Why another retelling of Cinderella now? What in our culture might account for the latest iteration’s necessity, as well as its particular form?
Between Cinderella’s extended breaths and heaving breasts, between the Prince’s ensnaring eyes and bewitching teeth, between (or among?) any other moment of aesthetic idealization in Branagh’s version of the tale, there is a message so powerful yet evidently arcane that it must be uttered repeatedly: have courage and be kind. Surely even the most suspicious viewer can’t find fault with such a positive lesson. There is nothing wrong with espousing (relentlessly, almost desperately) courage and kindness, right?
A grand, alluring artifice is draped over this simple fairy tale, and because we’re so wrapped up in it, we’re more than ready to swallow any didactic intention it harbors. We are so swept up in Cinderella’s fate that whatever she may learn from it, we’re bound to that wisdom as well. Eagerly so. We adore her naivety, her resilience, her generous acceptance of oppression…primarily because we know how her story ends: happily ever after. Kudos to Branagh for not reducing the resolution to this fairy tale trope, however, as he emphasizes instead the continued activity of our heroine and her saving Prince rather than the passive, crystallizing fate of blind optimism. It is their persistent work and ethical commitment throughout their lives that define them, not a simple kiss and the necessary security and comfort of royal marriage.
Fortunately, this version largely bypasses the passive princess type of former Disney lore in favor of “the shrewd, resourceful heroine of folktales.” While this most recent Cinderella isn’t exactly like her earliest ancestors – “who refuse to stay at home suffering in silence and who become adept at engineering their own rescues” – she does seem to be a bit more active in questioning her circumstances, even though it still takes the Prince, combined with her natural beauty and art, to secure her salvation. We are meant to displace her beauty and art with courage and kindness, thus obscuring the true means of her triumph. Moreover, her enduring oppression and fate’s intervention (in the form of her Fairy Godmother) hardly provide a reassuring story to us, especially when we position the film’s lessons relative to our reality, which offers no such grace to most people. The film does, however, reinforce who does stand to experience such happiness: beautiful white women with blonde hair, blue eyes, and a “perfect” frame. The ideal feminine in our culture can never really be held down, especially once she falls under the gaze of the ideal masculine. Let’s also not ignore the material success Cinderella wins, even if it’s not emphasized by the didactic, diverting direction of the narrator, the Fairy Godmother, who becomes such a blatant hegemonic weapon that we should realize easily that magic is reserved for those who don’t really need it, and that happily ever after is a dream reserved for those who already live it.
Cinderella’s positivity is grounded in the same naivety necessary for persistent belief in the American Dream. In both cases, the ideal is absolutely worth our ambition, but if it comes at the expense of being conscious of reality, especially when that reality is a direct result of our being taken by the Dream, it’s time for the clock to strike midnight and for us to face the truth of our servitude. Unfortunately for us, there is no Prince on his way to rescue us.
*Quotes taken from The Classic Fairy Tales, Ed. Maria Tatar