The Disney dream factory has done it again. Despite audible groans over remake upon remake upon remake and a disheartening number of references to that condescending and gender normative term, “chick flick,” Kenneth Branagh’s live action Cinderella waltzed its way to box office victory this past month. The film’s continued profits approach the $400 million mark according to Deadline.com, who also confirmed Disney’s greedy plans to transform two to four more of its fairy tale mainstays into live action moneymakers. Large numbers beget large numbers and there’s no great mystery to the powerhouse marketing and distribution success bankrolled by Disney’s own bottomless pockets. The critical backlash to the Cinderella story, and Branagh’s most recent rendering of it, also fails to surprise. This newest Cinderella is too passive. She’s not ambitious or opinionated enough. She’s not smart enough and her waist is too small. Is she wearing a corset? Of course she is. The real disappointment here is that American “family” film has regressed back into its same old misogynist predicament when the sisters of 2013’s Frozen had so recently revolutionized the genre.
The past thirty years has seen many, many attempts (by Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, what have you) to distance fairy tale storytelling from the female paralyzation that was so creepily established by Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. There have been modest improvements in cartoon female representation by the likes of Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Mulan, each exhibiting daring and courage in rebellion of their constraints—chief among them marriage, often arranged. The Princess and the Frog took a shot at liberating the genre from over fifty years of racist exotification and exclusion, but perhaps the most radical changes have been achieved via the live action dressings of the past five years. Whether as an effort to attract a more heterogeneous audience, or as a lucky product of the taste of reality supplied by real human actors, Disney has let slip in live action more comedic renderings of the outmoded tropes persistent in animated fairy tales. For example, hoards of city rats, pigeons, and cockroaches clean the apartment in Enchanted. The evil queen’s minion peruses the self-help section to overcome his attraction to a narcissistic woman. Though these renditions of the old clichés may be tongue-in-cheek, they’re not necessarily subversive: the ridiculous Prince’s ‘true love’s kiss’ doesn’t do the trick, but the smooch of a cynical man with a job and an adorable daughter fulfills expectations in the end.
Then there was Frozen, the animated reimagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, which took joy in setting up familiar fairy tale clichés just to knock them all down. Love at first sight, early marriage, and demonization of female power all go swiftly down the drain. Even the “true love’s kiss” is cast aside in favor of a truer sisterly love that lifts up and saves the kingdom.
Frozen showcases not the man-and-wife contract so vigorously marketed to children, but the more dear, worshipping, and age-appropriate love of childhood: the devotion a younger sibling feels to the older. In its animated yet psychologically adept best moments, Frozen complicates the power dynamic of siblinghood as the older Elsa’s great and sometimes terrible power catalyzes her maturation into adulthood. First isolated by her individual strength, Elsa must learn throughout the film that her sister, Anna, can and wants to be a close ally. Together, they wield Elsa’s stunning power (this female protagonist builds her own castle) and rescue themselves from those who wish to enchain them. Rendering the difficult themes of puberty, grief, loyalty, and shame digestible to young audiences, Frozen managed to flip the Disney tradition on its head and became the brand’s top grossing animated film of all time. Audiences young and older were ready for such a story in the style and spirit of a fairy tale. In a time when feminism is at the forefront of American consciousness and discourse, Frozen seemed to be the beginning of a lasting movement to present powerful and positive female characters in film. The only question remaining was how Disney would follow it up and when we could expect a sequel. For millions of Frozen fans, another taste of Anna and Elsa’s magic—unique above the bottomless pit of man and wife fairy tales—would be irresistible.
In fact, Disney did release a follow up short, Frozen Fever, but chose to hold it hostage as minor prelude to their “new vision of the timeless legend” that is the perennially appearing Cinderella. What a ridiculous lineup! In Frozen Fever’s current position, the best-selling and politically least problematic fairy tale film is reduced to serving as a hypocritical stepping stone right back over the Styx and into Cinderella’s housekeeping arms. An evening at the theater begins with Frozen’s sister alliance of young women honing their abilities and developing their defensive intelligence in a world where power-hungry mongrels and manipulative dicks are out to use them, and transitions to a story in which women and girls turn against each other in quest for male attention. Moving between these themes in the same two hours is an ideological nosedive, and a dizzying display of gall from the Disney corporation.
We’ve heard the insistent refrain that the Cinderella story is about kindness and courage, and it was great to see such qualities in an “ugly” stepsister in the 1998 Drew Barrymore vehicle, Ever After. But again and again it seems that the fairy tale’s action and the reaction of the audience watching revolve most around Cinderella’s beauty. Cinderella receives attention, positive and negative, for her looks. That is the power of exteriors. This most recent rendition shows the Grand Duke of the kingdom (played by Stellan Skarsgard) betraying the crux of the issue: “Keep her out of sight,” he bellows, lest Cinderella’s real power be unleashed.
The New York Times’ Kathryn Shattuck reported before Cinderella’s premiere on the “savvy and cynical casting” of the film, suggesting that the exchange actresses Lily James and Sophie McShera do of their upstairs/downstairs roles in the BBC’s Downton Abbey somehow modernizes this rendition. Sleight of casting is repeated in Helena Bonham Carter’s taking her turn as the fairy godmother, retiring the giddily awful and infinitely more memorable Bellatrix Lestrange of Rowling’s Potter series. We adults can sort and judge ironic multiplicity in roleplaying, but we should not expect it to mean a damn thing to our nine-year-olds.
Shattuck’s article affords Branagh himself the opportunity to betray the antiquated ideals he had in mind while recreating the old favorite:
A sophisticated, intelligent, passionate girl emerges out of a classical framework where her empowerment is not at the price of becoming like a man. I think it celebrates her specific femaleness in a way that encourages people to be who they are, not necessarily in competition with the opposite gender or with an attempt to be what other people wish them to be.
And what, Mr. Branagh, would “becoming like a man” entail exactly? Integrity and self-respect? Setting aside the director’s knock to Mulan, Branagh’s characterization of Cinderella as an emerged “girl,” forever youthful and forever just short of adult, reveals precisely what he considers to be essential “femaleness.” Such a strict and binary construction of gender roles elides too many young people to hold water in today’s generation. Branagh’s encouragement of Cinderella and her prevailing femininity “not necessarily in competition with the opposite gender” dismays as yet another sparkling figment of the fairy tale’s fantasy. Today’s reality of violent, interculturally pervasive, and longstanding attacks upon women such as sex trafficking, sexual assault, unequal pay, and gendered eugenics, demonstrate that there is indeed a sort of twisted competition going on. To shame or dissuade young women from taking action in this struggle has alarming implications that lead us nowhere but a disheartening future of compliant female subservience.
Perhaps Branagh’s reference to competition with the opposite gender is in fact only his shadow puppet for the vice-gripped chokehold of female competition that he devotes screen time to instead. Perversion of sisterhood and the demise of female relationships has been projected on repeat to millions of children who had been playing and singing at sisterly strength since 2013’s Frozen. Yet another opportunity arises for youth to recreate the dynamic of “frenemies,” that modern and marketable euphemism for female competition in today’s post-fairy-tale world.
Trailers for the film showcase the beaten down Cinderella turning against her abusive family members, not for their mistreatment of her but to “protect the prince.” This misplaced revenge illustrates again Cinderella’s lack of self-worth: she wouldn’t fathom defending her own integrity, but rises immediately to protect a man’s best interest. Add to that the adamant preference for men displayed by the other female characters and miscegeny would seem to be the story’s prevailing theme.
I don’t mean to undermine the allure of Cinderella or its many retellings. The collective symbolism of all its Jungian parts holds undeniable caché, as does the fairy tale tradition. Annie Liebowitz photographed Lily James for the cover shot, as she did many other celebrities playing the parts of Disney fairy tale characters for the Disney Dream Portrait Gallery. These tales will never leave us. The transformative power of that glass shoe is as real as the centuries of storytelling that have reproduced it. We can’t pretend as though the stories we tell don’t have absorbed meanings and consequences upon behavior and belief; that may be precisely what they’re there for. As the critic Laura Miller put it in her 2009 Salon.com article, “The evolutionary argument for Dr. Seuss,” story is “the enjoyable means by which we practice and hone certain abilities likely to come in handy in more serious situations.” It follows that while we are busy projecting ourselves into the story’s stakes and longings, the meaningful structure at work in the tale itself rebounds into our own minds, establishing itself as a system of understanding all that is confusing in the world today.
The story told by Disney’s willingness to forge a direct path from Frozen back to Cinderella is a dark one. The iconic glass slipper may afford Bonham Carter the film’s one measly, quasi-feminist, though barely-comedic line—“you’ll find they’re really comfortable”—but Disney is not at this time capable of any transformation, despite its audience waiting and watching the screen.
Bush, Anita. “‘Cinderella’ Is Having A Ball Worldwide With $400M Box Office.” Deadline.com.
6 April 2015. Web. 13 April 2015.
Miller, Laura. “The Evolutionary Argument for Dr. Seuss.” Salon.com. 18 May 2009. Web. 26
Shattuck, Kathryn. “Cinderella has a Dusting of Downton Abbey.” The International New York
Times. 5 March 2015. Web. 6 March 2015.
Cecily Berberat is a published writer of fiction, poetry, and literary analysis whose work has appeared in The Map Cap Review, Bird’s Thumb, All Accounts, and Mixture. Richard Ford selected one of her stories to win the 2012 Meadowlark Award. She holds an MA in English literature and an MFA in fiction from The University of Montana and is currently teaching at The University of Toulouse II-Jean Jaures in Toulouse, France.