at the time-worn plot points. In the end, I thought Cinderella was a pleasant if predictable movie, best summed up by the exchange my mom and I had during the credits.
“That was goofy,” she said.
“Pretty, but also pretty boring,” I agreed.
Then we faced each other in the flickering light of the projector and each noticed the other crying.
“Okay, but it was sweet, too,” I snuffled.
“Have courage,” Mom said, bopping my nose with a trembling finger. “Be kind.”
All right, I thought. Maybe this new Cinderella hadn’t brought a bunch of new material to the storytelling tradition, but it had been a reminder of the love of family and the day-to-day beauty of being kind and compassionate to all sentient beings. It was a reminder that love and forgiveness can triumph, even in the face of injustice and abuse. In the end, when my mom and I escaped the wailing of the obligatorily awful credits song, we were hand-in-hand, and we were refreshed.
Later that night, I encountered a Guardian article in one of my social media feeds:
Kenneth Branagh’s corseted Cinderella fails the Frozen test: Remake criticized for putting clock back to a time before fairytale heroines became feisty and strong
“This is going to piss me off,” I said.
But I clicked anyway. (I really don’t indulge this destructive habit as much as I once did.)
The article did indeed piss me off. It drew attention to several criticisms launched against the movie, most notably that "Frozen and Brave...were praised for showcasing strong, feisty heroines; according to critics, Branagh’s Cinderella lamentably fails the role-model test.”
“HOLD UP,” I cried, flipping a hypothetical table. For these words stank of a certain type of criticism I’ve seen floating about the internetsphere before—this outcry that if a heroine isn’t “feisty,” she isn’t a good role model; if she isn’t “spunky,” she’s been poorly written.
After reading the article, I revisited my viewing of Cinderella. Like I mentioned, Kenneth Branagh and Chris Weitz made no massive changes to the storyline. Cinderella’s parents still [SPOILER] die. Anastasia and Drizella are still outrageous and one-dimensional and reinforce a damaging other-females-are-competition mindset. There’s still a tubby mouse called Gus Gus. The clock still strikes midnight. But the changes that have been made are important ones—more important than I realized when I first digested the movie.
Cinderella is a smart, empathetic girl who asks questions and doesn’t accept her abusive situation like a happy-go-lucky automaton. She has strong convictions and isn’t afraid to voice them to perfect strangers with eloquence and feeling. She develops feelings for a fellow without realizing he’s a prince. She leaves such said fellow after she learns he’s a prince and has no ulterior motive of using him to social climb. And when she does marry her "Mr. Kit," it’s on her own terms. These are not elements that were present in Disney's 1950 animated classic.
In yet another article, the author writes, "'Have courage and be kind' is Cinders’s mission statement, which is at about the same level as 'Make good choices!' as an inspirational mantra.”
And here’s where I get pissed. Since when did we start trivializing the value of having courage and being kind? Since when did these become throw-away values? Last time I checked, showing courage and kindness in the face of awful circumstances is one of the hardest things a human being can do. I realize that big concept words like “courage" and “kindness" can lose their meaning through the wear and tear of everyday usage. But they’re big concept words for a reason; courage and kindness are powerful, and they’re often insanely difficult to muster. And I don’t think we can ever be too often reminded of their importance.
Is Cinderella my favorite literary heroine? Not by a long shot. I still think she rushes into that royal marriage waaaaay too fast, and she’s much more animal-friendly and handy with a needle than I could ever be. My favorite Disney gal growing up was Mulan, a protagonist who doesn't fit the feminine mold her society forces on her and risks her very life for friends and family.
My other favorite heroine growing up was Anne Eliot from Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Anne is a soft-spoken, introverted “spinster,” whose greatest act of bravery is telling someone she loves him with the conviction that this sentiment is entirely her own and not the result of anyone’s influence over her. I daresay the same critics lambasting Cinderella for its lack of feisty protag would throw their hands up at Persuasion, shouting, “This girl's only good qualities are putting up with the disgusting behavior of her materialistic family, patiently helping a sailor struggling with a mental illness, showing resilience in the face of lost hope, and maintaining her convictions and sense of self-worth in a society that’s written her off as irrelevant. But where is the bloody sacrifice? Where is the screaming at government officials? Where is the joining a guerrilla initiative to fight the system? She’s not even extroverted, for land’s sakes! So she can't possibly be strong.”
Here’s the deal: Mulan fits the “feisty” label. Anne Eliot does not. But they’re both three-dimensional, excellently written characters whose journeys resonate with me, a real live woman. Why? Because both Mulan and Anne read as real. They both have flaws and struggles and crises. Mulan's struggles are on a big scale. I mean, she freakin’ saves all of China from the Huns. Anne’s victories are on a small scale. Over time, she emerges from the crushing weight of other peoples’ opinions to take control of her life in the small sphere she’s allotted. But just because Anne's struggles are on a smaller scale does not mean they are trivial. It doesn’t mean that Mulan and Anne don’t show the same amount of fortitude and courage.
Courage doesn’t necessarily mean shouting “Screw you all!” to the world and running away from home in a beaten-up Mustang, then joining a band of outcasts and setting fire to an important government building. I mean, it most certainly can look like that, and I love books starring those kinds of heroines. But I’ve never related to those girls nearly as much as I have to the introverted, idea-oriented, reflective, small-steps girls. My favorite protagonist of all time is a teeny-tiny bookworm who, by using her quiet cunning--not a machine gun or miraculously-fast-learned-karate-skills--takes down a rotten school principal.
I like reading feisty girls, but I like reading quiet girls, too. I like loud-mouths, but I also like shy girls. I like big, bombastic showdowns; I prefer small, quiet dramas with stakes that look minuscule to an outsider but are everything to a girl’s internal development.
I was an extremely introverted kid. I was terrible at sports and totally uncoordinated and just wanted to hang out with my best friends and my books. I related to feisty girls like Eloise and Madeline. I also related to un-feisty girls like Beth March and Mary Lennox. I think what’s important is that I was exposed to a breadth of varied narratives, to different stories, to many kinds of girls who ranged from wallflowers to rip-roaring forces of nature. And what mattered most to me was that those girls' voices and personalities and stories read as authentic.
Good female characters don’t have to be “spunky." They don’t have to be balls of fire who defy all convention and topple evil societies. They just have to be REAL. They should be multidimensional, full of contradictions, in possession of both admirable and repellent qualities; you know, like all human beings. This call for nothing-but-kickass is not only exhausting, it’s detrimental to young readers, boys and girls, who use stories to inform their views of the world and the people inhabiting it. Those who require female characters to only be feisty do the same kind of damage as sexist screenwriters who assign women solely to the roles of sluts and saints.
Let’s face it: most of us will never face down the leader of a corrupt government. Most of us won’t blow up a building or hurl a grenade. But all of us will deal with despicable people, with unfair life circumstances, with suffering and grief. And to me, Cinderella looking her truly wicked stepmother straight in the eye and saying “I forgive you” takes just as much strength as it does to start a post-apocalyptic revolution.
Might Cinderella still contain some problematic messages? Yes. But I won't support the trivialization of a call for kindness and courage. And I won't support a demand for feistiness that shuts out a beautiful spectrum of human personality and myriad of female experiences. Let’s celebrate all of those experiences. And let’s continue to engage in healthy conversations about them along the way.