It’s hard to make a Cinderella who isn’t a victim.
That was clearly the challenge for Disney, whose live-action version of the classic fairy tale opens Friday, after a long season of hype. Modern Disney heroines are meant to appeal to little girls, but also satisfy the Sheryl Sandberg spirit: they’re archers, bookworms, restaurateurs, stupendous-snow-castle-creators.
Cinderella’s claim to fame is the fact that she endures. Loving father dies, wicked stepmother abuses, ball invitation is forbidden. Help comes largely from outside: Fairy godmother appears. Pumpkin transforms. Prince, once charmed, takes over.
It’s the story everyone knows, which wasn’t Disney’s only option. When the studio set about re-making “Sleeping Beauty,” it came up with “Maleficent,” a female-empowerment tale involving a misunderstood fairy. The secret backstory of Cinderella’s stepmother might have been interesting too. But it might not have lent itself quite so well to licensed product tie-ins. If you’re selling the ultimate fairy tale experience — today, women of a certain income bracket can buy $4,695 “glass slippers” by Jimmy Choo — you can’t mess too much with the source material.
Instead, Disney puts “Cinderella” on a pedestal, with many nods to the 1950 animated film, sumptuous production values, direction by Kenneth Branagh, and a lead straight from Downton Abbey. To appease the modern temperament, there are tweaks. Some of them work. The crowd scenes are refreshingly diverse. The meet-cute between Cinderella and her prince takes place not at the ball, but in the woods, where Cinderella delivers a speech about animal rights. The prince lobbies hard to marry for love. And when he launches that search with that slipper, he’s seeking not an object, but a partner with a choice.
But choice is also a problem in this telling, because it’s hard to escape the idea that Cinderella chooses to be miserable. At the very least, she accepts her stepfamily’s cruelty — sending her to sleep in an unheated attic, giving her a derogatory new name — not with a fighting spirit, but a stiff upper lip and the occasional song. If it weren’t for fairy godmother intervention, we imagine, she’d spend her whole life in the attic, hanging out with mice.
I watched a preview screening with my 10-year-old daughter, who couldn’t understand it: Why would this woman, who seems college-aged and reasonably smart, stay with people who treat her so badly? The notion is so jarring, in 2015, that the script is compelled to address it: one character asks Cinderella outright why she doesn’t leave.
An easy answer, had Disney chosen to give it, is history. Unmarried women weren’t always free to move out on their own. Say that out loud and spark millions of deep conversations in minivans on the ride home. (We could talk about corsets at the same time.)
Instead, though, we get a convoluted explanation: Cinderella insists she promised her now-dead parents that she always would cherish their house. It’s all tied to a backstory involving her mother, who doesn’t appear in the animated film — but in this one, lies on her deathbed and urges her daughter: “Have courage, and be kind.”
I’ll be kind to Disney for a moment here: It helps, when retelling a fairy tale, to flesh out motivations. This movie suggests that the stepmother faced adversity, too, and grew hardened; Cinderella, by contrast, stayed true to her sunny outlook, which serves her well in the end. Disney’s press materials inform us that Branagh, who also directed “Thor,” wanted to explore the idea of kindness as a super power.
That’s a good message, to a point, in a world where casual cruelty is easy to find. It’s also a way for Disney to get around the “victim” issue, points out Rebecca Hains, a media studies professor at Salem State University and the author of “The Princess Problem.”
“They were trying to frame her enduring the situation, not as victimhood, but as an act of courage,” Hains said.
On the other hand, holding up endurance as a virtue has its logical limits — “I don’t get the ‘cherishing the house’ bit as a good reason to submit to abuse,” Hains said — and it sends a disturbing message of its own. Not every situation is worth accepting. And not everyone has a fairy godmother available for rescues and quick fixes.