Disney’s live action reboot of Cinderella is being billed as a feminist retelling of the classic tale, where Ella “isn’t just waiting for her prince” and demands to be accepted on her own terms. However, the movie’s apparent message that soldiering through mistreatment with a stiff upper lip is a kind of ultimate heroism is troubling and leans on the kinds of stereotypes of the Good Woman and Good Feminist that Amanda Vail discussed in her piece on the Agent Carter finale. What do you think of this version of Cinderella as feminist hero?
Claire: Tale as old as time, rrrreeeally, innit?
Ashly: Nope. Far too “Lean In” for me. The “power in suffering” thing is too familiar in the arts as well.
Kelly: HELL NAW. As it is, the Grimms’ Cinderella is a story of a young woman discovering her power—I once taught an Adult Education (like community college) class on folktales, and one of my students points out that in the Grimms’ version, Cinderella has the ability to communicate with birds and make them do her work for her. Then, when the sisters are riding with the (spectacularly unobservant) prince after they mutilate their own feet, the birds in the forest sing about the blood in their shoes, and the prince rejects them. At the end, they get their eyes pecked out by birds. Coincidences? I think not. That is power, and revenge, and magic.
Plus, for a lot of women, making a good marriage wasn’t just a measure of their personal value but a means to obtaining socio-political power. The women of medieval courts were not to be messed with. You wouldn’t cross Catherine de Valois, or Eleanor of Aquitaine, or…the list goes on. Yet we place a modern emotionally-oriented gloss on these folktales about women getting married, and note too that the Cinderella story focuses on how Cinderella and the women in her life feel about her marriage and much less on what the prince thinks of it all (because for the purposes of the story it doesn’t matter).
Sarah: I haven’t seen it and haven’t seen anything in the trailer or reviews that interest me.
Jamie: Suffering is noble? Please. Gag me. What an insult to people who have actually suffered abuse and mistreatment. Craptastic spin doctoring.
Fairy tale updates have been popular since, well, since fairy tales were being circulated in their original form. This new wave of Disney updates, Tangled, Princess and the Frog, Frozen, Maleficient and the new Cinderella, take one of two tacks: 1) A family-friendly bildungsroman with sass; or 2) A darker, more realistic, but still family-friendly “twist” on the “classic” story. Once Upon A Time strays furthest from this formula, but still does little to interrogate fairy tales or the practice of updating fairy tales. What elements of the original fairy tales have been left out of these updates? Specifically, what’s present in those old stories that might be (more) relevant to audiences today?
Claire: My favourite stories in the big ol’ Grimms collection I had as a child were the ones that were as weird as possible and quite often the ones that just stopped. A bunch of weird rubbish happens, and then: nothing. No plot, just things. A bull with a picnic in its ear, rabbits (or goats?) in the basement, big whirling eyes, ballrooms you get to through a tree. I really liked the one about the boy who fell in love with a girl, but couldn’t marry her unless he could pick her out from her seven, or maybe twelve, identical sisters. He had to cheat to win her hand. Things that were more sensation than story. I could really, really go for some avant garde. And poor people. Who don’t end up rich.
Ashly: The thing is, fairy tales, or more specifically the folktales they came from, were never meant to be official set in stone versions. You track the history of particular kinds of stories, possibly with the Aarne-Thompson system (which I loathe, but have now referenced twice in a month, ew), and you see how they change and adapt for their audience. So I don’t see the point in bragging about updating a story like this, of course you do, that’s what they’re meant for. I majorly dislike the trend of disinfecting the stories because of this history: the point isn’t to assure kids there’s nothing bad out there, it’s to teach them that bad things happen and they can overcome them. And kids come up with some of the darkest and most horrifying things on their own, they are often far more prepared to face the horrors in stories than adults are.
Kelly: Yes, exactly this. It troubles me when stories are “updated,” because this is usually carried out by commercialized middle-class engines of production. Folktales are part of oral culture, which in Europe was traditionally a way for the poor and disenfranchised of society to ensure that their voices could be heard and to convey their fears, aspirations, values, beliefs, and customs to the next generation. I don’t trust multi-billion-dollar industries to “update” such narratives, or at least not in any way that preserves the essence of said narratives.
Sarah: It’s also tied into the idea of children as innocents in need of protecting, which is a fairly modern idea. Part of the reason fairy tales were originally so dark was because children were viewed as little adults who just needed to be educated. So that’s why in the original version of Little Red Riding Hood ends with Red being raped and eaten. There’s no woodsmen to cut her and her grandma out, because the story wasn’t about rescue, it’s about the bad things out there that will get you if you don’t know any better. Maleficent was awesome in its part about (spoiler) the Prince not being the one who kissed Beauty awake, but there was only this small nod towards the idea of kissing unconscious girls being a test of true love, and that’s a specific idea that these new movies are starting to chip at, but they’re not doing enough.
Jamie: Couldn’t tell you, really. I quit OUAT shortly after it began because the writers wanted to hit viewers over the head that Snow White’s Evil Queen as Mayor of Storybrooke was really just a woobie poor pumpkin with a bad past and we should feel sorry for her because doesn’t all she’s been through justify her being a Mean Queen? I kinda liked the fact that Red in OUAT was a werewolf, but that wasn’t enough to keep me.
Ginnis: I have a fascination with OUAT, but I must admit I am getting tired of giving villain’s sympathetic backstories. Like why can’t Maleficent just be an evil, petty fairy? I think sometimes it’s done well like with Rumplestiltskin on OUAT, but it seems like the backstories for female characters are just so much less interesting. But I also don’t think I mind Disneyfied fairy tales if they are going to show POC and different sexualities. I think there’s something important to that sort of utopianism for characters that aren’t just white and hetero.
Although Disney has been making efforts (kind of) to diversify its Disney Princess line, the modern fairy tale genre, as produced by Disney and elsewhere, continues to be overwhelmingly white. What are some stories you’d like see rebooted and racebent? And what are some non-European folktales you’d kill to see on the big (or small) screen?
Ashly: Anything! I think I still have an old copy of my Indo-European folktales textbook kicking around if they need ideas. So many similar stories set in different cultures with different touches and often different lessons, there’s no excuse NOT to have more diversity! I recently saw someone try to defend Cinderella always having to be white because “it’s a European fairy tale.” Nope. Wrong. The basic Cinderella story exists in cultures all over the world. The specific Charles Perrault version, which is the one we usually go with, yeah, sure, that’s French. But I don’t see anyone demanding the purity of fairy tales when Cinderella gets her dress from a Fairy Godmother instead of a tree possessed by her dead mother. Read the original Grimm version. Then come fight me. And if you wanna do a new version of Cinderella, consider adapting Vasilisa the Beautiful because at least then you get to see the stepmother and sister incinerated by magical skull fire. Russian fairy tales are a gift to us all, really.
Kelly: Momotaro and Issunboshi would make excellent movies. They would have to be made by Japanese studios, though—I don’t trust Western studios to not screw them up or cast Keanu Reeves instead of an actual Japanese actor or something.
Sarah: I’d be happy to see anything that isn’t the same old, same old, to be honest. Some of the stories in my book of Appalachian folk tales are hilarious, as well as the stories that come out places like New Orleans. But I also have a soft spot for Japanese ghost stories, although I just go to Japanese movies for my fix of those. Oh, and I know better than to ask for anything based on Native American mythology.
Ginnis: Sarah, I want that book based on Appalachian folk tales.
Sarah: It’s so good. And so overlooked in favor of the easy stories.
While Disney has a lock on fairy tale princess stories, what are some non-Disney modern fairy tales that worked for you? Or conversely, were spectacular failures? What does a fairy tale update success story look like?
Ashly: I am one of the least traditionally “girly” people I know, but when I saw Ever After on Netflix streaming recently, I flailed in excitement. For me that was successful as an update: it was still set in the past, but the story itself focused on working for what you want, standing up for what you believe in, relationships between mothers and sisters, the need for honesty in a relationship, and “true love” not being as important as finding the person who makes you want to be a BETTER person. Values updated for modern relationships.
Sarah: Holy hell Pan’s Labyrinth. It has all of the classic fairy tale components: a young, vulnerable protagonist that no one will listen to, real magic, terrifying villains, a quest, and a bittersweet ending. It successfully incorporated a specific time period and a political subplot beside Ofelia learning some hard truths about the world. Not to mention how gorgeously creepy that movie is. Fairy tales should be beautiful, even if some of us like them spattered with blood.