Nearly everyone with a stake in how women’s lives are portrayed on film spent the first few weeks of February arguing over whether we were allowed to enjoy the story of one college graduate’s BDSM-tinged love affair with a human avatar of capitalism. There has been much less debate about a similar film that debuted Friday: the tale of a young girl who’s hurt and humiliated and forced into bondage before using her beauty and goodness to ensnare a man who will elevate her societal rank by quite a few notches. This PG-rated romance is Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella — a film whose $132.5 million opening weekend makes it likely to surpass Fifty Shades of Grey as the year’s biggest female-oriented blockbuster to date.
Disney’s latest visit to the princess well is a live-action version of the story it added to the animation canon in 1950. Branagh’s film, starring Downton Abbey‘s Lily James as Cinderella, is as earnest and reverent a telling as they come. The dead mother is sanctified; the widowed (and then dead) father is beloved; the stepsisters are cruel and stupid and have bad taste in clothing; the stepmother is cruel and clever and maybe some kind of misandrist; the prince is a handsome, affable blank on which female viewers can project their blandest fantasies. There is a pumpkin coach and a nest of friendly mice (yes, Gus-Gus reprises his role) and a bed of ashes and a beautifully rendered, deeply fetishized glass slipper. The movie’s achingly slow pace, mostly the result of Branagh’s insistence on lingering over every twirl of the dress and glance exchanged between characters, induces a sort of trance of fairy-tale immersion.
Most dispiriting of all, in an era when even Disney has generally replaced passive princesses with plucky, headstrong heroines, is Cinderella herself. James’ character is idealized for her saintly self-denial, for allowing her step-family to force her into servitude, for (I’m not exaggerating here) her aptitude for domestic labor. Branagh works hard to make Cinderella an entirely disinterested figure, as though any hint of desire or agency would render her unsympathetic. As Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff writes in one of the few reviews that bother to take the film’s gender politics to task, “The overall effect is that Cinderella ends up being someone who suffers beautifully and… that’s about it, actually.”
(Few critics have, at least, managed to restrain themselves from gasping over the extreme corset — and resultant impossible waistline — on Cinderella’s magical ballgown. If you’re tempted to protest that everyone knows that such cartoonish visions of women’s bodies are the stuff of fantasy, well, you tell me why corset sales have just gone through the roof.)
Perhaps no one is fretting over Cinderella because it’s not fashionable to question the value or pick apart the politics of fairy tales anymore. The feminism that railed against stories of pretty girls — with cruel step-relatives who are ugly on both the outside and the inside — whose loveliness, innocence, and self-sacrificing kindness won them the hand of a wealthy, gallant prince is the feminism of our mothers and even grandmothers. These kinds of critiques have come to feel cranky and obvious. In an era whose most influential strain of feminism permits — encourages, really — the reclamation of traditionally feminine objects, it’s become much more common to remix fairy tales into something more progressive and palatable. For proof, look no further than Jezebel’s extensive “Disney princesses” tag, where you can find the childhood icons reimagined as everything from Orange Is the New Black characters to men.
Of course, the practice of simultaneously embracing and subverting fairy tales predates Jezebel by several decades. The ur-texts of this tradition are Anne Sexton’s 1971Transformations poems, which highlight the hysteria inherent in Brothers Grimm stories, and Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, a collection of short stories published in 1979 that savages such touchstones as “Bluebeard” and “Little Red Riding Hood,” bringing their latent darkness and moral complexity to the surface. Both are brutally serious works of literature that complement the feminist literary criticism of their period, books like Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, to excavate the sexist and misogynist ideas that underlie the West’s most beloved myths and stories. Sexton’s “Cinderella” ends by simultaneously demolishing fairy tales’ impossible happily-ever-afters and their banal mirror images in real-life marriage, with one breathtaking stanza:
Cinderella and the prince
lived, they say, happily ever after,
like two dolls in a museum case
never bothered by diapers or dust,
never arguing over the timing of an egg,
never telling the same story twice,
never getting a middle-aged spread,
their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.
Regular Bobbsey Twins.
Though the urge to remix fairy tales survived through the ’90s and into the new millennium, the seething urgency of Sexton’s and Carter’s critiques gave way to more gimmicky, less potent forms of parody. Anyone who grew up during the Clinton years will recall James Finn Garner’s Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, the somewhat reactionary 1994 bestseller that mocked identity politics and its many euphemisms. But even the derivative works with more progressive undertones began to feel watered down in this era. In her essential history of Cinderella, NPR’s Linda Holmes recalls what I think of as “my generation’s Cinderella“: Ever After, the 1998 teen movie starring Drew Barrymore, which makes one stepsister an ally and slips in a positive message about body image but still paints marriage and princesshood as the ultimate happy ending.
As with other forms of fanfiction and fan art, the Internet has provided more creators than ever with platforms for riffing on fairy tales. A search for “Cinderella” at fanfiction.net brings up nearly 5,000 stories, but that’s marginal compared to the endless, viral popularity of Disney-princess remixing, as aggregated on Jezebel and BuzzFeed and even occasionally by this very publication. Since the days of “Hipster Ariel,” series of images placing the likes of Snow White and Mulan in improbable contexts have become such a cliché on the Internet that they’ve earned parodies of their own. (A recent favorite: “12 Disney Princesses as Lukewarm Bowls of Water.”)
The fact that more people seem to be sick of Disney-princess remixes than Disney princesses themselves, or the stories where they originate, is a good indicator of where the conversation around fairy tales has gone since the ’70s. Once, we imagined conflicted inner lives for these characters and questioned what we learned from them before we even knew how to read; now, we can’t stop reproducing them, dressing them in different outfits, finding new kingdoms where they can reign. By stripping them of any fixed meaning, we’ve made Disney princesses into supposedly neutral yet still wholly aspirational, idealized symbols.
This princess overload seems like a side effect of both the postmodern mania for reappropriation and contemporary popular feminism, which deems any life choice a woman makes equally righteous — whether it’s holding down multiple jobs, homemaking, or lounging on a velvet throne in a jeweled crown as an army of servants swarms at your feet. It explains how we’ve reached a moment when there’s nothing controversial about a movie for little girls that slaps a punishing corset on a young woman, martyrs her to housework, pits her against female rivals who are older or uglier or tackier or just more willful, and then rewards her for absorbing so much abuse with the ultimate fulfillment of marriage, wealth, and a castle to call home.
Maybe it’s still possible to revitalize fairy tales while avoiding the princess porn of Branagh’s Cinderella. Helen Oyeyemi’s 2014 novel Boy, Snow, Bird is certainly in conversation with fairy tales, though it works largely because its connection to stories like Snow White never becomes too literal. For the most part, now that Disney princesses have invaded every corner of our lives, we’ve run out of worthwhile ways to use them. The thrilling critiques have been written, the remixes constantly reach new heights of inanity, and the rehashes are sending viewers running to the corset shop (and if that’s the effect they’re having on adults…).
In her Cinderella history, Linda Holmes points out that “the very core of this story is that if one man sentences you to live among bitches, only another man can save you.” She’s right. And the only way to save ourselves from that is to stop living inside fairy tales.