This article appears in the Fall 2015 issue of the Intercollegiate Review. Check out the rest of the issue here.
I watched Cinderella, and it was awesome, and leftists hated it, because it was awesome.
Disney’s live-action treatment of the famous fairy tale presents the heroine as a good woman, not just hot (although Lily James is, ahem, distractingly beautiful—especially in those Pride and Prejudice dresses she wears all through the movie). And it’s her goodness that ultimately wins the heart of the prince, who is also good, not just rich and powerful.
See the theme here? Basically, good looks, power, and wealth take a backseat to good character and morals. Remember that point—it’s important later.
The movie begins with little Cinderella living happily in the lap of luxury, with loving parents, an enormous mansion, great food, leisure time, and even servants. Father teaches Cinderella to dance and to speak fluent French, and Mother teaches her a catechism: “Have courage, and be kind.”
An enviable life.
A decade after Mother tragically dies, Father hears of a woman whose husband has just died and left her and her two daughters destitute. In his goodness, he opts to marry the widow and provide for her and the girls, who are about Cinderella’s age.
When Father dies on a business trip, the three new women of the house show their true colors. They grieve—not for his loss but for the loss of his wealth. They hadn’t been grateful for it; it was their right! And now that they’ve lost it, they’re outraged.
Cinderella, by contrast, is heartbroken at her parents’ deaths. Her stepmother (played by Cate Blanchett) forces her to dismiss the well-paid household servants and take on all their work, essentially as a slave. The stepmother doesn’t even let Cinderella eat with the family, and her stepsisters taunt her mercilessly. But the kind Cinderella honors the final request her father had made of her: to take care of her stepmother and stepsisters.
One day, Cinderella goes into the nearby woods and encounters the kingdom’s prince while he’s hunting. The two fall in love without her realizing that he is a prince (he tells her only that he’s an “apprentice”) or his realizing that she is a servant.
When the prince invites all the ladies in the kingdom to a ball in hopes of meeting the mysterious girl again, the stepmother and stepsisters see it as a chance to snare another wealthy provider. They leave for the ball and order the equally excited Cinderella (who hopes to see that nice “apprentice” again) to stay home and do the laundry.
Cinderella finally loses her cool, and cries (prays?) bitterly, “I can’t be courageous any longer! How can I be kind to them?” Immediately, the Fairy Godmother appears, at first as a scary old crone who wants a glass of milk—which Cinderella kindly fetches.
And bibbidi-bobbidi-boo! Cinderella’s persevering virtue wins her a dress, glass slippers, and a giant pumpkin Uber-ride to the ball, where she meets the prince and discovers his true identity.
But her identity remains a mystery to the prince, who launches a kingdom-wide search for the girl with Lily James’s shoe size. The wicked stepmother finds a glass slipper Cinderella has hidden and insists on being made head of the royal household once her stepdaughter marries the prince. Cinderella refuses, protecting the prince and the kingdom from the envious clutches of the stepmother. As punishment, her stepmother smashes the glass slipper and locks Cinderella away in the attic.
Despite those efforts, the prince finds Cinderella, and the two live happily ever after, but not before Cinderella offers forgiveness to her stepmother.
The Moral of the Story
And what’s the moral of this profoundly moral story?
According to many liberals, it’s that Lily James’s slender waist was probably digitally altered by patriarchal males. Feminist writer and comedian Gaby Dunn wrote, “I’m gonna CGI myself giving this movie a big middle finger.”
Other liberals shot back, calling the backlash a case of “thin-shaming.” (Incidentally, I think Lily James responded perfectly: with a shrug. “I’ve got hips and boobs and a bum and a small waist,” she said matter-of-factly, calling the whole controversy “boring.”)
What about the moral substance of the movie? Dr. Rosie Campbell of the University of London spoke for many liberals when she called the story “appalling,” citing Cinderella’s reliance on a man to protect her from abuse. “No wonder we are struggling to get young women engaged with politics.”
In praising Cinderella, conservative-friendly movie reviewer Josh Cabrita recalled debating a Marxist who admitted she couldn’t stand a good movie precisely “because it was enjoyable and pleasant.” “What would Marx think?” she told Cabrita. “It’s advocating a distraction for the masses, so they can forget about the oppression of capitalism.”
Perhaps some feminists are angry at Cinderella because it’s a distraction from the “oppression of patriarchy.” How could they possibly endure a young female character who honors the principle “Have courage, and be kind”?
I’m reminded of a central snippet of dialogue from the movie. Cinderella’s stepmother is about to lock her in the attic for refusing to hand over the kingdom when the girl finally confronts her.
Cinderella: Why are you so cruel? Nobody deserves to be treated as you’ve treated me. Why do you do it?
Stepmother: Because you are young, and beautiful, and good. And I’m . . .
Morally defeated and visibly shaken, the stepmother turns and locks the attic door behind her.
I like to think she was going to use the “B word” but director Kenneth Branagh thought better of it and censored the script. This is a kids’ movie, after all. But maybe it would be more accurate to reimagine the scene this way:
Cinderella: . . . Why do you do it?
Stepmother: Because you are young, and beautiful, and good. And I’m . . . a leftist!
Stephen Herreid is a regional director of student programs and outreach at ISI. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenHerreid.