Disney’s new Cinderella, and the evolution of the princess myth

Clearly, I’m obsessed with fairytales. I write steampunk versions of them. I watch Once Upon a Time (and occasionally review it here). I geek out when they finally put out an unabridged, uncensored English translation of Grimm’s Fairy Tales after a mere 400 years.

Over the weekend, I watched the trailer for the new live-action Disney version of Cinderella. If you’d like to watch it, here it is.

At first blush, it seems pretty underwhelming after the mega-successful Maleficent. Even compared to the visually-striking Mirror, Mirror (confession: I kind of loved the Bollywood dance number at the end).

It does look like they’ve restored the importance of Cinderella’s mother to the story, which is a nice change of pace. It’s a welcome nod to the original version, where her mother’s spirit, not a fairy godmother, enables her to attend the ball.

What’s most interesting about this movie is that, by the looks of the trailer, they haven’t really changed anything from the original 1950 animated film. And that’s potentially the most subversive thing about it.

You know what’s missing from this trailer? The part where Ella trains to become a legendary warrior, martial artist or opens a giant can of “crouching tiger, hidden badass” on the stepsisters and stepmother.

When you look at all the most recent entries into the “princess mythological canon,” it’s interesting to me that the “Rocky training scene” has now become a de rigueur element. We could probably have a whole discussion about what this says about rape culture, and the idea that the solution to violence against women is for women to just get as good at violence as men. But that’s probably a whole other post.

Interestingly, Cinderella is probably the most proactive of the “classic” Disney princesses. Snow White is entirely reactive–and does a pretty poor job of protecting herself. While Sleeping Beauty will always have a warm place in my heart as the first movie I ever saw, there’s no denying Aurora has all the agency of a rock. I mean, the most important action she takes in the entire movie is falling asleep on cue.

Cinderella consistently worked to achieve her desires. The first dress she dons for the ball isn’t the “deus ex magica” one provided by her fairy godmother. It’s the one she made for herself. The magical forces in the story only take over after Cinderella has genuinely tried to achieve her goals on her own. They act to level the playing field, not take over for the protagonist’s lack of initiative.

In looking at the trailer, they’ve made much more explicit the the importance of the heroine’s primary virtue: kindness. If they keep the original 1950 story intact, it’s her kindness that saves the day. She’s not rescued by the prince. She’s released by the animals she’s cared for over the years.

Which poses the interesting question: when did kindness become an unworthy quality to define a hero? 

It’s definitely not in line with our modern understanding of heroism. I do appreciate that the changes we’ve seen in “modern princess mythology” is a necessary corrective to decades where the dominant narrative was that women’s goals ended with “getting married to the right guy” and passive heroines who had no agency.

But I don’t feel like the solution is “we’ll just make the girls more like guys, and then they can be heroic, too.” I think there has to be room for a protagonist who just wants fair treatment, a happy family and a loving home. I think there has to be room for a protagonist who is kind and loving, and still gets a happy ending without having to engage in a sword fight with the villain or turn into a warrior queen.

At least, I certainly hope so, because my fencing skills are sub-par, to say the least.

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