On Watching “Cinderella” – A Few Thoughts
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“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”
–G. K. Chesterton
I don’t often write about movies but I watched this one recently with my housemate (my husband having fled to his office the moment we put it on, ha ha) and it led to a rather extensive discussion about how elements of pre-Christian religious belief, ancestor veneration, and proper protocol for engaging with all manner of spirits are often embedded in fairy tales. Cinderella is no exception to that. Now I’m not a Disney fan. I’m definitely not a live action Disney princess movie fan but my friend Tatyana talked me into watching this one against my better judgment and I actually found it quite lovely. Then Tat. read me a couple of the negative reviews and I thought, ‘God damn it. Now I have to write something.’ So, here you go.
Our stories are important. They tell us who we are. They distill the most essential qualities of our lived experience, the best of who we are as a people. Fairy tales are even more a condensation of certain eternal and essential truths, all wrapped up in magic, beauty, and sometimes terror. They inspire us to be and do better. A story like Cinderella is, under its many, many layers, the story of the power of our ancestors to see us through the most difficult and challenging of times, and a story about the importance of remembrance (1).
I never liked the Disney cartoon of Cinderella (except for the cat, Lucifer. He was awesome. In fact, my only complaint about the live action movie with Lily James is that Lucifer the cat didn’t have a larger part). She always seemed like such a doormat. Having read several of the reviews of the recent movie, I know I’m not the only one to feel that way in general about this story. But, also having read several versions of the story (I like the most gruesome ones the best, no surprise there), and now having watched the live action movie, I’ve revised that opinion (2).
Please note, there will be spoilers below.
I think there are qualities of nobility of character, loyalty, and goodness in Cinderella’s nature that are really highlighted in the Lily James movie (hereafter whenever I refer to “the movie,” I will be referring to this version alone). Cinderella’s mother dies when Cinderella is a child and her last words to the girl are “have courage and be kind.” Several reviews of the movie criticized this, but it’s excellent advice for developing character and personal virtue, especially because the two complement and balance each other. An excess of one or the other isn’t good, but if you balance them true strength can take root. Cinderella lives by this rubric as best she can and in the movie, articulates why she chooses to remain in the home later, after the death of her father, when her stepmother and stepsisters behave so foully to her. It is her home. She feels a connection to the land, a responsibility, and wants to honor that, and the memory of her parents in their home. She makes a conscious choice to stay – maybe not the choice I might make (definitely not) but it’s her choice, made from a position of strength and integrity. She could, after all, have left and found work anywhere given her kind nature and domestic skills, and this is evident throughout the movie. In fact, a friend urges her to do just that. She chooses to stay for her own reasons, and the dismal treatment doesn’t touch who she is inside. This is also an important lesson.
In one review that my friend read, the writer complained vociferously about what a poor example this was setting for her daughter but I do not think ‘have courage and be kind’ is a bad example, nor is the hospitality and courtesy that Cinderella maintains throughout the movie. It’s tested several times too: when she receives news of her father’s death and again when her step mother tears up her mother’s dress the night of the ball and the fairy godmother comes to help. Cinderella doesn’t take her pain out on those around her, but does her duty (hospitality and courtesy, kindness) as she perceives it to those outside the family first. There is nobility of demeanor, which has nothing to do with blood or wealth, but in the world of fairy tales like life, everything to do with character.
What we see is that no matter what one’s circumstances, even if those circumstances are terrible and outside of one’s control, one may still choose how to respond. It doesn’t have to make one cruel or bitter, or twist one out of true. That’s an important lesson, I think. We have a choice in how we respond to hardship. That means we have agency and control, maybe not over externals, but certainly over ourselves.
I think this is something fairy tales really bring home: personal agency and responsibility. Yes, Cinderella is couched in the story of a sappy romance, but the real story is what happens before and around all that. The romance is just part of the social trapping to make it palatable to children and childlike adults. Hospitality and courtesy recur repeatedly as important themes and life lessons and inevitably in these stories are rewarded in some way by non-human forces. There is duty and protocol, right action and right relationship external and immutable to anything happening in one’s life. Doing those things under duress is a sign of good character in the world of fairy tales and fairy godmothers.
We can learn from these stories if we’re willing to take them as they are. Too often when modern writers decide to twist them out of true to accommodate modern “values” and mores, they lose the essential wisdom embedded in these tales. Like so many of the stories we read, there are doorways to very sacred things contained in some of these children’s stories. They’re meant to imprint an awareness of what is right behavior in those listening or reading, to help us learn to choose wisely that which will shape us as adults. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, that’s a very, very good thing. We need those stories, now more than ever.
What are your favorite fairy tales and why?
- In the original version of the story, Cinderella plants a tree on her mother’s grave and goes there, making offerings and praying every day to the spirit of her dead mother. It’s her mother that helps her, not a fairy godmother. It’s really interesting how often ancestors and the fair folk are elided, especially in Northern European lore, but that’s an article perhaps for another day.
- It’s been a while since I’ve read the original Grimm version of the story but I believe the stepsisters cut off toes and mutilate their heels to fit into the slipper and at the end, ravens peck out their eyes.