Sunday, March 15, 2015

Disney's Cinderella (2015) : Virtue vs. Victimhood

I just returned home from a lovely spring break with my family, during which my siblings and I treated ourselves to Disney's remake of the classic Cinderella! I not only loved it, I was overjoyed by so many things about the film. I'll try to limit it to a few:

1. The underlying theme throughout the whole film, "Have courage and be kind."Seriously, Disney hasn't made virtue look this good since the good fairies handed Prince Philip the sword of truth in Sleeping Beauty, and that was back in 1959! 
2. A good father-son relationship between the King and the Prince
3. I didn't think anyone could match Anjelica Huston's evil stepmother in Ever After, but Cate Blanchett was equal to the task! I love them both! And speaking of Ever After...
4. I LOVED the subtle tipping-the-hat to Ever After (waving at the gate, Jacqueline the mouse, the Prince and Cinderella stealing away to the enclosed garden amidst castle ruins, Cinderella walking through the rain after the ball, the Spanish princess, etc.)  

I did think Kenneth Branagh was a little heavy-handed with the message (only a little!), but it doesn't change the fact that Kenny is now my hero and I am devastated that he is not directing the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast! (Belle is and always will be my favorite princess -- bookish girls for the win!) Cinderella set the bar so high that it will be almost impossible for Beauty and the Beast to meet my expectations! Kenny showed us what was possible in beautifully revamping a classic Disney fairytale while purposely avoiding the potential traps of revisionism (*cough* Maleficent and even Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland).

Lily James and Cate Blanchett in Disney's Cinderella (2015)

Nevertheless, I realized while walking out of the theatre that most modern critics will probably take issue with a classic depiction of Cinderella, not understanding the reasoning behind her submission to the treatment of her step-family. Why does she stay? Why not make a run for it?

Sure enough, Joanna Weiss over at the Boston Globe writes,"It’s hard to escape the idea that Cinderella chooses to be miserable. At the very least, she accepts her step-family’s cruelty." In the original fairy tale, Cinderella's key quality as her ability to endure, also described as her "victimhood." Weiss takes issue with Disney's choice to portray this "victimhood" as a virtue. Similarly, Rebecca Haines, author of The Princess Problem, says the filmmakers hoped to frame Cinderella's endurance as an act of courage, not victimhood. Haines cautions that not every situation should be accepted (or tolerated), adding that not everyone has a fairy godmother to help them out of a tight spot.

G.K. Chesterton writes in his book Orthodoxy that the message of Cinderella is the message of the Magnificat, exaltavit humiles -- "He has cast down the haughty from their seats, and has exalted the humble." Christ re-echoes the message of the Magnificat (and thus, Cinderella) in the proclamation of the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land."

The meek. Meekness. This virtue is at the heart of the issue of Cinderella. Modern minds want empowered or rebellious women, not meek women. What woman actually wants to be meek nowadays? Meek = weak, wimpy, submissive, a pushover, encouraging misogyny and sexism. Right? Even when you look up the word in the Webster Dictionary, it doesn't sound very desirable at first glance, "Meek: quiet, gentle, and easily imposed on; submissive." Submissive is certainly a dirty word nowadays, implying becoming a doormat, relinquishing control.

Viola Davis as Aibileen Clark in The Help (2011)
But is meekness or submissiveness about being a victim, being weak? Let's take a look at another example: Kathryn Stockett's novel The Help. Set in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement in August 1962, a group of African American maids in Jackson, Mississippi collaborate with a white misfit journalist to publish a set of stories about their experiences working for middle-class white housewives and their families. One of the main characters is the maid Aibileen Clark, a soft-spoken 53-year-old woman who has cooked, cleaned, and taken care of white children since she was a teenager. Aibileen is extremely fearful about telling her story (and rightly so) but eventually her love for her son Treelore and the white child she currently cares for, Mae Mobley Leefolt, gives her the courage to go public, albeit anonymously. *SPOILER ALERT* Aibileen's courageous act ultimately causes her to lose her job, but Aibileen is no longer afraid. The movie ends as she reflects, "God says we need to love our enemies. It hard to do. But it can start by telling the truth."

I would like to present Aibileen as an example of meekness at its finest. Aibileen does not lash out at her employers, the Leefolts, even when Mrs. Leefolt is hurtful towards her or Mae Mobley, to whom Aibileen has become particularly attached (unlike another maid in the story, Minnie Jackson, who has a sharp tongue and a knack for revenge and pays for both). During the course of the novel/movie, Aibileen teaches Mae Mobley to believe in herself, telling her, "You is kind. You is smart. You is important." By the end of the story, Aibileen has also found the courage to stand up for herself, not by hurting others, but by telling the truth. And while we all like to root for Minnie and her sass, it is Aibileen who truly inspires us with her heroism.

Aibileen shows us that being meek in one's life is not about weakness. On the contrary, it's about inner strength. It means acknowledging the dignity and worth of every human being, including those who are in authority over you, even when they are wrong and/or they mistreat you. It means rising above the urge to lash out and harm those who hurt us. It doesn't mean accepting things the way they are (this is where courage comes in), but striving to make the world a better place through courage, kindness, and telling the truth. (Just because Cinderella doesn't complain or rebel against her stepfamily does not mean she is accepting of her situation. As she reminds the Prince, "Just because it's what's done doesn't mean it's what should be done.")

Like Cinderella, Aibileen could also be depicted as a victim. However, I would not so much call them victims as I would call them martyrs or saints (saint: a word which here means a person who strives to live the virtuous life; martyr: a word which here means a person who suffers bravely for a cause). As blogger Marc Barnes puts it so eloquently on his blog, Bad Catholic :

"The martyr, then, is not the victim. The victim is referred to some enemy (a victim of a freak boating accident, of the measles, of terrorism) while the martyr is referred to some friend (a martyr for God, for country, for peace). The victim is referred to a moment in the past (she was a victim of gang violence) while the martyr is a martyr by virtue of a quality she has in the present moment, even after she is dead (she is a martyr). The victim is held up to direct our negative attention towards the cause of her victimhood (look at what evil has wrought!) while the martyr is held up to direct our positive attention towards the reason for her martyrdom (look at her incredible faith, her courage, her commitment, her love for God, etc.). The victim’s death works against her life, coming in the form of a homicide, a buffalo stampede, a car crash, all without any meaningful, harmonious relationship to the content of her existence. The martyr’s death, on the other hand, is in profound harmony with the content of her existence. It does not end her life, pulling down the curtain in the midst of Act II, so much as it crowns her life, a fruit and reasonable consequence of its direction and intention — she lived as a Christian and died for it." (Read more: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/badcatholic/2015/02/the-difference-between-a-martyr-and-a-victim.html#ixzz3UVbLq0Zu)

Neither Aibileen nor Cinderella meet with physical death, but Aibileen risks death, and one could easily see Cinderella having the willingness to die for the truth and/or the people she loves. Aibileen is a martyr for the dignity of the human person. Cinderella is a martyr for virtue (charity, courage, kindness). Barnes writes, "The victim is held up to direct our negative attention towards the cause of her victimhood, while the martyr is held up to direct our positive attention towards the reason for her martyrdom." For Aibileen, this is her faith, her courage, her love for God, Treelore, and Mae Mobley). Similarly for Cinderella, this is her faith in her mother's words, her courage, her love for her parents, her home, and her Prince.

But perhaps none of this will make sense to the modern critic. Perhaps Cinderella will never make sense to the modern critic in a culture that has lost touch with its Christian identity. But to the Christian life, Cinderella is a glorious affirmation.