Thursday, September 9, 2021

The new Cinderella has no use for princesshood, thank you very much

This entrepeneurial heroine is too busy pulling herself up by her own bootstraps to bother with glass slippers

These days it feels like we're up to the brim in fairy tale remakes. When Amazon Studios announced that it was preparing its own version of Cinderella, many obvious questions emerged: Who needs this? Who asked for this? And what new angle can you possibly add to the overcrowded menu of fairy tale musicals?

As it turns out, the new Cinderella knows fully well what media ecosystem it's entering, and it replies with a resounding justification for why this needs to exist.

You see, after the end credits, there is the obligatory disclaimer, "This is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and locations portrayed and the names herein are fictitious, and any similarity to or identification with the location, name, character or history or any person, product or entity is entirely coincidental and unintentional."

Don't believe one word of that statement. This is a movie about Meghan Markle.

Principal photography for Cinderella started in early 2020, just as Megxit was blowing up, and the parallels are impossible to ignore. A brown-skinned commoner with her own fashion line who rescues a reluctant prince from the strict expectations of the royal family? A movie produced by James Corden, the same who welcomed the ex-prince and ex-princess to Los Angeles and has publicly come to their defense? A heavy-handed critique of the ways life in the palace turns women into props for the ego of kings? A romance fantasy where everyone speaks British except for the American-accented heroine?

Yeah, this is Megxit: The Movie. That's the unifying explanation for the massive revisions done to the source material.

Classic Cinderella isn't the most proactive of protagonists. Her happy ending is not caused by anything she does, but by who she is deep inside. This does not have to translate into an indictment of the tale's quality; she can be read as what writer and editor Vida Cruz recently called a mountain character, one who is besieged by every type of injustice and whose mere daily survival is already a victory. Thus, most adaptations of Cinderella used to focus on its moral side, as a tale of quiet kindness receiving its prize while active meanness was punished. Even Disney's 1950 version avoids asking anything of the heroine; the fairy godmother is summoned by her faith alone. In the sickeningly saccharine 2015 remake, at least this scene is more causally grounded: the fairy godmother first tests Cinderella's kindness by posing as a beggar in order to establish that she's worthy of a miracle.

In 2021, the rags-to-riches aspect of Cinderella is fully Americanized into a Horatio Alger tale of social mobility. This time, our heroine's ticket out of poverty is not via marriage with a noble; her sights are firmly set on the merchant class. If it weren't for the electric saws featured in the movie's first musical number, we might situate this story near the end of feudalism, when a rising wave of new money challenged the rigid layers of medieval society.

That she happens to seduce a prince is secondary to her aspirations.

As the fabulous godmother explains in a voiceover, "Here everyone had a part to play, and they played it without question. [...] This village of hardworking citizens moved to the same beat day after day, generation after generation." The choice to open the movie with Janet Jackson's "Rhythm Nation" takes what was a straightforward moralizing tale of virtue rewarded and recontextualizes it into a parable about social exclusion. This theme is reinforced by the deliberate selection of songs by Black artists: the self-improvement anthem "You Gotta Be" by Des'ree, the aspirational yet poignant "Am I Wrong" by Nico & Vinz, the whimsical "Shining Star" by Earth, Wind & Fire. Through these musical numbers, Cinderella sustains a note of uniquely American timbre: the determination to keep believing in the American Dream in spite of all the structural injustices that create millions of unknown Cinderellas.

These issues are finally articulated in explicit form in the spectacular new song "Dream Girl." The quick shots of the palace women repeating the three lines of the chorus are the single most powerful moment in the entire movie. The problem facing Cinderella is not just classism; it's patriarchy intersecting with classism. (Because this is a kid-friendly fantasy, it doesn't go into the racism involved in the whole Megxit situation, but the pieces of Black music included elsewhere in the movie tell the rest of the story.)

Of course, bootstrapped success is also a fairy tale. No amount of singing "Million to One" is going to tip the scales of what passes for meritocracy, and Cinderella doesn't seem to acknowledge that her ascent to the bourgeoisie leaves her overworked neighbors exactly where they started. There's a brief suggestion that the new queen may have a serious plan for poverty reduction, but the movie can't have its anti-monarchy cake and let the people eat it too.

In its defense, Cinderella knows that the monarchy is absurd and ridiculous, and squeezes every possible laugh out of it. Pierce Brosnan invests full sincerity into the role of a pathetic excuse for a head of state, while his hypercompetent daughter doesn't miss a chance to put her elders to shame; and our designated Prince Charming, the blandest Central Casting face who ever central cast, can't wait to run away from the pomp of arranged marriage.

That the monarchy is a bad system is news to no one, least of all to Americans. But in our current era of soulless and toothless fairy tale remakes, the youngest viewers need a counterpoint to Disney's omnipresent and uncritical glorification of the royal lifestyle. This new Cinderella didn't even need to get married to land herself a guy. That's a lesson for the ages.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for a spot-on selection of songs, speaking of which, +3 for the new song "Dream Girl." This, and not "Million to One," is the true thematic core of the movie.

Penalties: −1 for a sometimes too simplistic picture of the patriarchy, −3 for ableist jokes about mental health, −1 because we really didn't need to know how James Corden feels about peeing.

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.