Disney’s latest adaptation of Cinderella has caused quite the controversy over it’s titular character’s personality. Lily James’ Ella has been seen as weak, frail and therefore a bad example for little girls to be growing up with in this day and age. Yet something about Ella seems admirable for taking the abuse for so long, finding love and coming out of it with a smile on her face. Was she really a strong character after all?
Melissa Grey made a strong point through her twitter account by stating that Cinderella’s mantra is a very positive message and a useful tool for anyone going through abuse and unable to find an immediate way out:
There’s only so much you can do with the story of Cinderella without losing it’s essence: She grows up abused doing the housework for her Stepmother and Stepsisters, one night she wants to go to a ball, her Stepmother forbids her, but her fairy godmother helps her get there. She meets her prince, she loses her slipper, and using this as his main clue the prince finds Cinderella and through marriage frees her from her abusive family. And yet through all these adaptations each of the titular character handles and overcomes their abuse and abusers differently. Here I have four main examples:
Danielle (Drew Barrymore) in Ever After is a well educated Cinderella, who talks back on more than one occasion and sneaks out when she has time in between chores. The abuse is still there, and during one occasion she gets beaten as punishment. In this adaptation, though, Danielle takes action when she sees the opportunity even when she knows punishment will follow. Her priority is not her own well being, but others’, but when found in the conflict of whether or not to follow her heart and find happiness, it’s her social position of “servant” as imposed by her Stepmother that prevents her from pursuing what she wants.
Sam (Hilary Duff) in A Cinderella Story is a modern Cinderella who has a sense of humor and knows what she wants: To graduate and go to Princeton like her father, and if love happens she’ll take that too. In this story high-school and her scheming Stepmother are what stop her from finding her happy ending. She is made fun of in public by her peers and what family she has left, until she feels like breaking down and forgetting about her dream altogether.
Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) in Into the Woods doesn’t know what she wants, but is willing to take a chance in leaving the choice to someone else. This story is mostly at-par with the original Brothers Grimm story, with a little more pro-activity by Cinderella: she calls on her bird friends to help her clean the lentils, finds an alternative way to the ball through wishing at her mother’s grave, runs away every night of the ball but comes back the next, and she purposely leaves her shoe for the prince. At least once she questions whether or not being kind and nice is even worth it when she is still getting abused, and in the end not knowing who she is or wants to be is the main conflict of this Cinderella.
After all these adaptations I can understand how Branagh’s Ella can be seen as weak. She is not actively pursuing her freedom and she does not seem to have a clear idea of what she wants except that she wants out of there (and later on, she wants to be with Kit). But here is where we come in conflict with defining what being a “strong” woman actually is. Is it being knowledgeable and speaking your mind? Is it being smart, hard-working and in pursuit of a career? Is it wanting more and trusting in others to help? Or is it being kind?
I’d argue that it’s all of these.
In our odyssey for a better definition of what Feminism actually is we’re slowly acknowledging and agreeing that we all have different ways of expressing our strengths and freedom. We are also learning the hard work that is to respect each and every one of our different strengths. With these four interpretations of Cinderella we see four different types of strengths, and not one of these is wrong. Why? In all four stories Cinderella (Danielle, Sam, Cinderella and Ella) got their happy endings.
Being strong comes in all shapes and sizes, it’s not a one-size-fits-all sort of deal, and never should we forget that being kind is not being weak, specially when you are being kind to someone who is not kind to you. It takes a lot of guts. Even being kind to each other is always hard. This does not in any way mean that you should never speak your mind, but if you’re in a situation where speaking your mind can get you into deep deep trouble, being kind is a courageous act of survival, and a good lesson for little girls.