Sometimes you need to take a break from the grind and do something for yourself. Yesterday, after three work days filled with jangling phones, power outages, metro running amok, and piles of paperwork, I threw up my hands and went to see Cinderella.
I’d heard good things about it, but I didn’t know what to expect. Disney has been hitting some things out of the park for me lately, with films that are subverting traditional expectations and bringing new vision to familiar tales as well as creating new ones. As usual, though, I wanted to see for myself.
I know the story of Cinderella. I grew up with the Disney cartoon, fell in love with Ever After and Ella Enchanted, and have always related to Cinderella for a number of reasons. She may have been born into wealth, but she lived for many years in poverty. She was mistreated and unused to kindness. She is an underdog, and for that I think I’ve always loved her.
This new film cemented her in my heart as someone to cherish forever.
HEAR YE HEAR YE. SPOILER ALERT — I’ll be discussing not only plot points that may be familiar, but film-specific instances and interactions that aren’t present in all incarnations of this story.
Plenty has been said about the sheer beauty of this film, and I’ll nod my head happily and agree on that score. I’d rather use this space to talk about more of it, however. Beneath the surface.
Have courage; be kind.
This is the through-line of the film, the moral they are intent on communicating to the audience. It’s stated early on in words from Ella’s mother, and she repeats it as a mantra throughout the film. In some ways, this is one of the bolder things I’ve seen from Disney when it comes to the women on their screens. There are brave women in plenty of Disney movies — Pocahontas, Mulan, Merida, and Belle spring immediately to mind — but I’ve never before really seen them message this thought of courage directly to young women. Courage and bravery are words that are so often applied to boys. But in Cinderella, they looked a young girl in the eye and told her to have courage and be kind.
Ella’s courage is manifest throughout the movie. The courage to be kind in the face of abuse. The courage to stand up to her abusers. The courage to repeatedly ask for what she wants. The courage to go to a ball in front of everyone in the kingdom when she has spent years in a dusty attic with only mice for company. The courage to be who she is without apology or shame. There is power in Ella’s courage. A lot of it.
She is Strong in Her Self-Worth
There is something that struck me partway through this film, and it was her pride in herself. Her surety, her confidence. She is not a downtrodden character; she is a confident hero. She knows her worth. She believes in her worth. She asserts her worth.
When her lover is threatened, she refuses to allow for it. Knowing that standing up for him could jeopardize her chance of ever even seeing him again, she still refuses to compromise and stays firm in herself and what she believes is best. When her fairy godmother offers to make her a brand new dress, Ella doesn’t hesitate to assert that the one she’s wearing already has value and meaning to her. She doesn’t meekly take anything. This Cinderella is anything but meek. She is kind, yes. She is thankful, yes. But she is in no way weak. She survives an abusive world on her own strength, holding onto herself throughout.
Lily James’ performance is gorgeous to watch, because she moves through the world with an innocence that doesn’t sour into naivete, and she exists fully in each moment on screen. It was truly a pleasure to see this portrayed so clearly.
(I also love that her name is both of Harry Potter’s parents’ names…but that’s neither here nor there.)
And when she gets what she wants in the end? It’s not someone sweeping her away from her abuse without thought. It’s as a whole person who knows who she is and asks to be taken as such, without pretense. It’s not just Ella telling Kit he has to accept that she’s a country girl; it’s the knowledge that she is a survivor who has known grief and abuse and that she is courageous for not accepting love for anything less. It is her finding an equal partner who values her as a whole person.
That’s fucking beautiful, that.
A Role Model of Strength
This Cinderella is strong. She has an inner strength that shines through this film. She holds tight to what she knows to be true, and she shares herself with others. She is compassionate. She is not a victim. She survives.
I loved watching her, because she wasn’t denied the chance to feel angry or indignant or upset. She was given the space to be and feel many things, and through it ran the line of what she really believed was important. Moreover, it was her strength that gave her the ability to overcome and escape the abusive home she was living in. Her quiet courage to sing, to exist in herself. Before that point even, she reached for the things that mattered to her. A horse ride. A chance to go to the ball. She asserted herself, and she found a way.
First of all, he has a name. A NAME! Like a person or something! Amazing.
I loved Kit. I absolutely loved him. It’s been a long time since I met a Disney prince I could really love. Not only is he kind and respectful of boundaries, but there are a few moments where Richard Madden’s performance made me cry because his character was allowed something I don’t know that I’ve ever really seen from a Disney prince: vulnerability.
The first is when he approaches Ella at the ball. He has tears in his eyes. Tears. A Disney prince showing raw emotion. Their meeting at that ball is beautiful.
The second is when his father passes. Not only do we see his father’s love for him, but when the king passes away, we see Kit, curled up in the fetal position in his father’s arms, weeping.
Like — wow. Love, emotion, vulnerability — none of these things preclude Kit’s strength. He is a wonderful character, and I fell in love with him.
Baby Steps of Diversity
So…the principal cast was not so diverse. But one thing I noticed in this film was that the background was. It may sound like a small thing, but it heartened me to see people of color in the nobility, in the townfolk, in the palace, everywhere. Princesses and dignitaries, merchants and peasants. People. Present. Visible. And the kind captain of the prince’s guard (Nonso Anozie) was just wonderful.
So what’s so quietly revolutionary about this film?
I think I can sum it up with this: the characters were free to be more than one thing. Ella was exhorted to courage and displayed it in kind. Kit was given leave to be more than simply a generic Prince Charming, but a work-in-progress (an “apprentice of his trade”), a man who did not fear his emotions, but embraced them. Lady Tremaine got to be shaped by more than simply a desire to be cruel, but a mirror image of Ella’s grief. What kept Ella kind made Lady Tremaine cruel, and Cate Blanchett was, as always, a goddess on screen. People of color were present and not limited to just being servants (which…I mean, watch Dumbo if you think that never happened), but were given space to be aristocracy and merchants and regular townsfolk. We got to see a diverse world in a fairy tale setting, and that is invaluable.
It gives me hope that girls growing up today will have this movie to look to. That they will have Frozen and Brave and the Princess and the Frog, and Mulan, and many different depictions of what it can mean to be a woman and be courageous and strong. That they can be more than one thing. That they can be confident in their self-worth. That, my friends, is something to treasure.
I wish my hopes were higher for Peter Pan, but if Mulan is anything like Cinderella, you might have to drag me out of the theater.