Earlier this week, I went with my sisters and mom to see Disney’s Cinderella in theaters. I can’t watch anything these days without questioning what it is teaching my ten and eleven-year old sisters. I had heard various reviews of this latest princess movie and was eager to develop my own opinion.
The question is simple: is Cinderella a good role model or not? However, folks have been drawing various conclusions since the trailer for Cinderella first released last year. The first controversy I heard was over the size of her waist. Some people were offended that another female protagonist would succumb to the “skinny fever” that seems to run rampant in Hollywood, but I don’t see it that way at all. Cinderella is set in the mid-1800’s, a time period in which corsets were the custom. The girls are all obviously wearing corsets in the new movie (there’s even a humorous scene involving lacing a corset) and that is only historical accuracy. Cinderella looks healthy, lively and petite, not emaciated. So as far as the body type issue, I have no complaints.
The second controversy, which has surrounded princess movies of all types in the recent years, is of course: is she a strong, female lead? This is a loaded question, because “strong female lead” is not a Webster’s dictionary definition, but a matter of opinion. However, my blog is a place just for that, so, in my humble opinion…
Some movies cast an undoubtedly bad light on women. I actually refused to go see the latest James Bond for that reason. For centuries, woman’s main source of power has been seduction and I don’t want to support that idea for another decade. Women are immeasurably creative, resourceful and resilient and I would love for my little sisters to see that reflected in movies.
So let’s dissect!
(Spoiler warning for the 2% of the world that doesn’t already know this story.) The movie begins with Ella as a baby and young girl. She is full of joy and surrounded by love. From a young age, she is quite the conservationist, often caring for seemingly forgotten members of their household, especially the mice. True to the fairytale, Ella’s beloved mother falls ill and dies while Ella is still young. As she lies on her deathbed, she gives Ella this piece of advice: No matter what happens, always be kind and have courage.
This simple advice becomes Ella’s mantra and a main theme in the movie. When Ella’s father remarries and brings the Lady Germaine and two stepdaughters into the home, Ella reminds herself to be kind and have courage and is able to treat them with kindness, even though they are rude and insensitive. The new “family” doesn’t start off seeming cruel or abusive, but rather like many real blended families start off. Things are awkward, the kids don’t get along well, everyone has to adjust to a “new normal.”
Ella and her father appear to have a mutual understanding that these three new family members are more than they bargained for, but are both hopeful things will smooth out. When Ella’s father leaves for an extended business trip, things take a turn for the worse. The stepmother starts to show excessive favor to her own daughters and begins to belittle Ella. When word comes that her father will never return, Ella is the only one who grieves him. All her stepmother seems to care about is the loss of income. The household is released and the work is left to Ella.
Is Ella submissive? Yes. Does this make her a bad role model? Not necessarily.
Ella evidently clings to the last wishes of both of her loving parents: to be kind, to have courage and to try to make this new family work. When it becomes clear that she and her stepfamily will never truly be a family, Ella continues to keep her promise to her mother, but she does not cower or give up on her own dreams. Ella continually makes the most of what she has, remains hopeful and goes to great lengths to improve her own life while still being kind to her cruel stepfamily.
Ella is submissive to her stepmother, not because she thinks she has no value or is too afraid to cross her. Ella’s courage is unwavering throughout the entire movie. She is submissive because she promised to be kind. She is submissive because she has the courage to love the unlovely people in her life.
I think what is really bothering people about having Cinderella as a role model, is not that she’s weak, but that she’s good. We’ve come to associate bravery with rebellion. I think many people want to see movies with main characters more like Lady Germaine than Ella. As Jo March says in the 1994 Little Women, “Women should have a vote, not because they are angels, but because they are people. Men do not vote because they are good, they vote because they are male.” Women are exhausted of feeling our only character choices are goodness and seduction. There is so much more to 51% of the people on this planet. And because of this, we’ve fled from “goodness” and replaced it with so-called onscreen equality.
Lady Germaine is clearly a hurting person. She has been widowed twice and is greatly disappointed in her stupid daughters. She is afraid of her penniless future and obviously harbors a deep envy of Ella. In order to feel she has any standing at all, she must continually put Ella down. At one point, she actually cracks a little and rails at Ella for being young, beautiful and good. She cannot stand Ella, purely because Ella is everything she wishes she was. She particularly hates Ella because Ella does not hate her back.
But, of all her strengths, this is Ella’s greatest. She is perhaps the bravest of Disney princesses because she does not give in. She does not begin to hate or even to flee. The world may very well not be able to see her as a role model, but as a Christian, I think she’s a heroine. She loves, she serves, and, in an extremely touching scene toward the end, she forgives. Lady Germaine scarcely seems to comprehend the words, “I forgive you” but they make quite the impact on the audience.
Does the prince save Ella? In a sense, he does. But the future he is able to provide Ella with is more of a reward for her good heart and hard work than an avenue of salvation from another hero. “Kit” (as the prince is called) is dazzled not only by Ella’s beauty, but the ways she contrasts with the other girls. She is humble, brave, has a mind of her own and isn’t afraid to speak it. Kit clearly marries Ella because he loves her, not because he pities her or wants to promote himself.
In the midst of her trying home life, we see Ella blowing off steam (which is when she meets Kit) and defying her stepmother’s wishes (attending the ball.) She does not decide that this is her lot in life, or resign herself to “her place.” She is tempted to believe the things that are said about her, which we can all relate to, but she chooses to believe what the people who loved her said about her.
When Kit finds out who she really is, we don’t have that awful fifteen minutes of miscommunication onscreen love stories usually give us. She comes clean completely and boldly approaches him as “Cinderella,” as if to say, “I know what they say about me, but I’m not afraid of that identity. My life has not been easy, but it has only made me stronger.” She asks if the prince would take her just as she is, and he asks the same of her. If that’s not equality, I don’t know what is.
Finally, Ella does not seek revenge on her stepfamily on any level. She forgives them and moves on with her life. Justice is served outside of her hands. The “happily ever after” feels like a fitting reward for a resilient, brave, and yes-good-woman. And Cinderella feels like an anthem for the virtues movies seem to have forgotten lately: quiet courage, bold love, firm perseverance and humble happiness. It’s a reminder that we really do want the good guys to win and we really aren’t tired of happy endings.
Cinderella provides everything your little sister is hoping for: glass slippers, fairy godmothers, animate mice and a dashing prince. What they might not expect is to be inspired not only by the ballgowns, but also by the morals of this famous princess. As a sister, an equality advocate and a movie-goer, I give Cinderella five stars.