“Have courage and be kind”: What Cinderella teaches girls about enduring emotional abuse and remaining a victim.
By Lisa Owen
“Have courage and be kind.” Those are the words that Cinderella’s mother tells her right before she dies.
When I was growing up, my father used to tell me to be careful of others because often people will take an act of kindness as a sign of weakness. In other words, in my effort to be nice, some may attempt to take advantage of me. Admittedly I learned this lesson the hard way, but I did learn it, and I pass it on to my own children. There is a way to protect yourself while being generous in spirit.
With this in mind, I have to say that watching Disney’s new live action film Cinderella with my daughters was a bit difficult.
Everyone knows the story of how after the death of her parents, Cinderella is mistreated by her wicked step-mother and step-sisters, then meets, falls in love, and marries the Prince. There’s only so much that you can do with the story and we’ve all heard, seen, or read it a million times. Yet, somehow watching this version minus the animation and singing made me much more uncomfortable. Fewer distractions from a very disturbing message. She is indeed kind, but somehow she thinks that courage is needed to endure abuse rather than to flee.
I think that I should tell you that Cinderella has always been my second least favorite Disney princess. Princess Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) is number one. She sleeps through most of the movie then wakes up and marries some dude she barely knows that comes by to kiss her. I just can’t handle it.
Really, Cinderella isn’t much better, but at least she stays awake during the movie. So, I guess it’s fair to say that I was already pre-disposed to being a bit underwhelmed.
On the positive side, Disney created a visually beautiful movie with stunning sets and gorgeous costumes. The writers and directors made a sincere attempt to develop more complex back stories for both the prince and the step-mother (wonderfully played by Cate Blanchett).
Also, and notably, Disney made an attempt to diversify the cast by including people of color in specific roles as well as in crowd scenes. I’m sure that some will argue that it wasn’t enough, but if you put this in historical perspective, there really wouldn’t have been much reason for someone of African descent to have been in either Cinderella’s nor the Prince’s lives. So, while the presence of other ethnicities was minor (and in one case stereotypical), I felt neither pleased nor offended.
However, I felt offended by the notion that the heroine of the movie was displaying some sort of noble strength by allowing herself to be physically and emotionally abused. Cinderella pledges her love to her parents and her loyalty to their family home, but after her parent’s death, she is relegated to the role of servant; her home and life, for that matter, are run by a woman who truly despised her.
Even my seven-year-old turned to me and said, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” Good question.
Does kindness require you to give up your entire self for the benefit of others? The answer is no. Yet, this is exactly what she does.
When the prince comes with the glass slipper to try on all the single ladies of the kingdom, Cinderella is locked in the attic by her step-mother in an attempt to keep the Prince from finding her. What does Cinderella do? She briefly questions her step-mother about why she is so mean and hateful towards her.
What follows is the most real and human exchange in the entire movie and provided much-needed context and depth to Cate Blanchett’s character. That’s it. Cinderella doesn’t put up a fight, scream, try to find a way out. Nothing. Instead she accepts her fate and apparently resigns herself to living the rest of her life as a captive in the attic of her own home talking to her friends, the mice.
I wanted to scream.
There was nothing admirable about her brand of kindness and courage. In some ways in bordered on Stockholm Syndrome particularly when at the end of the movie she introduces herself to the Prince as Cinderella, a name that was given to her by her abusers to shame and embarrass her by implying that she is dirty with ashes and soot from the hearth. The name that her beloved parents gave her was Ella, hence the name Cinder+Ella=Cinderella. It made absolutely no sense that she would actually own that name to a man (no longer a Prince, but now a King) she hoped would find her worthy enough for his affections.
By the way, the man rescuing the damsel in distress thing? Eeewww.
Once the movie was over and we made it back to our car, I felt compelled to have a conversation with mywhat we saw. I needed to look them in their faces and tell them that they are never to sacrifice their own self-worth in order to be kind.
I let them know that girls and women can draw their own boundaries and let people know when they have crossed them. That’s okay. We talked about what Cinderella could have done differently. The girls came up with: run away, fought back, and insisted that she be called by her real name. Ultimately, I wanted them to know that her agreeing to be the victim was not courageous.
Additionally, I wanted them to know that women do not wait on men to rescue them. Women and girls can rescue themselves and each other. As my mother used to say, “Do your own thing, girl!” There are many things that a woman can aspire to other than being married.
It’s safe to say that this is a movie that we will probably not see again. Once was definitely enough. Princess culture is pervasive in our society, as evidenced by all the princess costumes my girls have collected over the years.
I do encourage parents to discuss these movies with their children as they watch to help them decipher fact from fiction and all the nuances. Dr. Rebecca Hains, Professor of Media Studies and author of The Princess Problem, provides useful discussion guides for each of the Disney princess movies (including one written by me for The Princess and the Frog) on her website RebeccaHains.com. They are excellent conversation starters and encourage children to think more critically about what they are watching. The discussion guide for Cinderella can be found here.
I think my favorite comment of the afternoon came after we finished watching the movie. My youngest daughter stood up from her seat and said, “That had to be the millionth time that I’ve seen a Cinderella movie! It’s time to move on.” I whole-heartedly agree. Yes, Disney, let’s move on.
Be kind to yourself and have the courage to leave..