From Cinderella to Frozen: Fairytales have enduring appeal, but are they holding girls back?

By Amanda Dunn
The Sydney Morning Herald
March 29, 2015
Click here to view original

“Have courage and be kind.” This is the oft-repeated mantra of Kenneth Branagh’s new Cinderella, the latest incarnation of the centuries-old fairytale. It is advice passed on to the young woman by her dying mother at the end of the opening scenes, so cloyingly sentimental they make the good people at Hallmark cards look like a bunch of hard-arses. Still, this is Branagh’s interpretation of one of the most popular and enduring fairytales of all time, covering the genre’s important tropes: a spectacular transformation from rags-to-riches, and the triumph of good over evil.

For its cinematic release it is paired with the short film Frozen Fever, a sequel to the worldwide juggernaut Frozen that has held young girls in its thrall since its 2013 release. It would be hard to overstate the success of the animated story. It is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen and has been lauded as a feminist narrative for its focus on the powerful relationship between two sisters (beautiful, big-eyed and slender princesses, it should be said: Disney didn’t lose its head altogether) rather than on romantic love. Frozen took $US1.3 billion at the box office alone, making it the highest-grossing animation of all time, and its merchandise and DVD sales continue to run rampant. Anyone with a daughter at primary school will know the words to its Oscar-winning anthem, Let It Go, by heart, and may even have attended a few Frozen-themed birthday parties or found “Elsa” sitting next to them at the dinner table.

It is the most successful of a slew of films that focus on fairytales with a revisionist eye: Tangled, Enchanted, Maleficent and Brave, for example, and Stephen Sondheim’s more adult Into the Woods.

Clearly the Frozen demographic is being targeted by Disney with its live-action Cinderella, which stars Downton Abbey’s Lily James in the title role and Cate Blanchett and Helena Bonham-Carter as the stepmother and fairy godmother respectively. But already the film has come under fire for its traditional, irony-free rendering, with Branagh asked to defend accusations it is anti-feminist. (No need to issue a spoiler alert, plot-wise, here, but suffice to say that this Cinderella is good and kind but not pro-active: she withstands the abuse of her stepmother and -sisters until the Prince finds her, the shoe fits and … well, you know the rest.)

Branagh has in turn argued that her resilience, forgiveness and goodness are her strengths, and if she hadn’t been rescued by the prince, she would have been just fine anyway.

In the context of this film it’s not a particularly convincing argument, though his contention that strength doesn’t have to be external  – she doesn’t have to behave like a man, in other words – is a legitimate one.

As the Easter holidays loom and parents search for ways to entertain their children, Cinderella will be a big drawcard – it took $US70 million ($89 million) in its opening weekend in North America and no doubt will be very popular here. But many mothers, in particular, will worry about what kind of messages they are feeding their daughters (or sons, for that matter). For some parents, the “princess” phase that seems to sweep up so many little girls is something to be endured rather than enjoyed, so what about a story in which the heroine has to be rescued by a prince to live happily ever after?

Then there’s the reed-like waist of Lily James, which has in itself spawned heated internet debate: could she really be that tiny? Was CGI used? What kind of example was she setting for young girls anyway? James has been asked about her filmic waist many times, which she insists is CGI-free and the result of a naturally small midriff crunched into a very tight corset (though she has admitted to being on a liquid diet and more or less having her organs knitted together to achieve the look).

Is this another reason to keep your young daughter away from Cinderella, for fear of it instilling an unhealthy body ideal into young minds?

Dr Lauren Rosewarne, senior lecturer in Melbourne University’s school of social and political science, doesn’t believe so. While a heroine with an unnaturally tiny waist is not ideal, she argues, young girls in particular receive other messages from the film. And in terms of body image it is no different from the superhero genre for boys.

“Superman doesn’t look like most men either, the muscles are digitally altered. But we seem to culturally not worry as much when it happens to a man as a woman, because for a woman it’s everywhere else in our media as well,” she says.

More troubling, Rosewarne believes, is the narrow range of female “types” presented in films such as these. There is too much focus on whether the princess ideal is a healthy one for young girls.

“That idea that the princess dream is stupid, well, that’s a sexist argument as well. Some girls do want to be princesses but some girls also want to save the day. We seem to not have enough roles for young girls to cover the enormous range of aspirations.”

The best approach parents can take, she says, is to use the film as a “talking point” to help children think about its messages.

“Kids are going to want to see this stuff and I don’t think it’s realistic to put them in a bubble and say, ‘No, we don’t watch those kinds of films, we only watch films with a strong role model’. They’re going to see it eventually. Rather, teach them this idea of looking at it more critically.”

However, the unease some parents feel with presenting their daughters with a less spunky, more traditional Cinderella is real.

Aurora Kosetzky won’t be taking her four-year-old daughter Rose to see Cinderella, nor will she take her sons who are seven and nine. She remembers watching Sleeping Beauty with Rose, her sister-in-law and 12-year-old nephew, and was shocked by the archaic gender stereotypes by it.

“We were sitting there rolling our eyes, we just couldn’t believe what we were sitting through,” she says.

Her objection to the more traditional fairytales is the idea that the prince will eventually save the girl, which is not a message she wants Rose to be subjected to. But she is comfortable with Frozen’s sibling-based narrative.

Kosetzky was pleased, for example, when she asked Rose if she believed in true love, and she said: “Yeah, Elsa had true love for her sister”.

Branagh insists that his Cinderella is a strong heroine, and he does make some modern concessions: she first meets the prince when out riding a horse to get away from her awful stepmother, and does not know who he is. The film also carefully emphasises that the prince, in turn, sees past the pretty face and long, blonde hair.

“She was a pretty girl,” he tells a consort, “but there was so much more to her”.

Branagh stresses that Cinderella is interested neither in being rescued by love nor the material advantage of snagging a prince.

“The absolute basic instinct was that this Cinderella should not feel her life will be ruined by not meeting a man or having things,” he told Fairfax correspondent Nick Miller.

“So spiritually I think [Cinderella] is completely reinvented in this movie. She is a non-victim and she’s also somebody who asks these questions quite directly: ‘Why are you so cruel?’ I often thought … that if the film went another way then at some point she might just say, ‘Well, you know what? I have been here and I have put up with this and I now believe that I won’t put up with it any longer’.”

Branagh’s argument has some merit: there is no reason why a strong young woman must be represented by doing “male” things such as fighting a battle. But in the context of the film it is a bit of a stretch to think that, had the prince not come along, Cinderella might have rescued herself and escaped the cruelty of her stepfamily.

Monash University lecturer Dr Rebecca Do Rozario, an expert in fairytales, has some sympathy for Branagh’s argument.

There are many different incarnations of Cinderella through the years, she says, and mostly they reflect the time in which they are made.

“Not every heroine has to strap on a bow and arrow and go out and fight a war in order to have agency,” she argues. “I think it’s interesting he’s trying to make this story work in these ways.”

The Cinderella of Charles Perrault’s 1697 story, on which this retelling is based, is actually no wallflower, Do Rozario says: while seemingly passive, she is also quick-witted and funny. It is the “ugly” stepsisters who are associated with skinniness: they refuse to eat for two days before they attend the ball.

She believes Frozen was such a sensation because of that focus on sisterly love: young girls, generally speaking, are not interested in romantic love. “They’re interested in the visual spectacle, they’re interested in relationships, usually with sidekicks rather than the prince.”

And the glamour of Cinderella’s transformation – the spectacular coach, the enormous blue ball gown – should not be underestimated, Do Rozario says: the aspiration, the luxury and just the plain eye-candy are big drawcards for fairytale films (and on that front Branagh’s film delivers handsomely).

Another Disney production to have found great success was the 2010 animation Tangled, based on the story of Rapunzel.

It has always been accepted Hollywood wisdom that children’s films with a male hero will attract boys and girls; films with a female lead will attract only girls. Put “princess” in the title, for example, and you’ve already lost half the potential audience.

There was much commentary around the time it was released about the fact that studio executives had originally intended to call the film Rapunzel, but changed the name, and increased the presence of the male lead, to attract boys as well. (The directors denied this, arguing that it reflected the equal billing of its “stars”.)

But the success of films with a female lead, such as Tangled and Frozen, has given them considerable box-office clout. Frozen 2 has been confirmed and other fairytale films – such as a live-action retelling of the wildly popular Beauty and the Beast starring Emma Watson – are in the works.

Rosewarne says children’s film and audiences reflects that of adult audiences: we happily see films about men’s lives, but not so much about women’s lives.

“I don’t think that Disney has a social agenda. I think they have a financial agenda about getting people to go to the cinema,” she says.

Perhaps parents worry about these things too much; perhaps having a far bigger influence on young girls are the people around them rather than the films they watch. Rosewarne says there is no evidence to suggest that poor body image, for example, can be triggered by seeing a particular film.

“I think we as a culture worry too much about isolated media examples as being disproportionately powerful.”

It’s that old pushmi-pullyu: on the one hand there’s what feels like archaic, disempowering ideas of gender stereotypes; on the other hand there’s a small child you adore who desperately wants to see the film and wear a floaty princess dress while she does it (there was no shortage of those at the preview screening). Perhaps, as Elsa exhorted, we sometimes have to let it go, and emphasise that this is a fairytale, and therefore not real.

Sarah Roberts is looking forward to taking her five-year-old Polly and her friend to see Cinderella during the holidays. Early in her parenting (Roberts also has two sons aged three and one), she would have been far more worried about the message of the film than she is now.

In the face of her daughter’s love of all things pink, princessy and girly-girl, Roberts found she could only resist for so long. And sure, she worries about James’ tiny waist, but “I can’t imagine being in a place where I say, ‘No I’m not going to take you to see fairytales because I worry about the size of her waist’,” she says.

“For me, If it’s pure kiddie joy. Who am I to say they can’t have that?”

Holding out for a hero(ine)

  • Frozen (2013): When newly-crowned Queen Elsa accidentally reveals her magical power to turn things into ice, she plunges her kingdom into a bitter and eternal winter. It is up to her younger sister Anna to save her.
  • Brave (2012): Princess Merida refuses to be married and inadvertently wreaks havoc. Granted one wish, she has to call on her courage – and her archery skills –  to save the day.
  • Tangled (2010): Rapunzel’s golden hair is not just extremely long but also magical. Locked away in a tower by her wicked “mother”, she discovers the world with the help of thief Flynn Rider.
  • Mulan (1998): To save her father from being drafted into the Chinese army, Mulan disguises herself as a man and takes his place.
  • Pocahontas (1995): Against her father’s wishes, Pocahontas falls in love with Captain John Smith, who has journeyed to the New World to begin his life afresh.
  • Beauty and the Beast (many variations, but  1991 version is the best-known): When Belle’s father is captured by a beast, she enters his castle to find her father, not knowing that the beast is a prince under a spell that can only be reversed by love.
  • The Little Mermaid (1989): Feisty mermaid Ariel longs to experience life on land, against her father’s wishes. When she falls in love with a prince on land, she makes a deal with a sea-witch to live on land for three days with disastrous consequences.