As Wonderful As You Seem: Cinderella in the Modern World

12:14 PM Amanda Prahl 0 Comments

To look at the recent film and television landscape, you might think we're in a new golden age for fairy tales. Into the Woods and Maleficent scored big at the box office, while Once Upon A Time continues to enchant viewers every Sunday evening (despite its exasperating habit of making every fairytale character somehow related to the others). And you can't take a step without some reminder of the unstoppable ice behemoth that is Frozen. All of these fairy tales, however, have one thing in common: they are all revisionist, mostly darker, takes on the fairy tale. To be sure, these stories are closer in many ways to the spirit of old European fairy tales, which are much darker than an audience weaned on Disney would suspect. But there has been one holdout, one fairy tale that, despite having not one but two recent updates, has remained unabashedly hopeful, gentle, and positive. The tale? Cinderella.

I recently saw both of the most recent adaptations of the classic tale: the 2013 stage version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1957 musical, and Disney's new live-action film. Both versions have received both praise and criticism for the manner in which they attempt to update the decidedly old-fashioned class and gender politics of the tale we all know best. Ella is too passive, too much of a pushover, too willing to put up with servitude and even be cheerful about it, and too concerned with the prince she knows nothing about. And speaking of the prince, he is too dull, too perfect, too much of a cipher- even down to having no name. As the new adaptations try to address these issues with mixed reviews, I believe that these updates have been exactly what we need.

Let's look first at the lavish stage update, which debuted on Broadway in 2013 and is currently touring the country. In this story, playwright Douglas Carter Beane hearkens back to the old fairy tales such as "Ashputtle", in which there are multiple balls/banquets and the relationship builds over time. Here, Ella (played at my performance by the luminous, crystalline-voiced understudy Audrey Cardwell) wants to meet the prince to alert him to the truth of life in his kingdom. She falls in love with the man she sees he can be and wants to be. This prince has a name (Topher, short for Christopher), an endearingly dorky and uncertain streak, and, as played by Andy Jones on the current tour, a voice and heart as gold as his hair. He, in turn, loves Ella for showing him the truth and for being the lone voice of kindness and truth in a mean-spirited, slightly decadent court.
Audrey Cardwell and Andy Huntington Jones, (c) R+H
To be sure, the "let's have an election" storyline which ends the show is painfully on-the-nose, as is the deliberately anachronistic dialogue. Despite these flaws, however, the musical presents us with a modern modern hero and heroine: a love story where the damsel saves her prince and is the instrument of her own salvation, too. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have timeless music like this.
Laura Osnes & Santino Fontana, Original Broadway Cast

Disney's new Cinderella, though explicitly derived from the 1950 animated film, is also a creature of the new era. Here, Ella is utterly uninterested in the prince until she discovers that he is actually Kit, the "apprentice" with whom she bonded earlier in the film. Again, this heroine protects her prince ad the kingdom from evil influences, even at risk to herself- the mark of someone truly "noble." The tale's underlying ideas about class are brought to the forefront, with a parade of foreign princesses vying for Kit's hand and a scheme by the Duke and Lady Tremaine to maintain class order at all costs. The last lines of the film, however, evoke a class-based swap and equalization: Kit calls Ella "my queen", but she simply calls him "my Kit." This is actually a very modern idea: class is fluid, and this fluidity and openness brings blessings on an entire society.

Perhaps the most crucial component of both of these stories is the heroines themselves. It is easy to argue- indeed, many have- that Ella is an anti-feminist, anti-modernist figure, full of romance and girlishness and passivity. Not these Ellas. Broadway's Ella runs away the first time Topher tries to catch her, having delivered her message. It is not until later, once she has come to love him, that she allows him to find her- she leaves her slipper on purpose! Disney's Ella also takes matters into her own hands, sewing her own dress (sorry, no seamstress mice here!) and even considering running away from her abusive stepfamily. It is also worth considering a logical motive beyond just love for trying to find Kit, her "apprentice": a palace apprentice would be a socially acceptable marriage that would get her out of her terrible situation. Ella is a logical girl; her desire to see Kit again can easily be both practical and romantic in equal parts. And even when she finds out he is the prince, her feelings for him remain on the same trajectory.
(c) 2015 Disney
By the time Ella loves Kit, however, she outright refuses to sell herself, her kingdom, or her prince out to her wicked stepmother's machinations. While some might view this as an action that shows how she puts others first (in a negative, anti-modern light), it is actually a show of strength: she is courageous enough to think of others, which is what sets her apart from the decadent selfishness and class obsession of her stepfamily. Her shoes might be glass, but her will is steel.

Cinderella, in these refreshed stories, gains agency and willpower without losing her essential qualities of kindness, patience, and the ability to be graceful while dancing in glass shoes. That is, in fact the very essence of modern feminism and gender ideals: women can and must be free to make their own choices and be themselves. And that means that she can take matters into her own hands at the same time as falling in love and spinning in a sparkly gown. That combination makes these modern Ellas true heroines for our time.
(c) 2015 Disney