Cinderella has been trending big at my house since Valentine’s Day, when we gave Abby and Jem the classic animated version. They love it, and so we’ve watched it a LOT, despite the fact that it is still not my favorite. I appreciate that Cinderella is sweet and that the villain is not too scary for my small children. But I still think the “Sing Sweet Nightingale”/soap bubbles number is a little trippy, and that scene where Jack and Gus Gus are getting the key up the stairs seems to drag on until I don’t even care if Cinderella gets out of that attic or not.
Despite my ambivalence, I decided to take Abby to the movies to see the live-action Cindy. The reviews from my Facebook friends had been overwhelmingly positive, and my sister Leslie spoke about it with such rapture that I thought it might be a worthy way to spend ten dollars and a hot afternoon.
My innocent Google search “Cinderella movie showtimes” brought up not only that necessary information but a bunch of rants that opened my eyes to a controversy I hadn’t known existed.
Amid lots of silly fuss about Lily James’s tiny waist, this argument stood out: “The movie is well-done, but Branagh doesn’t seem to understand that as a culture we’ve moved beyond heroines like Cinderella. Our girls are looking for strong princesses like [Frozen’s] Elsa and [Brave’s] Merida.” (I’m paraphrasing because I can’t find the original article again.)
With heightened curiosity, I saw the movie, and I thought it was great. It added layers of interesting dimension to the Ella character and to the story in general without altering the basic character types: the sweet princess, the petty and bickering stepsisters, the bitter, cruel stepmother. I loved the costumes, the casting, the setting, the absence of psychedelic singing soap bubbles.
As I reflected later, I kept thinking about Cinderella vs. Elsa and all those poor little girls who won’t get to see the movie because their mothers are afraid they’ll grow up to be weak women.
But here is the thing: Anyone who thinks that Cinderella is a weaker heroine than her “modern” counterparts doesn’t know how much strength it takes to rise above the mean and live a life of virtue. It’s actually not that brave or strong to run away from your family and your responsibilities so that you can “be who you are” without conflict or opposition.
It’s to live among angry people and not become angry;
To suffer deeply and not become self-pitying;
To be despised and not despair;
To be wronged and not become embittered, but to forgive.*
I’m not letting the evil stepfamily off the hook, and I don’t excuse their abuse. But the fact that Cinderella maintains her dignity even when she’s in the cold attic, or covered with soot from the fire, illustrates a concept that is decidedly not in vogue: there is strength in submission.** This was encouraging for me, because frankly, most days my kids are as demanding and ungrateful as those stepsisters. (The difference, of course, is that they are five, two, and three months, and therefore they have an excuse.) But I can serve them with love, with patience, with joy, even, because THEY are not the ones that validate me. I don’t have to leave my kitchen and flex my muscles for the world; true strength doesn’t need to be propped up and sustained by applause and recognition.
Strength does not have to look like athletic prowess or magical powers or political domination. Left in the garden, wearing the tatters of her mother’s ruined dress, Cinderella breaks down in tears. But when a “beggar woman” interrupts her to ask a favor, our heroine wipes her eyes and immediately begins searching for a glass of milk. This is her moment of strength: self-sacrifice to serve another. To stand in her own yard and pour a drink for someone else when she really wants to be dressed up and dancing at a fancy party. I’ve been in a bit of a self-pitying mode lately, and this scene spoke volumes to me.
Cinderella embodies that lovely verse from Proverbs 31: “She is clothed with strength and dignity,” even when she is dressed in rags. She reminds me that I, too, can be clothed in that manner even when my pre-baby pants fit too tight and my shirt is covered with baby drool.
Although I fantasize about running away to live alone in an ice castle as much as the next mom, in my best moments I know that Cinderella has the strength I really aspire to. And when my daughters tell me they want to grow up and be princesses, I’ll point them to Cinderella and say without reservation, “I hope you do.”
* These lines reminded me of the famous poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling. If you haven’t read it since you were forced to in junior English, you should treat yo self and read it again!
**My favorite quote on this the topic of submission as strength is from Kathy Keller: “If it’s good enough for the second person of the Trinity, it’s good enough for you!”
If you liked this post, you might also enjoy “Charity Has Power and How Disney Didn’t Ruin Cinderella” by Haley Stewart at Carrots for Michaelmas.