Poor Cinderella. She gets such a bad rap. When everyone is picking their favourite princess it’s all about Belle, or Elsa and Anna these days. Not I. Cinderella will always and forever be my favourite fairy tale princess. “But she’s a tool of the patriarchy!” You cry. “A doormat!” You couldn’t be more wrong. Here’s why: The lesson of Cinderella is perfect self possession.
Everyone gets so hung up on the fact Cinderella lets herself be mistreated. All wrong. Cinderella simply does not find her self-worth in what she does but who she is. She is content to slave away for her wicked step mother because her interior life sustains her. I thought it was a nice touch in the Kenneth Branagh film that Cinderella feels a duty to the home itself, the place of her parents and forefathers. But the main point is, what she does with her days is not of particular interest to her. This is represented in her chattering away to her animal friends, and in her singing. People, it’s a story. Things are symbolic. These moments symbolize Cinderella’s essential happiness and peace despite her outward circumstances. Perhaps the perfect symbol of this is Sing Sweet Nightingale, where Cinderella is accompanied by dozens of her own reflections. She is perfectly self sufficient. Cleaning floors and fixing breakfast does not define our heroine but her kindness, her imagination, her hidden but deep founts of joy.
Anyway, Cinderella doesn’t take everything lying down. Her quiet sense of humour bubbles up in response to her abuse quite often. For example when she scrunches her nose and suggests to Lucifer that she will have to interrupt the “music lesson.” (Yes, I have every moment of the old cartoon memorized). This humour is for her own comfort, and while it is occasionally at the expense of her step sister’s ridiculousness it is never used to hurt them. And when Cinderella decides that there is something she does indeed wish to do, she asserts herself. “After all, I am still a member of this family and it says, By Royal Command, every eligible maiden.” If she were a modern princess she would release The Mighty Snark and sear everyone with her cutting wit. Satisfying perhaps, but unkind. Not our girl. Her poise here is anything but subservient although still in keeping with personal principles that forbid her descent to the level of her step family.
Perhaps the greatest injustice done Cinderella is the claim that the story’s lesson is to be rescued by marriage to a man. I’ll admit the weakest point of my argument is that they fall in love on such short acquaintance. Let me try though. First to digress slightly, I’ve certainly known men a long time only to discover I didn’t know them well at all. On the other hand my husband is such an open book that to know him, even for a brief time, is to love him (or at least like him). Branagh’s adaptation deftly handles this little difficulty with a brief meeting in the woods pre-Ball. Both characters are so patently genuine during this encounter that we see how they can quickly know each other’s very heart within a short time. And let’s look at that ball scene too. What catches the Prince’s eye? Is it Cinderella’s beauty? Sure that doesn’t hurt, nor does the gown custom designed by fairies. But, with the exceptions of Anastasia and Griselda, there are plenty of gorgeous, refined, and well dressed ladies in the room. No, it is the aura of self-possession Cinderella wears that sets her apart. She enters that room like she owns the place! And what do the love birds do? They dance, and then they quickly leave the party because they are driven to spend time in conversation. They feel a compelling desire to truly know each other.
Accept or reject my attempt to explain the speed of their courtship. In the end, it’s a fairy tale. I think it’s a bit much to expect them to sit down and discuss what religion they’ll raise the kids and who will do what house work. All that aside, the fact remains that Cinderella actually shows no interest in using the prince as an easy out from her life circumstances. All the poor girl ever asked for was one night of escape from drudgery.
When the fairy godmother warns that the spell will be broken at midnight, Cinderella replies that this is more than enough. As the bell tolls she says farewell to the prince and thanks him for a wonderful evening. In the morning she remembers her evening of enchantment as a happy memory, not the first step in a move to secure a husband. For heaven’s sake haters, she didn’t even know the guy was a prince most of the time! Another lovely addition in the 2015 movie is the scene where Cinderella is locked in the attic to prevent her trying on the glass slipper. In the old movie she beats upon the door of her prison.
Fair enough I say! Yet how perfect that in this latest version she simply sits at the window and sings, resigned to the end of her fairy tale dreams. In fact it is her singing, again a symbol of her inner resources of hope, which alerts the prince to her presence.
Yes, Cinderella goes on to find happiness with her prince. Yes, her marriage saves her from doing chores. But Cinderella never needed saving from that. Now if you think marriage is itself slavery well then I can’t help you. But I think Cinderella has earned her happy ending. Not because she was pretty enough to snare a rich guy. Not because magic solves all your problems. Cinderella had her happy ending within herself all the time and that’s what the prince fell in love with. What a beautiful message.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on The Unrepeatables, the author’s personal blog, and is reprinted here with kind permission.