Cinderella: The Feminism of Kindness
Despite being generally praised by the media, the new live-action Cinderella movie has faced a lot of criticism for being anti-feminist. Cinderella, it’s been said, is too weak, is a terrible role model, is “more of a doormat than an actual doormat.” Her movie is an insipid attempt to sell little girls the idea of princess feminine perfection, tiny waist and all.
What absolute rubbish. Once again, the idea of “feminist media” has been twisted around, so that anything short of sassy female characters dishing out one-liners and kicking butt is seen as “weak” and “anti-feminist.”
This movie is not flawless. But it utterly enchanted me, and the more I think on it, the more powerful and important that sweeping sense of magic and romance seems to me.
The movie’s key message is “Have courage, and be kind,” an important and inspiring message that isn’t heard often enough. Some might focus on the “be kind” part and argue that it encourages girls to always be sweet and put themselves second, even in the face of cruelty, but, as the movie shows, there are many ways a person can have courage, and many ways a person can be kind.
As the movie makes clear when Cinderella meets her fairy godmother, Cinderella’s not rewarded with magic for passivity. She’s rewarded for kindness. And also, in a way, for “nothing.” For just a bowl of milk, given to a stranger in need, something that costs her absolutely nothing to give. It’s nothing, and yet means everything to another.
Perhaps some people might argue that she’s rewarded for putting her own feelings second, for stopping crying and saying her feelings are “nothing” and helping another instead. But perhaps the moment of “it’s nothing” is the point. Cinderella’s concerns are nothing to others. She just can’t go to the ball. Her family are just cruel to her. What is that to a stranger? What is that, in particular, to someone without food or a home? And what, conversely, are the needs of a stranger begging for sustenance to a girl whose hopes have just been utterly shattered? In the end, it cost each “nothing” to help the other, but that kindness meant everything.
And the fairy godmother’s response to Cinderella’s self-dismissal is also important, because Cinderella has missed a key element of her mother’s message to “have courage and be kind.” Yes, kindness is being patient around her step-sisters and helping her family as she can. Yes, it’s being kind to other living creatures and befriending mice in the attic. And it takes a lot of courage to continue to be so kind in the face of such cruelty. But, for Cinderella, the kindness that takes the most courage is being kind to herself. Asserting that she matters, standing up for herself, refusing to let other people crush her dreams.
I must admit, I had a moment in the movie where I wondered why she didn’t just leave. Why she didn’t evict the stepmother and sisters from her house. Why she didn’t do something. That was what any sensible, “strong” character would do, right?
But it isn’t. The idea that anyone with sense and self-respect would fight back is insidious, and it does not match up with reality, not even in a modern, non-fairy tale setting. Cinderella is initially a victim of micro-aggressions, each of which seems perfectly justifiable in the moment. The abuse escalates gradually, until it becomes a norm that Cinderella feels that she cannot escape. It’s the metaphor about the frog: toss it in boiling water and it’ll hop out again, but put it in cool water and increase the temperature slowly and it’ll stay there until it dies.
Yes, her stepmother uses Cinderella’s kindness against her. But that doesn’t mean Cinderella’s kindness is weakness. It’s psychological abuse, beginning with Cinderella offering to switch bedrooms with her step-sisters out of kindness, where everything the stepmother says seems mostly reasonable, where arguing would make Cinderella feel like she was being the selfish and unreasonable one.
Every time her stepmother subtly belittles Cinderella with “kindness” of her own, the hesitation is clear on Cinderella’s face. She senses that this isn’t right. But she dismisses her doubt, and the abuse grows. That is not weakness. That is the reality of abusers using a victim’s own kindness against them. Cinderella’s great strength is not just that she stands up to her stepmother in the end. It’s also that she retains her own kindness, remains true to her personality — she doesn’t have to become someone she’s not to escape. If anything, her escape is framed as her embracing the full meaning of “have courage and be kind,” and having the courage to be completely herself, regardless of how others may respond.
Unfortunately, a message of “be yourself” seems tainted in the context of this movie, thanks to the rumors that Lily James had to go on a liquid diet in order to fit into her ballgown. There’s been a lot of outrage about contorting an actress in order to give her an unrealistic Disney Princess waist. So it’s lucky that it’s not true. Check out what Lily James actually said. She ate soup on the days she filmed in the ballgown, because it was easier to digest in her properly fitting corset. There’s potentially an argument to be had about her wearing a corset at all, but taking “I kept burping in my co-star’s face when filming romantic scenes so I switched to eating soup for lunch on those days” and presenting it as an actress going on a harmful diet to shrink her waist beyond natural proportions is insulting. It’s insulting because it undermines criticism of the instances of actresses actually going on extreme diets and makes those seem similarly baseless. It’s insulting because it attacks a petite actress as somehow unnatural and unhealthy. And it’s insulting because it once again focuses on an actress’s diet to fit in a pretty dress over her actual acting.
But some critics are really eager to find any way to dismiss this movie, because it’s Disney, because it’s a princess story, full of magic and romance and gorgeous dresses, where kindness, not physical strength, is the ideal. Cinderella is refreshing in how earnestly “Disney fairy tale” it is, with no cynicism or irony, and that does mean that the movie and its protagonist is pretty darn “feminine.”
And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Yes, it’s a problem if this is the only perspective that girls ever get, but that doesn’t mean it should be eradicated entirely, especially when it’s done as well as Cinderella does it.
Kindness is not weakness. It is great strength, and Cinderella understands that. I only wish critics felt the same way.