What I learned from watching Amazon’s Cinderella musical with my 9-year-old son
It’s rare that my 9-year old son asks to watch a movie twice. But the new Cinderella musical recently released on Amazon was an exception. I’ve been staunch about making sure he reads books with female protagonists and balances his media diet with gender parity. Glad as I was he wanted to twice watch a film with a female lead, what thrilled me most about the newest recasting of Cinderella was its radical take on the lead male characters.
Cinderella, dating back to the original Grimm tale, with its multitude of variations throughout many decades and cultures, has kept a steadfast cultural hold. Both the character and the renditions of this story have been evolving for years. Disney, with its progressive (albeit still debatable) forays into rewriting girl protagonists, (nevermind its princess industrial complex), has left its strongest mark on the tale through its park-centerpiece castles and perennial touting of their traditional version.
This take veers far from that. Directed by Kay Cannon and starring Camila Cabello, the picture is thick with well-known actors. There’s a Hamilton-esque energy as the town crier raps every announcement, and a (delightful, to me) dive back into soundtracks from the ’80s and ’90s (hello, Madonna and “Material Girl”). Yet, reviews, for the most part, have been negative, with most critics seeing it as campy or trying too hard to tap into hip.
Through my work within the field of Girls’ Studies, I am keenly aware of the ease with which the trope of empowerment (or, as I like to call it, ‘fauxpowerment’) is leveraged to label a film (or really anything) progressive. Cinderella is determined to be a fashion designer—look, she’s wants a career not marriage! She sings defiantly about eschewing predictable gender roles and routinely breaks the fourth wall—hey, she’s a rebel!
This film does all of that and none of it is really that surprising. One critic has called this film “a musical ode to girlbosses” which finally are being revealed for the one-note gesture of corporate feminism they are.
Several years ago, I wrote about how the Monster High dolls, touted as radical for the ways they refuted typical beauty narratives (they’re monsters!) was Mattel’s bid towards stepping out of the mainstream. The trouble was, despite literal appearances, the storylines were as rooted in gender stereotypes as ever. This Cinderella’s sassy declarations and wry asides, even when playing directly against the traditional script, don’t strike me as that bold.
What was surprising, even radical, was the rescripting of the male characters. Virtually every article from this past year that lamented the unequal division of labor between a cis couple trying to co-work in a household with kids, has included the refrain that real change won’t come until men get onboard. What happens in this film is just that.
Prince Robert is initially depicted as a hapless cad, a rogue, buffooning it up with his louche court pals. But in short order, he opens up about the oppression he feels having all choice taken away as he is co-opted as a marriage pawn so his father can annex power and land.
His sister, Gwen, played for comic relief as her ambition is contrasted with her lack of power, is meant to highlight the gender disparity that disallows her intellect and privileges her disinterested brother. In one scene, after hiding behind a plant in hope of joining a royal strategy session, she is literally denied a seat at the table and leaves the room sputtering with both rage and ideas.
Robert’s sense of oppression smacks slightly of the ‘but the boys are suffering’ backlash of a decade ago, with critics like Christina Hoff Sommers claiming the advancement of girls imperils boys in zero-sum-game thinking. The prince, no matter who he marries, will still hold power and Cinderella is still subject—literally—to her class and circumstances. His attempt to bond with Cinderella through the comment that he too was born into a cage stirs sympathy but doesn’t deny how privileged he will remain.
Post-glass slipper is where the plot starts to really swing far from the expected narrative. There were so many unexpected turns, I’ll admit to a frisson of worry about how things would end. Not only is Robert revealed to actually be sensitive underneath it all, he shows critical awareness of how unfair things are.
“It’s a bad system,” he says frankly, acknowledging the disparity that keeps his sister, wanting to serve, secondary to his lack-of-interest primary standing. “No one is asking what I want or how I feel.”
When one of his court pals weeps at the thought that they might not find the girl whose foot holds the key, (so to speak), and true love might be lost, the scene becomes maudlin, but showing a teen boy (young man?) openly cry and talk not about conquest but the chance at true love was a scene unlike any other I’ve seen set in this era.
Showing a teen boy openly cry and talk not about conquest but the chance at true love was a scene unlike any other I’ve seen set in this era.
What starts to seem miraculous is not Cinderella’s unapologetic weighing of her career over marriage, nor that the prince is off to the side, patiently waiting for her decision. It is that the king, (played to great effect by Pierce Brosnan), relents on the expected succession and his previous insistence that his son marry a woman of a certain class, and perhaps most tellingly, says outright: “I was wrong.”
The queen, (replete with Minnie Driver’s dry wit and snappy Dorothy Parker quip, “What fresh hell is this?”) is frank about how frustrating her role has been and then openly declaims, “You’re wrong,” in a public forum in one of the film’s final scenes, reiterating the overthrow of patriarchal expectation.
Just as pure ‘leaning in’ has been debunked for putting the onus on the individual versus indicting systemically exploitative systems, this Cinderella gets what she most wants because there is a radical shifting of structural power. The prince suddenly doesn’t have to marry for status, the queen is suddenly free to speak up and the king is suddenly understanding of how ridiculous gender bias is and anoints his daughter to be next in line. She leaves the room clicking her heels with joy and asking if everyone really heard what he said—since it overthrows every code.
At one point in the film, the evil stepmother solos as she recounts how she tried to break out from her assigned role (by pursuing her education as a pianist after she was married with kids) but was slapped back down, subsequently modeling internalized oppression as she is the enforcer of patriarchy within their fatherless household.
As joyous all this radical transformation is, what’s most unrealistic is how easily all of it transpires. The cheering crowd of villagers seamlessly accepts that the prince won’t marry and his sister will rule instead. There is an audible pause before the introduction of Cinderella since the phrase ‘royal girlfriend’ has never been coined. She and the prince plan to travel together (unchaperoned?) presumably to follow her career opportunities—but how easy this will be isn’t made clear. My only note of disappointment came from admitting how fairy-tale-esque it truly is to expect sudden change from established institutions. If only in real life it were that simple.
What I found so laudable was how clear the film showed that systems at the root of power need to alter versus another ‘it was a struggle but she made it’ tale of individual willpower. And the chief male figures were implicated—both for their entrapment (the prince) and their harm when they refuse to cede (the king) when everyone around them (the queen) points out the damage done by a system that serves chiefly them. The king’s sudden enlightenment, reversal of fiat and then penitence are what enable an alternate ending.
Seeing how a patriarchal system needs to change—and the revisioning that throwing it off reveals? Now, that’s a story I want my young son to see twice.