Monday, 20 April 2015

Cinderella the Movie: Why Do We Hate Ourselves?

I recently blogged about three things a romance writer can learned from the 2015 Cinderella Movie. That covered some ground but not all. With Maleficent heralded as a feminist triumph, and Frozen welcomed as move away from Waiting-For-The-Prince-To-Save-Me to focusing on family bonds and the power of love, it was interesting that Disney chose to make a super faithful live action version of the 1950 Cinderella movie.

The 1950s aren't precisely known as an era for female empowerment. The prevailing rhetoric had women firmly back in the kitchen preparing highballs for their menfolk and ensuring they had their lipstick straight for the moment he got back from work. Cinderella challenged that... not at all. No, she merrily swept out the house without resentment and as a reward got treated to a night out and met a monied fella who swept her off her feet without so much as a Bibbity Bobbitty Boo to a woman's traditional reward: marriage. 

Roll on 65 years - have things changed?

Well er, no. Not especially. This movie is very faithful to the cartoon. I already mentioned the mouse thing, but the thing which really bothered me - and which came through even more strongly than in the 1950 version - was Cinderella's lack of self worth. 

Here's the way it goes. 

Cinderella has a golden childhood dancing with her doting dad and being told to believe in EVERYTHING by her golden mum. Then her mum tucks her into bed, breaks out in a sweat and promptly keels over (check out Disney's mummy mortuary and why you should care about it). 




Side note: my seven year old immediately wanted to know what she'd died of. Turns out that was the first thing my 49 year old big sister wanted to know too. Was it plague she asked? Fast growing tumour, I thought. Anyways, back to the blog...

Now for the death bed scene. Cinders' mum asks Cinders to make an important promise: to always Be Kind and Have Courage.

A few more years of gaily dancing around the house and then Cinders' Dad remarries. It's 0 to 60 here with the nastiness. Cinder's wicked stepmother barely pretends to be anything other than a b*tch and her stepsisters are openly nasty. Odd for doting dad to overlook this but never mind. Cinders is prepared to turn the other cheek. 

And thus it begins. By the time Daddy Dearest follows mum up to heaven, Cinders is already living in the attic surrounded by mice. One wonders how  the Wicked "You can call me Madam" Stepmother plans to justify this to Dad when he gets home, but as he conveniently dies this isn't a problem. 

And besides, Cinders is busy Being Kind and Having Courage

Here's what really stuck in my throat about Cinderella the movie. As far as female role models go it's WORSE than the 1950s cinematic version. At least in the cinematic version Cinders has a bit about her. She's pretty proactive with her singing mouse army. Come 2015 she's limp as week old lettuce. 




Her interpretation of "Be Kind and Have Courage" is to put up with any amount of crap, bullying and misery and not to complain about it, challenge it or to act in her own defence in any way at all. Whilst cartoon Cinders seemed to enjoy dancing about with a feather duster, live action Cinders doesn't. "You don't look well," her old maidservant advises her, asking why she doesn't leave. It's a fair question. Cinders response is that her folks loved the old house and so she has to keep the garden nice or something. Er, okay. I'm sure that those totally doting parents would be thrilled that their house was weed-free and well dusted and that their daughter was enduring living slavery. Or not

In fact, the only slight feistiness modern Cinders demonstrates is in the forest when asks the Prince not to kill the stag. He protests, claiming it's the done thing. Cinders points out that just because it's the done thing, doesn't mean it's right. All he needs to do, explains Cinders, is to Be Kind and Have Courage

Because for a man being Kind and Having Courage means something totally different than for a woman. On the Prince's variation of the parental death scene his father asks him if he'll marry the Princess Chehina if the King orders him too, the Prince says no. He reckons he needs to follow his own instincts and that he's got what it takes to rule a Kingdom without Princess Chehina's additional resources. All he needs to do is to "Be Kind and Have Courage" he explains. The King is delighted. "You're your own man," he congratulations his son. 




Quite.

So for the Prince, Being Kind and Having Courage doesn't mean masochistically enduring an unendurable situation (being married to someone he doesn't love when he has met the girl of his dreams). His kindness extends to himself, as well as to the people around us. His courage means the courage of his convictions.

But for Cinders, Being Kind and Having Courage DOES mean masochistically enduring an unendurable situation (living in slavery). Her kindness doesn't extend to herself. Her courage is used only to... wait, when does she display courage? Sent to the attic, she doesn't protest. Denied the ball, she doesn't rebel and make an attempt to go out until the Fairy Godmother tells her to, clothes her AND gives her magical anonymity, thus making it risk-free. Imprisoned, she doesn't once try to escape. Even when the Prince's men visit, it's the bloody mice who open the window. 

Her big act of courage is telling the Prince her bloody name and status - which presumably he already knew, as he'd had a bit of time hanging about downstairs chatting whilst he waited for her to bother leaving the attic. 

Not once in the movie does passive Cinders do anything to determine her own destiny. It's depressing. And the message it sends to the target audience (young girls) is appalling. 

Throw more shit at me. I'll take it.


Women get this shit from the cradle. 

We're trained to put others first at the expense of ourselves. We make it into an art form. 

Perhaps I wouldn't feel so very strongly about this if I hadn't seen the end result so many bloody times: women exhausting themselves, living in dangerous or unhappy situations, experiencing severe mental health problems. 

This happens not because they don't know where to draw a boundary between themselves and the people they care for but because they don't even known that a boundary should be drawn. 

Once upon a time, a counsellor friend said to me: "Loving your neighbour as yourself means that you have to love yourself too. Otherwise you're not loving your neighbour as yourself." If I had a pound every time I've repeated this to a female friend who is in crisis, I'd be a rich woman. It's important

It's not that being altruistic and loving other people is wrong. It's not. But if you want to be there for other people, you need to make sure you look after yourself. If you don't love yourself enough, practice self acceptance, make sure you are physically, emotionally and mentally well, you are less able to help others. 

The Prince in Cinderella appears to know this. Cinders herself doesn't. 

Cinderella story: wait about and hope a prince decides to marry you
Equally, whilst both the Prince and Cinders have loving relationships with their fathers, throughout the movie the Prince moves towards adult independence, whilst Cinderella remains blindly obedient. In other words, she never grows up. 

The curious irony is that her Stepmother exemplifies what happens when:
1) you prioritise others at your own expense and; 
2) depend wholly on men to shape your destiny. 

Just prior to locking Cinderella in the attic she explains that first she married for love, but second she married for her daughters and she lost both husbands, thus ending up with nothing. This is an explanation for her bitterness and cruelty. 

However, before I got to wondering whether Brannagh was playing a deep game here in contrasting the two, he makes it clears what happens to women who try to get active on their own behalf. The Stepmother tries to exploit her situation (at Cinderella's expense) to advance herself and her daughters: she ends up banished. 



Luckily, we know Cinders won't try anything like that. She's too busy being GOOD as well and Being Kind and Having Courage. Even the dress designer knows it, telling Vanity Fair: Cinderella wins the Prince’s heart through her goodness, so I wanted to show this through her clothes,” Powell explained. “I wanted her to stay modest and pure even though she was going to be a part of royalty.” - so like, flowers and stuff (see above). FFS. 
Okay, I'm not suggesting that blackmailing others is a good idea but it would be nice to see one woman in this beautifully produced, visually stunning women-hating movie doing something to change her fate - and getting rewarded for it. 

We can only hope that Cinderella, who is following faithfully in her Stepmother's footsteps (depending on a man, putting others first) doesn't end up experiencing the same fate. With luck, the Prince will live a long time and value our Cinders. Because God knows she can't do it for herself. 

Putting up with being bullied and controlled isn't courage. It's self destruction. 

If your child loves the new Cinderella, be sure to point out the difference. 


Then go watch Maleficent instead.  

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Three Writing Tips from Disney's 2015 Cinderella



Despite the success of the awe-inspiring Maleficent, Disney must be sick of revisionist fairytale movies because the 2015 live action Cinderella is anything but. So closely have the film-makers stuck to the story depicted in the 1950 version that the eponymous heroine even chats to and has tea parties with mice. Obviously Cinders has never heard that urban myth about mice having no bladders or indeed found one dead under the toaster or I doubt she would greet them dancing around her bedchamber with such equanimity.

Still, mice aside, Cinderella is visually sumptuous. The vaguely Victorian period costumes are gorgeous and if every now and then you wonder why Cinders sticks to her pale blue party frock for cleaning out the grate or wish there were one or two less butterflies on her ballgown, it's more than made up for by the wicked stepmother's (Cate Blanchett) awesome wardrobe. 

Gratuitous Cate Blanchet dress picture - because she is awesome
Unfortunately, although Cate Blanchett is as awesome as her stylish shirt-waisters and Helena Bonham-Carter turns in a star role as an eccentric high camp fairy godmother, Cinderella, whilst engaging enough, left me feeling a bit bleurgh.  And it wasn't just me. My seven year old who had eaten up Frozen and loved Malificent thought it was no better than average giving it a lowly 5/10/ 

But why?  WHY?  It's a visual feast (the best makeover - and makeunder scenes ever), it has a stellar cast... where did this film fall short? 

And it's one of the best makeover scenes EVER


What I Learned About Storytelling From Watching Cinderella. 

Characterisation: for a character to be interesting it has to be three dimensional. And I'm not talking about the green and red glasses here.  Maleficient worked because there were shades of grey in every character, good or bad. Maleficent was a pure-of-heart, generously loving imp who was scarred by her experiences, became very dark indeed and then struggled her way towards redemption. Her nemesis, the king, was an imaginative, open-minded boy who also happened to be dangerously opportunistic and ruthless. Aurora herself was no mild-mannered sweetheart. Sunny natured, she displayed anger, behaved rashly but ultimately had a great deal of discernment. Every single character went on a journey. It was interesting. Compelling, even.

Magnificent Maleficent


Compare to the characters in the 2015 Cinderella. Cate Blanchett tries with all her considerable talent to add some nuances to her wicked stepmother. There is an implication she is hurt, has become cynical... but ultimately, the relationship between she and Cinders is unsatisfying. When asked by Cinders why she has acted as she had, she says "Because you're young and innocent and good and I'm..." - she doesn't finish the sentence.  It feels out of tune. Surely the tension here is about the amount of emotional investment Cinderella has received? Surely it's about jealousy? 

Meanwhile other characters - let's take the conniving Grand Duke or the irritating stepsisters are mere ciphers - it's as though no one has bothered to think of a backstory for them, which would remotely justify their behaviour. This is no reflection on the actors, who seemed to be doing the best they could with a weak script. Compare this to the wonderful 1976 musical The Slipper and the Rose, where the same set of characters were far more nuanced. 

The Slipper and the Rose, 1976

Conflict: Sticking with The Slipper and the Rose, one way in which the Grand Duke character was nuanced was that he was genuinely concerned for the kingdom. There was a threat on the borders that must be addressed. This gave the viewer some sympathy for him. Social hierarchy is also a significant theme in The Slipper and the Rose: the Prince's relationship with Cinderella challenges the very fabric of society (as played out in the charming John/Anne subplot). This helps to raise the stakes for the Prince and Cinderella - it's going to be damn hard for them to be together.

In the 2015 Cinderella there simply is no external conflict. Adding an extra few divisions of soldiers to the country's army ranks appears to be a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have. It's easily dismissed in the Prince's mind.  Neither Cinderella nor the Prince have anything to lose by being together. Once they actually find each other, there are no real hurdles to overcome. In fact, if Cinders had wriggled out of the window, climbed down the ivy and hot-footed it to the palace the whole thing could have been sewn up without any need to launch a great big girl-hunt. Cinders just doesn't seem too fussed about doing so, being happy enough to hang about in the attic chatting to the mice.

A great romance plot takes both romantic protagonists on a journey and stacks the odds against them being together. They have to work hard to get to their happy ending and they change along the way. It's like a quest story, but one that involves two people questing towards the goal from different directions. You win the prize by overcoming obstacles. That's the name of the game.

Electric eccentricity from HBC 
Make every scene count: There's a scene in Cinderella where the Prince is having his portrait painted. The artist, Master Phineus, played by Rob Brydon, is a comic character who mouths off all throughout his scene. Why? For comic effect? Because... why? His lines don't do anything for the story. His could have been used to show that the Prince didn't take himself too seriously and that this was in conflict with the expectations of him. He could have been used to impart important information. In fact, his inclusion just felt pointless, distracting and at odds with the overall atmosphere of the film. Compare to the Fairy Godmother scene with the brilliant Helena Bonham-Carter which is genuinely funny and is essential to the plot. Take a tip from Chekhov: "Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."

So what can a romance author learn from Cinderella?

You can have gorgeous description (the book equivalent of sumptuous costumes and scenery) and you can have action - and Cinderella does - but without conflict, you don't have that satisfying feeling of resolution. Without strong, three dimensional characterisation it's hard to care that much about what happens to the people in the story. And without good editing, your reader will be distracted. 

Don't make your villains too bad or your protagonists too good - both are dull. Don't skimp on the conflict, internal or external, because without it your story won't keep the reader interested. Make the odds high. Show what they have to lose. 

When I asked my daughter why she gave Cinderella such a mediocre rating, she said: "It's like they should have thought about it more before they made it." 

I couldn't have put it better myself. 

PS she also said: "And she had too many butterflies on her dress." Another truth. Because like, sometimes, less is more. 

A plague of butterflies on our nature loving heroine