I was sitting in the movie theatre, waiting for Into the Woods to begin, when the trailer for the new live-action Cinderella starring Cate Blanchett and Lily James began. I was excited to be getting a glimpse of this movie because I know my daughters are definitely going to want to watch it.
Well, based on the preview, I can safely predict that they—along with many other children and their Disney-loving parents—are going to love it. It looks like this movie will be very similar to the 1950 Disney classic, as far as the plot and the characters are concerned, right down to the enormous ball gown and Cinderella’s mice friends. The acting is sure to be wonderful and the characters will be better developed than in the original; from what I’ve read the story may even be told from the perspective of the prince, which would certainly be an interesting change. In general, however, it seems that the story will be very similar to the Cinderella we all grew up watching, and I think that was probably intentional. Little girls have always loved this story, so why change it too much? Maybe the goal was to make it similar, only better.
My daughters have seen the 1950 version, and it was one of their (many) favourites, but we do not own it because I would rather they watch it a few times at Grandma’s house than regularly at home. There are just too many reasons it bothers me. I don’t want them to watch it weekly, or monthly, even if they never tire of it. I want to avoid letting it shape the way they view gender roles, relationships, and what it means to be a leading lady (or more specifically in their world: a “princess”).
I’m not saying anything new about the original Disney version of this fairy tale. Feminists have pointed out problems with the “damsel in distress” trope of the classic fairy tales for decades, and Cinderella is one of the most helpless of the bunch. I am also not thrilled about my children having a role model who falls in “love” so quickly, simply because she meets a Prince Charming who is willing to rescue her from her regular life, however difficult that life may be.
What I usually like about more recent “princess” stories is that the writers try to creatively turn these stereotypes around. Frozen’s Elsa and Anna, for example, don’t rely only on men to rescue them, and Anna’s plan to accept a marriage proposal from a man she met that same day turns out to have some serious consequences. Even better, Brave doesn’t even have a love interest for Merida and her young fans to worry about.
So what about the new Cinderella movie? Well, after watching the preview, I’m worried. I don’t see any evidence to indicate that it will subvert the story in a way that makes me excited to show it to my daughters. Meanwhile, it’s “real life” appearance, plus the expanded character development, may encourage my kids to idolize this beautiful Cinderella more than ever—which was probably Disney’s goal.
There are definitely strong arguments to be made for why it’s good that little girls will love this movie. Cinderella’s prince is genuinely charming and probably kind to her, and at least in this movie they appear to meet before the ball, so “falling in love” isn’t an instantaneous experience based only on appearances. Besides, Cinderella herself is gentle, and kind, and good, and there is nothing wrong with encouraging these qualities in my daughters, right?
Well, I’ll have to see the movie before I can be sure, but it seems unlikely that the prince falls for Cinderella with anything close to a complete and respectful picture of who she really is. Even if he genuinely does fall in love with her, he is literally the only man she has ever spoken to. Maybe, just maybe, she should meet a few more before settling down? And as far as Cinderella’s personality is concerned, gentleness and kindness may be fine qualities, but why do they so often seem to exclude resourcefulness, bravery, and intelligence?
It is definitely possible that I’m not being fair. I have only seen the preview, after all. Maybe I’ll be surprised by the end result. Maybe in the climactic moments of this movie, Cinderella does more to save herself from her miserable life than wait for her prince to arrive at the door with a glass slipper and a marriage proposal. I hope so.
In the meantime, I’ll watch Ever After with my kids. That’s a Cinderella story with a protagonist who meets her prince when she hurls an apple at him, wins him over with her grand ideas and unexpected personality, and rescues herself from the bad guy before her prince arrives to save her.
I believe that stories are important in shaping who we are and how we see the world. This is why I care about these types of things—I’m paying attention to the stories that my kids are engaged in and I’m wondering if these stories contradict the ones I want them to embrace. To quote Into the Woods—another movie featuring a Cinderella who eventually learns that choices have consequences and that she is capable of thinking for herself—“Careful the tales you tell; children will listen.”