While I was writing about The shape of water, a few days ago, I remembered that I had planned to write about fairy stories with young women as protagonists since watching Ken Branagh’s Cinderella (2015) two years ago.
When the film had come out, some feminist writers had objected to what they saw as the umpteenth version of a story that tells girls all they can aspire to is a husband, who will take care of everything. Some got to the point of claiming that if Prince Charming had been smarter he would have plumped for the stepmother – and it does say something about you if you think that a selfish, cruel woman would be a better companion than a sweet, generous girl. Obviously, for some wicked is cooler than good. Or good, young and fair is obvious and undesirable. Some journalist or blogger even described Lady Tremaine as a heroic single mother who “does what she has to do” for her survival and her daughters’ – which would be reasonable if she just remarried. Problem is, she makes it her job to make diminish and humiliate her stepdaughter, making her a servant in her own house as soon as her very unwise father dies.
(I do not own any of the pictures in this post)
Anyway, we went to see the film, out of long-time admiration for the director (who had admitted it felt just good to be able to have everything he needed to make the film: to him, Disney was the Fairy Godmother) and, at least where I was concerned, because Richard Madden was the perfect choice for Prince Charming, and there would be no treacherous slaughter at the ball.
I liked it enormously, but I also felt more emotionally envolved that I expected.
There I was, watching Lily James go through all the stages and it dawned on me – maybe during the conversation on horseback (“they treat me how they know” or something like that): Cinderella is not about getting married, it is not about the role of a woman. It is about being loved. It is the story of someone who is not loved and has no protection from cruelty, until she finds someone who cares. I know, it does not take a genius to understand, but the feminists’ stress on getting married (versus getting a job, or finding satisfaction elsewhere) had misled my attention. It is all about receiving love.
We all expect people in a family to love each other, but it doesn’t always go that way.
When the Grimm brothers, the revered linguists, collected their folk tales, in stories of young women the wicked older character seems to have been the protagonist’s mother. They changed that, introducing stepmothers because in their day it seemed unacceptable that mothers should not love their children, so Cinderella and Snow White became orphans whose fathers had remarried unwisely. In any case, before modern medicine took over maternity many women died at childbirth, and men would remarry so stepmothers were not rare. I remember seeing a family tomb somewhere in England in which a man was buried who had died in his eighties; with him were his three wives, all of whom had died in their twenties. One understands the Bluebeard story.
Children need not all be as unlucky as Cinderella and Snow White, some may have perfectly decent and even loving stepmothers, still, it can’t have been easy for the orphans.
Boys would be sent off to school or to work, according to their class, so there were many more elements in their lives to determine how happy or unhappy their childhood was. For girls, whether the feminists who grumble at fairy stories like it or not, the home and the family were all that there was, which is why their stories revolve around affections and relationships. The need of boys to be loved finds place in some fairy tales, too, anyway: if Jack goes to fight giants, and Peter gets eaten by a wolf, there is still the poor Frog Prince who is waiting for a princess to see that he, too, is worthy of love.
Going back to Cinderella, as I said, watching the Branagh version I understood that the whole point of the story was to give hope to anyone who does not receive the love one should have: even when your family does not care for your happiness, someone will. Which is why the story is just as suitable to the 21st century as it was whenever it was told for the first time. I remember calling my sister the next day – she had seen it with her daughter some time earlier. She had felt the same: that the story told all the unloved children that even though they may not receive the love they deserved from those who ought to give it, they would, one day.
I will add, the film stresses not Cinderella’s need, but her strength: unloved and exploited as she is, she has dignity. She has patience and kindness, yes, but also strength – and communicative skills. She also is clear-minded enough to see that those who ought to be a family to her are not, and does not delude herself. She is not a victim waiting for a saviour.
One final element that is worth noticing: Cinderella is stuck at home in a world that does not allow young women to leave; in fairy stories, the girld who go away are in extreme danger, like Snow White (running from a murderous stepmother) or Peau D’Ane (from an incestuous father). Yet, even though her world does not contemplate shieldmaidens, Cinderella is not as passive as some imagine. She does not simply wait , accepting her diminished circumstances and considerable workload as a champion of resilience; she can imagine a different life, she can dream. Maybe this was more evident in the Disney cartoon, with the mice and birdies, but in the Branagh version,too, we see that the young woman can imagine a different world and a different life.
Like Eliza in The shape of water, she has a heart to love and a mind to imagine , and that prepares her to recognize her fate, when it comes.
As for those feminists who chose the Stepmother as their heroine and saw her as the victim of a strategy to put women against each other, I can only say they should learn to admit that there are those who do evil in both sexes, and there are mother figures who are not motherly at all. Blame it on Mother Nature if you like, lack of love from a mother, or mother figure, hurts deeply and comes from not accepting responsibility. Cinderella’s example is modern in a way: she believes in herself and though she feels the hurt she also trusts that she will find a way out, a way to happiness. I do not think it is old fashioned or conservative to imagine that happiness will come from love.