Thinking Too Hard About Cinderella

cinderella-sleep

As a feminist, I might be having stronger feelings than one should have about the new Cinderella movie. Y’all know I’m grumpy about Disney princess stories and the whole “be polite and pretty, and a rich boy will rescue you” narrative, but I think I like this movie, and I’m a little upset about it. I’d forgotten how much I loved Gus the mouse, and tonight I remembered and felt like a kid again. I wonder if it’s necessary to justify my love of Cinderella in the face of my feminism, and my general policy is that I explain myself to no one, but as I’m sitting at home after the movie and a couple drinks, I’m frankly perplexed at the intensity of my feelings.

My instinct going into the movie was to tear it apart. I hoped Disney would give the story a modern twist and make Cinderella something other than a passive victim, but I was a little shocked at how strictly they stuck to the old school helpless girl trope. We know how much kids idolize their favorite characters, and we know what they see in their entertainment shapes what they believe is possible for themselves. Right now, there’s a wonderful trend of increasingly complex and diverse female characters in all forms of entertainment. And yet this film plays both Cinderella and her Prince as flat and dumb as can be. WHAT ARE YOU TEACHING THE CHILDREN? Right?

But maybe this movie isn’t for kids. Maybe it’s a tribute to a classic. Maybe it’s so outdated as a story that Disney has decided to bronze it with all the glitter and schmaltz the costume department could muster. The whole thing is a bon-bon — meant only to be sweet and colorful and not to replace your daily bread. The thing I loved about the movie was not its depth but the memory of Gus the mouse and how I wanted a little mouse friend more than any of the dresses or even the prince. I had a little stuffed Gus doll that I got from a Happy Meal. It was the only Happy Meal toy I ever wanted, and I LOVED IT.

gus

Am I just excusing Cinderella because it’s old and makes me feel nostalgic? Um, maybe a little. It had other problems. For one thing, the cast was vastly white.

So look, this is a fairy tale. No one ever said it had to take place in a particular society or century, and the costume department took liberal advantage of that fact, dressing each character to match their personality more than any unified aesthetic. Interestingly, the men’s outfits were largely identical and almost all involved white yoga pants. Still, in a society where all centuries of fashion happen at once and girls wear dresses literally made of candy wrappers, we still only get white people. Only one named character was played by a black actor, and I only saw other people of color occasionally in the background, like during the royal ball scene — foreign princesses visiting in hopes of marrying the prince. In this century, having a cast this overwhelmingly white seems more than a bit obtuse.

I wonder if there’s a way to make Cinderella more interesting. Can you plump up the hero a bit? Can you give her flaws other than gullibility and frailty? Can you reinvent her without telling an entirely different story? And will the audience accept it? I think it would be hard to do but worth trying. Diversifying the cast on the other hand wouldn’t be so hard. You can absolutely tell this classic story without making everyone white. If they’d represented half as many ethnicities as they had fashion eras, it would’ve been lovely.

At the end of the day, I went to see the movie with friends, and we had a good time making snarky comments, but we also all basked in pure girly nostalgia — because who didn’t want to play dress-up in the step sisters’ closet? For a little while we forgot that we were grownup ladies with jobs and complicated lives. We looked at dresses, ate candy, and hated the evil step mother together — just old school girl shit. It was simple and it was satisfying — even the part where we tore it to shreds just like the step sisters fighting over a dress.

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