It’s become so fashionable of late to pan the old Disney hits for their outdated gender dynamics. To me, that’s like calling Citizen Kane (1941) a cinematic failure for not addressing gay rights. Like any piece of art, early Hollywood classics should be viewed as products of their time, no more responsible for reflecting our values today than we are for guessing what causes our great-grandchildren will champion sixty-five years from now. After all, Cinderella (1950) wasn’t produced in a vacuum.
Its 2015 live-action remake, on the other hand, has got no excuse. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, the new Cinderella clearly addresses a contemporary, politically correct audience, even going so far as to revise nineteenth century monarchy to include black and Asian families. I appreciate the Disney corporation wanting to promote diversity, but is rewriting history really the best way to foster understanding between people of different heritages? To make matters worse, these anachronistic minorities are all relegated to subservient roles, like the captain (Nonso Anozie) whose sole personality trait consists of serving his master well. Not awesome.
Otherwise, Cinderella sticks almost religiously to the source material, following our titular heroine (Lily James) as she slavishly waits on her stepfamily, befriends local rodents, receives a magical prom makeover, and gets royal vindication by way of a glass slipper. Some details are further fleshed out, such as Cinderella’s nauseatingly saccharine relationship with her mom (Hayley Atwell) and dad (Ben Chaplin). However, those expecting a subversive revamp akin to Ever After (1998) will find that “two dimensional” doesn’t just apply to cartoon characters.
Take, for instance, the role of Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), who can’t seem to make up her mind as to the cause of her cruelty. It’s hinted at first that she resents Cinderella (Lily James) for outshining her dimwitted daughters. Then screenwriter Chris Weitz toys with notions of unrequited love, suggesting that our heroine tore her new family apart by constantly reminding her father of his true soul mate. Jealousy would have made a surprisingly humanising motive for the wicked stepmother. Alas, Cinderella eventually cops out as our villainess reveals, much like a Bond villain, that she’d been a run-of-the-mill gold digger the whole time.
A consummate professional, Blanchett commits to every turn as if the previous never took place, fueling my suspicions that Cinderella went through extensive rewrites during production. Consider the film’s secondary baddy (Stellan Skarsgård), who betrays the crown for reasons unclear and then disappears without consequence. I’m also perplexed by the absence of musical numbers, given that the soundtrack album includes two performances by the cast. Heck, Helena Bonham Carter’s rendition of “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” is even used as an Easter egg during the end credits. Waste not want not, I guess.
The real issue, though, lies in Cinderella enabling her own abuse to demonstrate she’s a nice person. This self-destructive trait might have led to an interesting arc if she learnt at the end the difference between being kind and being a doormat. After all, moving out, as her friends suggest, constitutes a perfectly goodhearted alternative to getting treated like a slave. Unfortunately, our heroine never stands up for herself, waiting instead for the universe to solve her every problem. In fact, she only ever defies Lady Tremaine for the men in her life, reinforcing the ugly notion that a woman’s worth is measured by how much of her freedom she sacrifices for others.
Compare the passive young woman to Prince Charming (Richard Madder), who breaks a hunting tradition in the name of animal rights, defies his father (Derek Jacobi) in the name of love, and tricks his generals in the name of justice. One wonders what this great big ball of “manly” agency sees in Cinderella, whose incessant prattling about kindness and hope comes off to me like nails on a chalkboard. I know: she inspires him. Of all the fairy tales Disney has tackled, I never thought Cinderella would be the one to fall into the manic pixie dream girl trap.
The problem goes beyond sexist double standards though. Cinderella explicitly teaches kids that the morally correct way to deal with harassment is to put up with it. For heaven’s sake, even in the fifties, we understood that children have as much a right to self-defence as anyone. Sure, hitting back has become frowned upon, but anti-bullying initiatives are working hard to find alternate solutions. That’s the thing: our culture is ever evolving. We’ve come a long way in sixty-five years, and our fairy tales should follow suit.