Why I Liked Branagh’s Cinderella

I saw Cinderella last week as part of Hoyt’s ‘Girls’ Night Out’ promotion, which was rather perfect, really. It’s a very girly film! Is that a bad thing?

I’ve been fielding many questions from people about the film, about Disney princesses, about the anti-princess movement. I read Judy Berman’s post about the film on Flavorwire this morning. I read The Guardian on the film last week. There seems to be a consensus that Cinderella is a step back from the plucky, feisty, headstrong princesses Disney has been telling stories about.

And yes. Yes it is.

Is that bad? Cinderella is a love letter to its Disney animated source. I’ve always thought the 1950 heroine is undervalued. She is bright, optimistic, kind and graceful under pressure. She doesn’t storm, she doesn’t rant, hence she isn’t ‘plucky’ or ‘headstrong’ apparently. She in fact seems overtly passive, but there’s a twinkle in her eye and voice, a touch of sarcasm that reveals she knows her own worth and simply chooses to bide her time until a suitable opportunity presents itself. When she flips out her glass slipper and puts it on, you know she’s just not as meek as she has appeared. I like that Branagh brought forth these qualities and that he underlined how her position in the household is gradually eroded, with the growing tension between her faithfulness to being courageous and kind, and the reality of being simply used and abused. It is clear in the film – she in fact tells us – that she stays because she loves her home and will take care of it, even though it means weathering her vindictive stepfamily. She chooses not to leave. She controls her own reactions. She does have her moments though. She has enough and rides off into the woods, only to stop to help a stag, and stays because she meets an apprentice and sees a possible future for herself. She has enough and is ready to leave when her fairy godmother equips her to go to the ball. She’s not loud and shouty – one might even conclude she’s an introvert – and she doesn’t pick up a sword. She listens and observes and it’s not for nothing that she pauses to tell the King his son loves him, a move that underscores her diplomatic credentials. Cinderella’s agency is in her kindness. She is kind to people and to animals and they largely respond in kind. She’s thoughtful. She tries to make the world a little bit better. So often that is misread as self-sacrificing or selfless, yet she does want to go to the ball. She does have her desires. She does enjoy wearing that dress. She simply does put other considerations first, sometimes at her personal cost.

Incidentally, much has been made of her waistline. She is not the only princess with a tiny waistline, however, and she will not be the last. Indeed, Perrault’s tale originally remarks upon her sisters not eating before the ball and then lacing their waists to be as small as possible. It’s not unproblematic, but watching the film, I note that hardly anyone remarks that Cate Blanchett’s waist is also tiny. Corsetry itself is not anti-feminist and many feminists wear corsets. I know many. Providing Cinderella’s waist is not the only representation of a female waist, I think we’ll survive as a gender. Indeed, I think most of us looked at her and thought ‘pretty, but not worth it!’ as we ate our popcorn.

I like Cinderella because it is classic and beautiful. Berman writes about “[t]he movie’s achingly slow pace, mostly the result of Branagh’s insistence on lingering over every twirl of the dress,” but I actually loved that. I also loved Marie Antoinette (2006) for much the same reason. So sue me. I like gowns and shoes.

I didn’t like Maleficent (2014) because it made all men greedy horrors, turned the heroine of the tale into a cipher who sleeps for the blink of an eye, robbed the fairy godmothers of their power, and made only one woman powerful, with her actions driven by “the man who did her wrong.”

I wouldn’t want Cinderella to be the only representation of a Disney princess. There needs to be diversity. There needs to be louder, feistier heroines, too. This is also my point with the anti-princess movement. Yes, there is too much focus upon the Disney princess, but that is in part because there are so few alternative, feminine options for children, both male and female, to engage with. At least they have the Disney princesses. And if one princess is quiet, kind and graceful, if one princess doesn’t shout and rage at the world, is that so awful? Is she unfeminist simply because she wears a glass slipper?

To conclude, I’ll leave you with an epic rap battle featuring Buffy‘s Sarah Michelle Gellar as Cinderella.

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An Afternoon with Alice CFP

cheshire cat

The Monash Fairy Tale Salon will be hosting a curious afternoon of madness and muchness as we go down the rabbit hole in celebration of the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s classic, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Long before Tim Burton and Walt Disney stepped through the looking-glass, a mathematician, a Reverend and three girls went for a boating trip on the Isis. During the journey the mathematician regaled the party with a nonsense story that has become known as one of the favourite stories for children and adults alike. For one afternoon only, we will be hosting an exploration of all the impossible things we can do before breakfast. Come along and learn about the author and illustrators who shaped literary history and gave us such wonderfully uncommon nonsense. For the bold at heart (or the Queen of Hearts), come dressed as your favourite Wonderland character! This event is open to anyone who has a love for nonsense and will take place at the Theatrette, Glen Eira Town Hall, on Saturday June 13, starting at 1pm, as part of the Glen Eira Storytelling Festival.

We are looking for interested participants who would like to present papers or original work in the form of readings or performances.

Areas of interest:

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland scholarship (incl. literary studies, film & TV, drama studies, gender studies)
– Live performance of Carroll inspired work
– Carroll inspired readings (incl. readings of Carroll’s work or work inspired by Alice)

Please send a 100-200 word summary or abstract to arts-fairytale@monash.edu by April 27. For more information, please contact us at arts-fairytale@monash.edu.

So long, Sir Terry Pratchett, and thank you for Granny Weatherwax

Today was an odd day to teach Speculative Fiction. Our classes were filled with bright, active debate and laughter, but just this morning I read the news that Sir Terry Pratchett had passed away.

 

“No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away…”

Reaper Man

 

I do believe Sir Terry Pratchett has caused some mighty ripples. I’m glad he’s walked upon our unfortunately round earth and left us with more books than we can count on our shelves. Like all his fans – and there are a multitude – I’ll miss him.

He gave me Granny Weatherwax. I mean that personally. I’ve learned so much from that old witch. I’ve learned how not to care when it’s not important and how to care when it is. I’ve learned to count on her wisdom when the world grows difficult. I’ve learned to shout back at the world when it’s needed a good talking to.

Granny Weatherwax by Paul Kidby

Granny Weatherwax by Paul Kidby

“Granny Weatherwax was often angry. She considered it one of her strong points. Genuine anger was one of the world’s greatest creative forces. But you had to learn how to control it. That didn’t mean you let it trickle away. It meant you dammed it, carefully, let it develop a working head, let it drown whole valleys of the mind and then, just when the whole structure was about to collapse, opened a tiny pipeline at the base and let the iron-hard stream of wrath power the turbines of revenge.”

Wyrd Sisters

Indeed, Neil Gaiman recently wrote about his friend, “Terry Pratchett isn’t jolly. He’s angry.” So tonight I’m going to curl up with a Granny Weatherwax novel and be grateful once more that one man got angry and started setting the world to rights by writing about witches and magic and DEATH and librarians that go ‘ook’.

How Disney Saved the Fairy Tale

This morning I read Jack Zipes’ piece in Humanities, “How the Grimm Brothers Saved the Fairy Tale.” Zipes has just released a book, The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The First Complete Edition. It’s a book that is on my to-read list, so I won’t pass judgement yet, but I am looking forward to reading it.

I’m not sure if the title is Zipes’ – often an editor will select a title for a piece – but the title did make me frown. One of my passions is to introduce people to fairy tale beyond the Grimms. For a long time, the Grimms have popularly been considered the originators of fairy tale and, indeed, the source of ‘authentic’ fairy tale. Zipes writes: “According to [the Grimms], modern literature, even though it might be remarkably rich, was artificial and thus could not express the genuine essence of Volk culture that emanated naturally from experience and bound the people together. Therefore, all their efforts went toward uncovering stories from the past.” The Grimms’ position is remarkably similar to the position of seventeenth century French critics who regarded Charles Perrault’s tales as more ‘authentic’ in their rustic simplicity than the tales of his female contemporaries, including Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy and Marie-Jeanne Lhéritier, who wrote lively, complex tales with not so subtle veins of protofeminism. There is a kind of literary paternalism involved that praises the tales of the illiterate and poor for their authenticity, assuming that they are closer to the original sources, while collections of such tales are published under well-educated, middle class, male names. Literary fame and income is strictly reserved for the latter and the operations of power and privilege are neatly elided in praise of authenticity and nostalgia. Indeed, the Grimms’ efforts – their own professed intentions uncritically informing how future generations would by and large judge them – more often than not simply took them across the road, so to speak, to middle class, single young ladies with a French heritage that may well account for their knowledge of tales. Zipes notes, “Though the tales can be considered part of a German nationalist movement in the nineteenth century, they were also related to tales from many other nations, and this relationship accounts for their international appeal today.” Indeed, the collection is absolutely, directly informed by tales from other nations. The Grimms are simply one stop in fairy tale’s global journey.

But back to the title. One of the reasons I don’t like it is that it again privileges the efforts of the Grimms, although those efforts are vexed and tainted. The tales are certainly important, but one could easily argue that they would have been forgotten but for, say… Disney?

Many of the Grimms tales that remain in popular consciousness are tales retold by Disney. Most people assume Disney drew upon the Grimms and ‘sanitized’ the tales, adding a sprinkle of saccharine. This assumption has even driven much fairy tale scholarship, largely in the effort to deride Disney’s work. Disney’s retelling of the Snow White tale (1937), however, still retains the wicked queen determined to eat the offal of a princess. She is not made to wear iron hot shoes and dance at the tale’s end, but she is fried by lightning, falls off a cliff and then has a boulder fall upon her for good measure. Disney also drew upon alternate versions of popular tales. Disney’s Cinderella (1950) incorporates Charles Perrault’s glass slipper and pumpkin carriage. Many perversely assume the Grimms’ version of Cinderella is older, darker and more authentic, but it is published more than a hundred years after Perrault’s glittering tale of a put-upon Princess. There is no evidence that the Grimms’ version is older but for the self-perpetuated narrative of ‘authenticity’ that suggests anything that sounds darker, more rustic, and more violent must be closer to the original source. Yet, the popularity of fairy tale today owes much to Disney, so it would be just as valid to argue that Disney, for all its sparkles and catchy melodies, has saved fairy tale from a fate of bad pantomime and old-fashioned children’s books.

Zipes writes of the Grimms, “The tales in the first edition were collected not from peasants, as is commonly believed, but mainly from literate people whom the Grimms came to know quite well. Evidence shows that these people often obtained their tales from illiterate or anonymous informants. Even if they did not know their informants, the Grimms came to trust almost everyone who contributed to their collection. It is this mutual trust that marks the tales as something special and endows them with a certain humanity, what Germans call Menschlichkeit, and it is this mutual trust among folklorists in the nineteenth century that marks it as the golden age of folk and fairy tales.” I do doubt that such mutual trust was devoid of all trapping of class privilege and patriarchy – I would question that the ‘humanity’ is not tarnished however earnest the intent. Indeed, fairy tale is an odd creature. I posit that today literary critics often deride fan fiction, except when it is written by established authors (see Geraldine Brooks or Kate Saunders or even Dante). Fan fiction authors are not held in esteem. Yet they occupy a position very like the anonymous informants of fairy tale. In fairy tale the efforts of such tellers are applauded as ‘authentic’ over the work of established authors. Would a work about Harry Potter by an anonymous fan fiction writer be regarded as more authentic than the work of J.K. Rowling? Yet, this is in many ways what has happened in fairy tale scholarship – albeit the work of the anonymous fan fiction writer would probably be rewritten and published by a male author who would proceed to take the literary credit for it.

For all that, I do appreciate the work of the Grimms and acknowledge its value. However, isn’t it time we started telling a new story about fairy tales?