Finally saw Cinderella—a predictable, paint-by-numbers story, but, far worse, an annihilating message for girls. When the movie ended, the whole theater cheered. I couldn’t understand why women weren’t gathered outside, waving protest posters. My friend said it was about time somebody made a movie that celebrates old-fashioned values. She managed my anger politely, as if I had incontinence. Offering a way out, she suggested that perhaps I disliked the movie because I’m a writer, and I could see the hidden ways the story doesn’t work. But it did work, I wanted to say. The audience cheered.
My friend wondered what could be wrong with liking Cinderella. In the current version, Cinderella is courageous and kind. I’m still trying to answer that question: what is wrong with liking it? I don’t want to write about Cinderella, because I don’t want to stir the embers of my unhappiness, not unless I find an argument that slams the movie back into its seat and shuts it up, the way AO Scott can silence a bad movie with one of his perfect reviews: yes, that’s right, that’s what’s wrong.
We all want love, girls and boys. The most powerful human drives are love and work, connection and purpose. We are moved by stories about identity, like Rocky, and Chariots of Fire, and the Fugitive, stories of mastery and competence and achievement. We are also moved by love stories—Maurice, My Beautiful Laundrette, Kiss of the Spiderwoman—stories where two souls meet and become more than the sum of their parts.
Maybe the problem is that some books and movies offer love (to girls) as a substitute for identity, and/or as if it can forge identity. Which is like foot-binding. In boy movies– Imitation Game, Guardians of the Galaxy— love is a by-product. You learn how to slay the dragon, which might as a by-product make you attractive to some young woman, but your goal is to save the universe. In girl movies the goal is the guy. And the best way to get the guy, it turns out, is to be pretty and kind.
When my daughter says, “I shouldn’t have asked him out, I should have waited until he asked me, because if he were actually interested he would have asked,” I want to scream. Never mind the fact that we’re not talking about a soccer game, or an essay she’s trying to write. If you teach yourself to wait, you set yourself up for a lifetime of waiting. Girls wait. Boys choose. That’s what’s wrong with Cinderella: the story can’t begin until the prince settles his gaze.
When I say Cinderella is bad for girls, people look at me with suspicion, tinged with hostility. Are you saying you want Cinderella to be mean? As if those are the only two alternatives: meek or mean. If Cinderella were a boy, she would organize those mice into a squadron. They’d make a mouse tower and pick the lock, slip down to the stepmother’s room and tie her hair to the bedposts. Then Cinder, boy, would roar down the stairs with ash on his face like war paint, head into the kingdom and free every person chained to a pot in the kitchen. He would raise an army and overthrow the king, who has too much power in the first place.