“Have courage, and be kind,” our heroine’s mother tells Ella before she passes away.
The theme resonates through the story, as Ella is joyous amid her troubles—when banished to the attic by her wicked stepmother, she rearranges the scraps of furniture and shakes out a dusty blanket, before she tells the mice how much she enjoys solitude.
Everyone has heard or seen or read this tale in some form, and the live-action version of Cinderella hits all the familiar points—a deliciously wicked stepmother, played to icy perfection by Cate Blanchett, two utterly intolerable ugly stepsisters with hideous taste in fashion, a prince, a fairy godmother, a ball, and the magic unravels at the stroke of midnight. But unlike all the other live-action retellings of Disney’s classic films, director Kenneth Branagh re-invents and fleshes out the storyline, creates a reason for Lady Tremaine’s cruelty to Ella, and makes Ella both a feisty and self-sacrificing heroine who punctuates her sweetness with moments of fierce self-assertions. When Lady Tremaine smashes her precious glass slipper to smithereens, Ella bursts out with, “Why are you so horrible? I cannot understand it!”
This Lady Tremaine tries to barter for power, has ambitions toward controlling the prince, and loathes Ella because she received all of her father’s love—she hates the girl who somehow maintains an unshakable spirit of joy and gratitude during incredible hardship. When Ella hears news of her father’s passing, she says, “I am sorry,” to the person who delivered it; “I know that must have been difficult for you.”
Such sweetness might churn the stomach of a cynical critic, but Cinderella has never been an honest to goodness person—she is the embodiment of an ideal to which women may aspire, the personification of the highest in graciousness, self-serving ideals, and courage. She turns kindness into a fine art, and the story rewards her for this compassion by making her into a princess—a subtle idealistic reminder that good things come to good people. This may or may not prove true in the real world, but we all long to believe it, and rejoice in seeing it unfold.
That a common girl with cinders in her hair and holes in her shoes can attract a prince through divine intervention must have attracted the peasants in droves when the story first appeared. It resonated with their deeper ache for importance, for a glamorous and happy life beyond the simple hardships of their lives; the endless laundry, the burned bread in the stove, the mice in the kitchen corners. Everyone longs for significance, for their lives to matter, to believe in a reward for their goodness… and so we create archetypes, idealized characters to love and root for, who express the deeper desire of our souls.
If Cinderella embodies all the good virtues of hope, charity, and kindness, then her stepmother and stepsisters show us the harshness of selfish unkindness. Lady Tremaine shows malice taken to extremes, an all-consuming, possessive envy. She sees a child who keeps her happiness whatever happens, contrasts it with her own bitterness, and loathes Cinderella for it, because she cannot face self-improvement. She wants to stay as she is, embittered, and destroy the good in her world, through crushing Ella’s happiness. Her daughters show us the female vices—of pettiness and inner ugliness, of shallow behavior, simpering ambitions for power, manipulation, and mockery.
The Fairy Godmother is a divine force of intervention, a touch of magic that plants the seed of hope, but she only enables Cinderella to attend the ball—she does not influence what happens there, and it is Cinderella’s own goodness that brings her greater rewards. She wins the Prince not by magic, but her charismatic sweetness.
Such perfection is an ideal, a dream, not within the reach of mere mortals, the ideal embodiment of a divine woman, but faerie tales with happy endings are not meant to show us the world as it is, but as we wish it could be.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop devotes her free time to eating chocolate, debating theology with her friends, researching the Tudors, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life.