Cinderella: The Magic of Kindness
I grew up with Disney princesses: Ariel, Jasmine, Snow White, Aurora, and Cinderella. I watched and rewatched these fairy tales on-screen, not just as entertainment, but also as possibilities for the world I inhabited. I fervently wished that magic was real and that all princes were charming. Particular princesses resonated more than others. Ariel and Cinderella held my attention long after I tired of magic carpets, glass coffins, and deadly spinning wheels. They were intriguing opposites. Ariel was headstrong and rebellious; Cinderella was kind despite tragedy, a mean stepmother, and the drudgery of unending housework. Ariel never stopped reaching for the life on land she desired. She wanted more; she received it. Cinderella, on the other hand, dreamed but didn’t act. Her life changed because of fairy godmother’s good timing and fashion sense. Both of them required a prince’s intervention to gain a new life of happily ever after.
As a child, I found these films comforting: a lesson that family might wound and harm you, but you could escape and find happiness elsewhere. I learned that you just had to bide your time. That you wouldn’t be a child forever. That escape was always possible because someone might intervene on your behalf. Kindness worked better for your own survival than your desired rebellion. Kindness didn’t draw attention and words from your (biological) father. It distracted him as you plotted how to get away.
As an adult, I’m only now coming to terms with how those Disney fairy tales held me together in the face of all those small tragedies and cruelties that linger and shape. I find it strange that I still hum the soundtrack of The Little Mermaid, and that I’m still drawn to Cinderella’s tale of escape from life’s hardships. Cinderella still feels magical to me. I still want the prince to swoop in and save her from the family that treats her harshly. I hope she, more than any of the other princesses, has an ending that is only happy.
Unsurprisingly, I couldn’t resist Disney’s new live-action Cinderella, and I headed to the theater with my six-year-old daughter in tow to witness this familiar tale. The film centers on Ella, who lives in a beautiful estate with her parents who love and dote on her. Her mother marvels at the world around them and assures her daughter that magic is real. She believes in “everything,” and she passes this idealism onto her beloved child. Unfortunately, she faces the tragic fate of almost all Disney mothers: death. Yet, before she leaves her family behind, she tells Ella to “have courage and be kind.” These words become the mantra of both Ella and the film as a whole.
Ella certainly comes to embody kindness. She is unfailingly gracious in spite of cruelty and hardship. She even forgives her stepmother before riding off with her prince. She is feminine goodness wrapped in a blue dress, She is kind to the smallest of mice, and later, to her stepmother and stepsisters. She bears their abuse with sad resignation, even as they rename her “Cinderella” because of the ashes that coat her pretty face. At the beginning of the film, the narrator explains that Ella is one of those rare people who sees the world as it could be rather than as it is. Her idealism makes her special and allows her to endure cruelty with grace. This idealistic kindness draws the prince to her and is what makes him fall in love with her. Yet, her kind actions do not shelter from the caprice of her stepmother or the teasing of her stepsisters. In a scene that hurts to watch more in live-action than the animated classic, Ella rushes downstairs to go to the prince’s ball in a dress of her mother’s. Her stepmother responds by ripping and tearing the pink gown. The stepsisters join in and ruin the lovely dress, and Ella is left alone in tatters.
This, of course, is a key plot point in the fairy tale. The ruined dress allows for the intervention of Ella’s fairy godmother, who creates a new dress and turns a pumpkin into a coach. Ella’s mice friends become white horses. It is Ella’s kindness to a stranger, which allows for the stunning transformation and the chance to dance with the prince at the ball. Kindness, we learn, is a form of magic, at least the fairy godmother insists that it is. Ella loses a glass slipper, and her prince finds her. At the end of the film, they get married, and we learn that they took “be kind” quite seriously, as they became the fairest rulers in the land.
I longed for Cinderella to worry less about being kind and more about having courage. I wanted her to not be lulled by stories of magic and fairy godmothers. I wanted her to intervene in her own story. I wanted her to stop believing in everything. Instead, I wanted her to believe in herself. I wanted her to not rely on a prince as the only way out of her situation. Cinderella disappointed me, though it is not entirely her fault, as she’s bound by the story distressed damsel who must be saved.
Damn it, Cinderella, I need you to save yourself.
Kindness is only magic, dear, if we realize that it has limits. You don’t have to be kind to those who are cruel. You can decide they aren’t worth it. You don’t wait for a fairy godmother or a prince to get you out of an awful situation. Kindness doesn’t require your passivity. You can act. Dear Disney, kindness is not inherently a virtue. Being kind might not be the best approach to what life brings to us, nor does kindness guarantee good things will happen if we smile through our suffering.
Cinderella made me uneasy about the happily-ever-after that I wanted to witness; what once comforted me no longer puts me at ease. Maybe, that’s part of growing up. The simplicity of Cinderella doesn’t hold up to the complexities of our world. Maybe, I wish my daughter had different tales than I relied upon. I want her to realize that having courage often exists in tension with being kind. Having courage means ignoring the comforting lull of kind passivity and taking the steps to save yourself. Courage is the magic that we actually need. I wish Cinderella had realized that; I eventually did.
Kelly J. Baker writes about the apocalypse, zombies, mental illness, trauma, and higher education. She's the author of The Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930, Grace Period: A Memoir in Pieces, Sexism Ed: Essays on Gender and Labor in Higher Education, and Final Girl: And Other Essays on Grief, Trauma, and Mental Illness, forthcoming Fall 2020. She's also the editor of Women in Higher Education, The National Teaching and Learning Forum, and Disability Acts. You can find her hanging around on Twitter @kelly_j_baker, tweeting about coffee, parenting, writing, and other shenanigans.