We find ourselves in a time and place where the voice of feminism has never been louder. Issues like Gamer Gate, sexism in Cosplay, a woman’s right to an opinion on fantasy, comics, or horror, as well as a myriad of issues outside the realm of pop culture like slut shaming, and blame for being raped flood news outlets on a daily basis. As a result, there’s been a constant cry for change from men and women alike, internationally. We’re seeing stronger representations of women in cinema, and on television. 2013’s Frozen offered a very necessary shift to the Disney Princess dynamic, suggesting that one saves oneself, that love is genderless, and that the kind of love that saves need not strictly be romantic.
The tone of this shift is both liberating and necessarily stringent. It’s a dialogue that needs to happen in order to bring about a drastic change in representation that is long overdue. And in the midst of this heavy dialogue we find Kenneth Branagh and Chris Weitz’s Cinderella adaptation. A retelling of one of the least feminist, and most problematic fairy tales ever told, which proposes that women need to be rescued by a wealthy man of advantageous position, that they exist solely for the purpose of domesticity and subordination, and need little more than decorative trinkets thrust upon them to be happy.
This is not that story.
It is, deep down in its bones, the same fairy tale we are all familiar with; Ella, a young girl, loses her beloved mother at a young age. Growing up with her loving father, he becomes increasingly lonely, and takes a wife. A widow herself, the new Stepmother brings along two materialistic young daughters, as hideous on the inside as they are beautiful without. Ella loses her father to illness on his travels, and, in her heartache, falls victim to her Stepmother and Stepsisters’ domineering ways.
One day, the Prince of this fantasy kingdom announces a ball whereby all maidens in the kingdom are obliged to attend – he is to choose a bride, and would like the broadest selection possible. Forbidden to attend, our dearest Ella finds a friend in her Fairy Godmother. She attends in the most splendid regalia, and wins the heart of the Prince in one fell swoop.
You know how it ends.
This is all there. Branagh and Weitz have maintained the fundamental story of Cinderella, including its enchantment and whimsy. Where they’ve made alterations is brilliantly subtle.
To start, we should discuss the feminist rendering of the Prince. One of the predominant dialogues around feminism is, contrary to uneducated belief, the equality of genders. Issues surrounding female representation throughout Disney’s cannon are atrocious and rampant. However, the barrage of nameless, faceless Prince Charmings’ whose sole purpose is to be savior and provider is not much better. Weitz and Branagh have delicately adjusted this shortcoming.
This Prince Charming is not merely a bland vessel of wealth and liberation for our heroine. Rather than the faceless Prince Charming circa 1950’s Disney, Branagh’s pushed Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) to bring Prince Kit to loving life. We learn about him in a very real way – who he is, where he comes from, where his priorities and morals lie, his relationship with his father, and his love for his people. We learn about him in much the same way we would expect to learn about our heroine – completely.
Madden renders Kit charmingly. Dashing and debonair, he’s heartfelt and committed. A man of deep integrity, and fiercely stubborn, he has a remarkable relationship with his father, a man he loves dearly and deeply respects. Save for the attempt at historicizing the story of Cinderella in 1998’s Ever After, no Prince Charming has ever been so fully formed.
From the revitalized rendering of our Prince, we come to our heroine: Ella. More often than not, the story of Cinderella simply happens to our protagonist. She is little more than a victim of circumstance, with no autonomy or control over her fate. Not so with the lovely Lilly James (Downton Abbey). She maintains the sugary-sweet disposition imperative to the character, while affording Ella some new luxuries. Ella is transformed from a bland, flighty, naïve girl into a young woman of great fortitude, and unparalleled kindness and understanding, capable of unwavering trust despite her circumstances.
Weitz and Branagh have, furthermore, afforded both Kit and Ella the chance at a consensual relationship. There’s a certain level of autonomy to their courtship that we’ve never seen before. The Prince needed to find a wife, and, by way of the 1950 animated version, Cinderella was the fairest at the ball and so won his vote. His father approved off the bat because he thought she must be royalty, and her looks were enough to imply good breeding. Cinderella was enchanted by the Prince purely because he was royalty, capable of removing her from her misfortune, and providing her with a life of luxury, away from servitude; the perfect ode to the 1950’s housewife. They literally hunt her down, and take her away. Forcefully insert happily ever after.
Here, our characters have been afforded the luxury of falling in love. Their chemistry is beautiful. As they learn more about one another, find common interests, and learn that their morals are in synch, they become intertwined in a way we’ve never seen.
Further encouraging their romantic progression is the introduction of a topic scarcely tackled in Disney films in any tangible way – Hormones! We forget that Ella and the Prince are likely little more than teenagers when they meet. Bodies are changing, and unfamiliar urges are surfacing. Branagh and Weitz have managed to subtly, yet necessarily, include this in the film. When Kit first touches Ella’s waist to dance at the ball, both inhale deeply as if they’ve each been shocked by a thousand volts. Every touch registers not only on their faces, but in their bodies. All of this is illustrated most beautifully when Kit escorts Ella into his secret garden, a place of deep familial sentimentality.
It is here that art director Ravi Bansal and his team aptly brought to life Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s “The Happy Accidents of the Swing”, a controversial painting from 1767 that found prominence in the Salon set, suggesting the sexual desires of adolescents. It was hugely scandalous at the time, suggesting the main figure – a shepherdess, commonly regarded at the time as women of high virtue and staunch chastity – had a level of autonomy over her sexuality and sexual desires. She allows the young man in the foreground, presumably her lover, a glance up her skirt as she swings, tossing her shoe in his direction. Meanwhile, an elderly gentleman, a symbol of patriarchy, is left forgotten in the shadows, pushing her swing unaware of the lover before her. This image is beautifully recreated, as Ella sits in a very similar garden, on a very similar swing. Without a care in the world, her shoe is tossed from her foot. Kit kneels before her, and reaches just beneath her skirt to replace the lost crystal shoe.
This new, progressive position on Cinderella continues with the so-called Evil Stepmother, portrayed elegantly by the incomparable Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine, Elizabeth). She imbues the character with the kind of malevolence made legendary by Eleanor Audley’s unique vocals. However, her wicked ways are rendered in a more human manner. Rather than altering Lady Tremaine’s story, Branagh and Weitz have merely altered our perception of her. They’ve positioned Tremaine in such a way that allows us to understand her motivation. We may not feel sympathetic towards her, considering her behavior is atrocious, but we certainly do come to understand her as more than just a villain.
This rendering of the character positions Tremaine as the face of Cinderella’s (1950) victims, so to speak. She is the resulting backlash of the influence of this fairy tale – a woman who bought into the notion of true love, and married for just that. Having lost her husband, she was devastated, but forced to remarry for financial security and position in order to take care of her girls and herself. She chose Ella’s father because of his kindness, but we are made to believe she never really loved him. When he died, her resentment towards a broken system was solidified, making her harder, more callous, and brutally wounded. She would have to manipulate the system yet again in order to find some kind of financial stability.
It is here we see the face of a generation fed the Cinderella myth with a spoon. That true love is all we need, and then we’ll be taken care of. That we, as women, just need to find our Prince, and that happily ever after will come naturally. And it doesn’t. Lady Tremaine is the twisted result of that unhealthy mentality, the representation of the victim of fantasy, and the personification of everything that’s horribly problematic with the animated version.
Such a subtle transformation of a one-dimensional character could not have happened were it not for Blanchett’s incomparable abilities. Her aptitude for subtlety and nuance brought this Lady Tremaine to a brand new place, allowing the audience to finally understand her, and to witness the backlash of romanticized gender inequality.
Yet, despite this portrait of Tremaine, and despite the legacy of Cinderella (1950), we are, as an audience, afforded one of the most beautiful luxuries of all – whimsical enchantment. Zooey Deschanel has frequently been accused of not being a real feminist because she wears dresses. Women throughout North America who dress without makeup, don’t shave their bodies, or have cellulite in their thighs are often dubbed man haters. The broad spectrum of ignorance that shrouds feminism is something most women deal with on a daily basis. You can’t have kids if you’re a feminist, because you think domesticity is always a bad thing – false. You can’t get married if you’re a feminist, because that’s a form of subordination – equally ridiculous. You must dress like a man or a lesbian (because, apparently, lesbians have a uniform that makes them blatantly visible to society) if you’re a feminist, because they don’t believe in being pretty – stop making a fool of yourself!
Feminist doesn’t mean we don’t like being feminine, or that we don’t enjoy whimsy, and escapism. We believe in gender equality, not gender superiority. We believe in the right to choose – to wear a dress, to have a child, to get married, to be a CEO. We believe in the right to fall in love, instead of being forced into an archaic system whereby marriage isn’t defined by partnership, but rather is defined by a power struggle of the sexes. We do not hate men, but rather love and appreciate them, especially those who recognize us as more than just baby factories, and afford us a level of autonomy that doesn’t divide the genders.
Branagh and Weitz have maintained the majesty, whimsy, and wonder of the Cinderella story, while at the same time affording us a new perspective. When Ella transforms into her stunning ball gown, I welled up inside I was so giddy and excited. When Kit takes her in his arms, and leads her gracefully across the hall as they dance, I positively swooned. When they shared their intimate moment in the garden, forget about it! I felt like a 5 year old girl again, excitedly participating in a fairy tale. Only this fairy tale affords our heroine more opportunities, provides a real human being as her love interest, explains the importance of autonomy, and at the same time recognizes the potential pitfalls of fairy tales.
It’s been argued, aptly, that the story of Cinderella is little more than the billboard that advertises what all young girls should strive for as females; to be subservient, domesticated little creatures who are simply biding their time, waiting for a man of wealth and position to make them a wife. This is not that version. Branagh’s taken that imagery and turned it on its head, allowing the virtues Cinderella proliferates to be those of strong character. Ella is a woman of profound kindness, patience, understanding, determination, strength and integrity. Her kindness and patience isn’t in place of her right to basic human rights, as was the case in the 1950 animated version. Instead, she’s demonstrative of a way we should all behave as human beings – ungendered.
Kit mirrors these virtues in order to solidify those principles, that we should all be good, kind, compassionate, understanding individuals, who stand by our convictions, and fight for what is just and right. Yes, Ella does wind up married to a man of wealth and position, but this is not something shameful. What is inherently shameful in the basic story of Cinderella are the implications that women are to be seen, and not heard. That we do not have the right to choose for ourselves, and that we are incomplete without a man to save us, and trinkets to entertain us. The right to marry is simply that – a basic human right. It is not demonstrative of unfeminist ways, or damaging ideals. It’s perfectly normal to want marriage as a young woman, just as it’s equally normal to not want children, for example. To pick apart that one motif in the fairy tale would be to miss the point entirely, to overlook its true flaws and to push an entirely other set of ideals on young women that are equally as limiting.
Branagh and Weitz have given us a healthier rendition of Cinderella, one I would be proud to show my future daughter. Its subtle changes make a world of difference, allowing one of the many faces of feminism to sneak in, without a stringent agenda. It exists simply because it is a necessary dialogue, one that should become omnipresent in media, and one that we should no longer have to fight for.