This is a moment to remember! A prince expresses his love to a commoner and proposes marriage, and she turns him down. She wants to make her own place in the world, not spend her life waving to people from the royal box. If there is a choice, she says, “I choose me.”
This is the 21st century Cinderella (after many movie adaptations in the past), in a musical film, written and directed by Kay Cannon, played by a dark-haired, brown-eyed, Cuban-born Camila Cabello, in a comic book world usually populated by white, blonde, blue-eyed Disney princesses. The film is merrily inclusive in other ways too—the fairy godmother is a flamboyant black transgender, Fab G, played by Billy Porter and one of the mice is called Romesh, played by Romesh Ranganathan.
Ella, called Cinderella by her not-so-wicked stepmother Vivian (Idina Menzel) and stepsisters, has been banished to the basement, where she has mice as friends, works on her fashion designs and hopes to have her own boutique–Dresses by Ella– some day. In an era when women were not supposed to be anything but homemakers, even Vivian has a back story—she wanted to be a pianist, but her husband forbade it. So she exhorts her daughters to marry rich.
Prince Robert (Nicholas Galitzine) has no interest in the crown, he refuses a match that would expand his father King Rowan’s (Pierce Brosnan) territory. The King himself had made such a match with Queen Beatrice (Minnie Driver), and now keeps sneakily raising the height of his throne next to hers. Robert is known throughout the kingdom as the king’s “idiot son”, but the system is such that he would succeed Rowan anyway, even though his sister Gwen (Tallulah Greive) is far more suited to rule, with her ideas for green energy and low cost housing.
When Robert first claps his eyes on Ella, she has clambered up the King’s statue to have a better look at the royal family and when Rowan yells at her to come down at once, she cheekily says he should build bleachers for short people. Robert is smitten by her beauty and fearlessness, goes incognito to look for her and finds her in the market square trying to sell a gown she has made and being berated by the townsfolk. Whoever heard of a female businessman! Robert buys the gown and also invites her to the ball that his parents have planned to find him a bride. When she shows no inclination towards marrying the prince, he tempts her with possible buyers for her creations.
Vivian and her daughters dress up for the ball, one of them looks in the mirror and wonders if she looks pretty, Ella kindly tells her, “What matters is how you feel when you look in the mirror.”
Ella’s dress is ruined by Vivian flinging ink at it; a caterpillar that Ella has been nurturing turns into a butterfly and Fab G appears with a magic wand to organize a gown, carriage, footmen and glass shoes for her. When Ella complains that the shoes are uncomfortable, Fab G quips that even magic has its limitations. (In a quick glimpse of the future, one of the outfits Fab G tries on her is a blue power suit.)
The clock strikes midnight, Ella runs from the ball after making an appointment with a visiting Queen Tatiana who wants her to design her wardrobe; she flings one of the shoes at a pursuer and escapes.
The fairy tale that we read as kids has the prince send his minions across the kingdom to find the woman whose foot fits the shoe and women desperately cut their feet to fit. In this film, the prince actually has a woman slam the door in his face with a “not interested.”
Sorry about the spoiler, but the ‘happily ever after’ here has the prince give up his claim to the throne and the rules changed to allow the king to name Gwen as his successor. Robert decides to travel the world with Ella, who has been selected by Queen Tatiana as her designer. The film tweaks the old story in a way that Ella does not have to choose between love and career— because she stands her ground, she gets it all!
There have been several retellings and interpretations of fairy tales from the feminist point of view, including the valid theory that most fairy tales were created by women, and later appropriated by male writers, who added their own patriarchal tropes to them.
Meanwhile, across the pond, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s extravagant stage show Cinderella opened to ecstatic response. Written by Emerald Fennell, Oscar-winning (for best original screenplay) writer-director of the film Promising Young Woman, the West End production, directed by Laurence Connor, has a darker, angrier Ella. Fennell is quoted as having said that the original fairy tale is about “a girl who has to change herself to impress a boy.”
In a piece in metro.co.uk, Laura Stanley (who is not too impressed with the new iterations of the old story) writes that Fennell’s Cinderella is much different from the Disney version I grew up with. In fact, Fennell’s would eat Disney’s for breakfast. She has been reimagined as a rebellious goth, resplendent in Doc Martens and black lipstick – brandishing a spray paint can like a sword, with messaging as subtle as the chandelier in Phantom of the Opera. In fact, both West End and Amazon Cinderellas seem to take issue with how she spends her limited downtime; suddenly defacing statues and opening shops is more inspirational than making tiny clothes for friendly mice. But why does Cinderella need such activities in order to matter to modern audiences? What is this insistence that she must be talented, feisty, and possess the business acumen to be a role model in 2021? Why is love, as a moral, so easily dismissed?”
A review in ft.com by Sarah Hemming states that Emerald Fennell “has rightly judged that the traditional tale has little to recommend itself to a 21st-century audience — after all, shoe size is not a solid basis for marriage and bagging a prince is scarcely a desirable aim for today’s young women. Her zippy script allies a love story with a sceptical approach to fairytale mores and a cutting critique of today’s beauty business.” So, the fairy godmother here is an evil plastic surgeon!
A character in the series Modern Love 2 makes a comment to the effect that fairy tales have messed with women’s idea of romance. Since childhood, girls are told that their biggest goal in life is to marry…and marry well. Girls are given stories like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Rapunzel in which the hapless damsel is rescued from various perilous situations by a variation of Prince Charming, so that she can marry, bear sons and wave from the palace balcony. Even the stories like Beauty And The Beast or The Frog Prince in which the woman saves the prince from a curse, the end the more or less the same. Boys grow up reading action comics or superhero tales, and none of them advise looking for a princess and settling down. Faced with a changing demographic now, Wonder Woman and Black Widow are making an appearance in Hollywood, but it took a long time for the superhero universe to share power with women. So it’s time for fairy tales to change too and come up with better versions of ‘…and they lived happily ever after’; for more women to say, “I choose me.”
(This piece first appeared in The Free Press Journal dated September 10, 2021)