As Disney continue their plundering of nostalgia with live-action remakes of some of their classic titles, with Maleficent a box office smash and films of Beauty and the Beast and Dumbo in the pipeline, it should come as no surprise that their recent Cinderella film made serious box office bank. Directed by Sir Kenneth Branagh and starring Lily James in the titular role, the film easily took the top spot with a $70.1m opening weekend and surprisingly strong reviews.
Of course, said reviews came with a more socially conscious focus than the original film from the 1950s probably had. Time passes and cultures evolve, which is something Disney is very aware of, but there is still a serious commercial appeal to what the studio deems to be the ‘classic’ approach to storytelling; in this case, that means adhering to the original story (Disney’s, not the fairytale, of which there are literally hundreds of variations) as closely as possible. There are benefits to that but there’s also the very obvious issue of how those particular depictions of women hold up, and what they say about our culture at large.
Writers and viewers have been analysing Disney for a long time, and it’s most often the Cinderella archetype that comes under the most scrutiny. The character is derided for her seeming lack of backbone, for being a ‘pushover’ who lets her step-family walk all over her, and for passively moving through her own story with little to no agency over her narrative. The latest film has met these criticisms and then some. This is a perfectly valid discussion to have, and an important one as Disney buy up basically all our childhood properties to package wholesale for a new and impressionable generation.
And yet I find myself unsatisfied with the discussion as it stands because it has so overwhelmingly overlooked one glaring part of Cinderella’s character.
Cinderella is a victim of abuse.
She has been forced into a role of servitude by her emotionally manipulative step-mother, reduced to a servant for her step-sisters, and continually reminded by them that she is not their equal. In the famous dress ripping scene, she is physically abused (because that’s what happened there, make no bones about it), and in the climax she is locked away to be further denied that which is hers. She is not human in the eyes of her supposed family.
Imagine being subjected to that for years.
Imagine being part of that life, and being told you needed more backbone.
I almost never see this angle of the story discussed and it infuriates me. Some adaptations of the tale give it more credence but the tendency to fall back on the more traditional take – because that’s what we’re used to and we like that kind of familiarity, or at least cinemagoers do – means it’s too often overlooked. It’s understandable as to why Disney wouldn’t want to include this kind of darkness in their family friendly widest-audience-possible story, but it does beg the question as to why these same tropes are so frequently recycled, re-imagined and repeated. We all know the simplest answer is money and branding but that can’t be entirely responsible for it.
Many of the reviews have questioned the script’s focus on Cinderella’s ‘niceness’ and her use of it as a shield for her passiveness. I also understand this and there is a terrible precedent set with the insinuation that if you’re just a ‘good’ enough person then you’ll be able to withstand the bad things that happen to you, but this also requires further discussion in the context of Cinderella as an abuse survivor with coping mechanisms, particularly ones usually bestowed upon women as part of a patriarchal society.
If we must return time and time again to this ‘traditional’ mould of storytelling then surely it’s time we provide a fully contextual and empathetic understanding of the material at hand. I’m not asking for every fairytale princess to include a sword-wielding ‘kick-ass’ heroine (honestly, I’m a bit bored of that trope too), but surely our tales will be richer, more understanding and just as entertaining if we talk less about Cinderella’s backbone and more about her circumstances.