First published by Women’s Agenda, 10 April 2015
Is Cinderella like a harmless dose of royalty – a mix of completely politically incorrect, a little bit charming, but also utterly bonkers? Should feminist mothers keep their daughters away these school holidays? Kath Kenny took her daughter, Miss almost-5, and her daughter’s friend, Master 6, and reported back.
Early on in Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella our heroine is orphaned and left to fend for herself in a household ruled by her wicked stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and her wicked stepsisters. It’s as if Cinderella (Lily James) has been thrown into a particularly sadistic reality TV show with the two most self-absorbed Kardashian sisters and their monstrously ambitious mother.
It would be enough to catapult anyone into clinical depression. But save for the occasional breakout of tears, Cinderella is all lightness and acceptance, repeating her dying mother’s final words: “have courage and show kindness”. She’s like the Dalai Lama after a resilience course. Given Cinderella’s abject circumstances, it’s tempting to wonder if the whole Prince Charming story is all wish fulfilment on Cinderella’s part, a fantasy story within a fantasy story: as the voiceover says, Cinderella “saw the world not as it is, but as it could be”.
Under such perverse conditions, it’s no surprise Cinderella turns to magic: it starts with her first encounter with the Prince, when she experiences the magic of beginning to fall in love, of meeting someone who can make you feel completely transformed. But Cinderella is also a story about the magic of a fairy godmother who comes to the rescue, who can transform pumpkins into gold carriages, and a commoner into the belle of the ball.
Of course, there are enough ideological traps and holes in the story to fill a thousand gender studies dissertations. As an oppressed minority, Cinderella takes the path of least resistance. If a benchmark for any would-be feminist is Rebecca West’s test – “expressing sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat” – then clearly Cinderella doesn’t seem to be a member of the club (though maybe she deserves special consideration, given the Stockholm syndrome she seems to suffering from).
Cinderella’s relationship with her Prince, too, is carried out in the most gendered of ways. He’s the active pursuer (they first meet when he is out hunting), and when she runs away from the ball and becomes elusive it only makes her more attractive to him. Later he becomes the creepy stalker guy, searching every house in the kingdom demanding women everywhere try on his glass slipper.
To be fair though, the square-jawed, dazzlingly blue-eyed Prince doesn’t escape sex symbol status: it’s a film of equal opportunity objectification. Initially Cinderella is madly attracted to his good looks (but confusingly, and weirdly, he looks like a younger version of her late father, in his boy band days). And it’s also the Prince who really loses his head, who is so in love he can’t concentrate enough to rule a kingdom. Cinderella, meanwhile, is prepared to see the romance for what it is: something to “enjoy while it lasts,” as Helena Bonham Carter’s fairy godmother advises.
While far from being a model feminist fairytale, I can’t completely side with those who’ve come out swinging to say they won’t take their daughters either. Any outright ban on the movie just reminds me of the parents at my first child’s child care centre who insisted the carers discourage the girls from playing in the home corner: I could see what they were getting at, but wouldn’t their children be more influenced by what was going on in their real homes, I wondered? If mummy and daddy are both cooking and washing dishes and wiping up soggy Weetbix from the floor, isn’t that what really matters, in the end?
Surely children are also smart enough to figure out that movies and books aren’t necessarily instruction manuals on how to live our lives (and reading fairytales doesn’t automatically lead them to think bears can actually talk, or that giants live in the sky at the end of beanstalk). Similarly, adult fans of Breaking Bad aren’t all going to turn into psychotic meth lab overloads if they receive a cancer diagnosis. As Mr 6 noted when we walked out of Cinderella: “It’s not very realistic.”
On the other hand, to argue that cultural products have no effects flies in the face of the entire advertising industry. As Peggy Orenstein wrote in a New York Times feature back in 2006, when the latest wave of princess mania was well underway, it was largely the result of Disney’s merchandising arm making a deliberate, and concerted, effort to empty parents’ pockets of billions of dollars by fanning a worldwide craze for princess products. Even the colour – Pantone pink No. 241 corona – was decided in advance.
Marketing aside though, I think the real problem is with the persistence of stories based on anachronistic ideas of the “marriage plot”. When women couldn’t own property, or inherit titles, or earn money at work, myths and stories about marrying well, and in particular about “marrying up”, to someone older, richer and more powerful, were stories about survival.
Although women can now work and own property and live happily ever after without a man, the myth of finding a prince charming remains remarkably persistent. Modern fairytales for adults – from Sex and The City to Girls – are fundamentally about the conflict women experience in an era where we want to be equal, where we are ambitious, but where we are still stuck, to a greater or lesser extent, by old-fashioned notions about women as nurturing and selfless, and men as protectors and providers – and rescuers.
An under-discussed part of Sex and the City was how the four heroines worked out this conflict. For Samantha it meant treating men as sex objects, and reversing the gender roles and finding younger toys boys. For Miranda it meant coming to the realisation that Steve wasn’t ambitious like she was, and then working out a way to find it sexy that he was more the nurturing, stay-at-home father type. For Carrie, it meant coming to terms with the fact that Mr Big was never going provide her with the happily-ever-after marriage she fantasised about, and that she might have to buy her own slippers (or Manolo Blahniks) for ever after.
If you do take your daughter to see Cinderella these school holidays, don’t look for any feminist edification. Enjoy it for what it is: a bit of sparkle and froth, and about as realistic as the Fairy Godmother’s claim that Cinderella’s glass shoes will be “really comfortable”. As we sat eating lunch after the film, my young charges nominated Cinderella’s parents as their favourite characters. It was a heartening – and daunting – reminder that they aren’t looking to Cinderella or Prince Charming for role models. They’re looking at us.
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