The critical chatter about Disney’s newest Cinderella adaptation boils down to: the hullabaloo about Lily James’ waist being potentially Photoshopped for promotional posters (“waistgate”, one author quipped), Lily James’ general appeal in the film, the movie’s ethereal aesthetics and, of course, argument over the relative progressiveness of this Cinderella. As one Daily Beast author writes, “Amid our obsession with revisionist tales, it’s a boldly traditional telling.” Director Kenneth Branagh says his Cinderella is “not a pushover. She sticks up for herself.” There’s a big difference between “not a pushover” and “feminist”, however. Or between “not a pushover” and Frozen, if we’re speaking in Disney(1).
Does the formerly Shakespearean Branagh protest too much? Screen Junkies think so. On their YouTube channel “Honest Trailers”, Screen Junkies has pitched Branagh’s Cinderella as a movie that “will cancel out all the empowering things your daughter learned from Frozen…[here] girls are taught to be pushovers…and that their problems will disappear if they’re hot enough to land a rich husband.” Time fell all over themselves in agreement. Traditionalists like Paula Bolyard, however, are decidedly against this critique. The title of Bolyard’s rebuttal to Screen Junkies (“Angry Feminists Keep Trying to Ruin Everything — Now It’s Cinderella”) says it all, reminding us that ‘progressive’ does not equal ‘good’ to everyone. Then there are arguments like Telegraph editorialist Victoria Lambert’s in “Why I won’t be letting my daughter see Disney’s Cinderella”, which argue that, talented though she may be, Cinderella is still too physically Barbie to be tolerated. She is ultra-thin, no doubt, but I find this justification weak: I didn’t see any princess above a size four in Frozen, did you? Chris Weitz, the film’s screenwriter, says that this Cinderella may not line up with the “contemporary idea of a hero” who we “bootstrap”—and he’s right, divergent Cinderella is not. In the film, Cinderella’s father gifts her a branch (it’s cute, not weird), which Cinderella cradles, but which Katniss Everdeen would undoubtedly have used on an evil stepsister.
It didn’t surprise me that Cinderella’s character stayed faithful to the original imagining, doing her stepmother’s bidding, injured perhaps but compliant, blissfully un-resentful and non-violent. Much of the story is where we left it 65 years ago, from the girl to the stepmother to the fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter brought only a teaspoon of her usual pizazz), but someone did progress, and it’s not the mice. This Charming is more complex than he’s ever been, leagues ahead of where we left him and he’s among the most complex of Disney’s royal men.
In Disney, heroines lose before they gain; heroes just gain. Gain a woman or, more rarely, a kingdom that wasn’t theirs to begin with (Aladdin, Shrek). The great exception to this is The Lion King, whose prince, Simba, loses his father and, consequently, his entire sense of purpose, until Nala convinces him to put the bugs down and come back to being the carnivorous king he was born to be. Our new Prince Charming (Richard Madden) and Simba are the only Disney princes we see who experience real loss, and cry. I’m the first to appreciate The Lion King, but I think it’s important to note that until now only boys in cartoons have been allowed vulnerability and grief, either because they haven’t been losing very much or because they’ve been victim to that old, destructive stereotype Boys Don’t Cry.
In the new movie (*spoiler alert*) Prince Charming’s father (Derek Jacobi) dies shortly after the Ball. On his deathbed, the King, who’s been after his son to marry advantageously, tells the Prince to pursue true love. The King acknowledges his son as his own man, and both men cry. The Prince climbs next to his father in bed; the camera pulls away from above to show son curled next to father in the fetal position.
This image recalls the very scene that gives Cinderella her infamous moniker. With no warm bed to sleep in, Ella, as she is called in this version of the story, curls up by the fireplace. She wakes with cinders on her face and there’s a painful scene where her malicious cousins call her names before landing on Cinderella. Until I saw this scene between the Prince and his father, I’d always thought of Cinderella’s cinders as a mark of her literal poverty. Now I see it differently. Perhaps to make Cinderella seem “not a pushover” when she is later abused by her stepfamily, Branagh and Weitz throw in a scene early in the film where Cinderella’s father (Ben Chaplin) tells his daughter that they must always love the house because Cinderella’s mother is at the heart of the home. Curling up at the hearth, apart from being pragmatic, is a figurative comfort to Cinderella; the house becomes the embodiment of her lost parents, and lying by the hearth is to lie by them, in grief and in love.
Cinderella and Prince Charming are both only children whose fathers were their best friends. Cinderella’s peers were mice; Charming’s were servants. These are loving companions, but not, in the pseudo-medieval context of Cinderella, equals. In Branagh’s film, it’s suggested that Cinderella and her father spend most of their time together, reading and chatting in his study, and the Prince and the King joke with the intimacy of old friends. In the 1950 version, however, Prince Charming has long since distanced himself from his father, emotionally and physically—in fact the excuse to have a ball in the first place is to welcome the Prince home.
It is this loyalty to their fathers that allows Cinderella and Prince Charming to become heros, and therefore equals. A hero is one able to self-sacrifice for a greater good, even if at the end of the day he or she doesn’t have to sacrifice at all. The hero must be willing. From Abraham and Jesus to Frodo and Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen, too. Loyalty to their dead fathers leaves Cinderella and the Prince with kingdoms to protect: It allows the grief-stricken Prince to agree that if the girl with the glass slipper cannot be found, he will marry for advantage to provide security for the kingdom. It makes Cinderella stick it out with her awful stepfamily to protect the house that enshrines her mother’s memory. Even after the Ball, Cinderella is willing to return to the house, suck it up and dream her life away on principle. Fortunately, for both Cinderella and the Prince, they don’t have to martyr themselves and both kingdoms are saved.
We are used to revisionist fairy tales, and so we have one. Prince Charming’s humanity finally shows: he openly grieves, momentarily infantilizes himself and acknowledges that he may lose–and is willing to do so out of love for his father. Careful, Prince, your inner Princess is showing.
(1) I don’t personally believe that Frozen is an especially progressive movie, but given that many people do, let’s accept that it is for the sake of comparing both heroines’ critical reception.