My daughter was still in utero when I vowed that she would never see a princess movie. I found the genre replete with problems, particularly Disney’s version which I associated with pretty little things with eyes bigger than their waists, whose beauty was (with a few exceptions) far superior to their virtue. I hated the way princesses captivated the imagination of young girls and made them forget that they could also be painters and astronauts and engineers. But most of all, I felt that princess movies, particularly Disney’s, did little to captivate the moral imagination of young girls, that is, to elevate their souls towards recognizing the oneness of truth, goodness, and beauty. For almost three years, I kept my promise. My daughter saw no movies, particularly no princess movies.
My idyllic little non-princess world fell apart when, just shy of her third birthday, my daughter saw Frozen at a cousin’s house. She instantly seemed to memorize “Let It Go,” a song which fulfilled my worst nightmare of encouraging my daughter to cast off the yolk of convention and authority, to blaze her own trail, and to choose isolation over relationship. I know lots of people said that Frozen wasn’t the typical princess movie but I disagree. Yes, the love between sisters is a nice plot line, but I found Hans’ betrayal really distasteful, especially for a young audience that doesn’t need to be conditioned to see handsome men as murderous beasts. My bigger problem with the movie was Elsa’s transformation, which I found too tidy and too close to the end of the movie. I lifetime of isolation and loneliness does not end in a moment. Nor can we so easily dismiss the bad and dangerous things she did in the past, even when we know that those things were not done out of malice. Not to mention the scandalously tiny figures of both our protagonists.
But the purpose of this post is not to talk so much about Frozen, though I would be happy to flesh out my concerns more in the comments, as it is to sing the praises of Cinderella. I decided to take my daughter after reading Fr. Robert Barron’s review, and the movie far exceeded my expectations.
Cinderella’s mother instills in her the two virtues of kindness and courage. We see in Cinderella’s character how these two characteristics function as virtues. Adversity, of which Cinderella has plenty, does not destroy either her kindness or her courage. These strengths endure despite her circumstances. Moreover, these virtues function to make her an agent. Rather than passively accepting her situation, dire as it is, Cinderella is able to see the world “not as it is, but as it should be.” She is able to find joy in the good things that surround her—the beauty of nature and the goodness of her animal friends especially.
Cinderella is as beautiful as she is good. While I found her character stunningly beautiful, Cinderella isn’t gaunt, nor is her body completely unrealistic. More importantly, the movie makes clear that her beauty is only secondary to her virtue. The prince notices her not only because she is beautiful but because she is trying to stop him from killing a stag (another jewel in the crown for this vegetarian heart of mine). The prince is captivated by her not only because she is beautiful but also because she captivates his moral imagination. She tells him, “Just because it is done does not mean that it should be done.” He uses this lesson to justify his own desire to marry her to his father who wants him to “marry up” to a princess from a larger kingdom.
I just loved the love story in the movie. Rather than passively waiting for a savior, the movie portrays Cinderella and the prince as equals and Cinderella as an active agent in her own happy ending. At the end of the movie, she asks the prince if he will, no matter what, take her for what she is, not what she appears. He loves her for her character, for who she is, and she loves him the same in return. The movie leaves us with little doubt over the fate of the kingdom with two such virtuous rulers.
Finally, I loved how Cinderella forgives. The movie shows us that forgiveness, and really all kindness, is an act of courage. It is about envisioning the world not as it is, but how it could be. The movie does not allow us to dismiss the stepmother’s wickedness, nor does Cinderella overlook the vice of her stepmother, but by forgiving her, she points forward to what her stepmother and stepsisters might become after they have witnessed Cinderella’s transformation and experienced the power of her forgiveness. The stepmother is, in some ways, a sympathetic character, but her grief causes her to make bad—actually, wicked—decisions, decisions that in turn form her character to become more and more wicked. Unlike Frozen’s Elsa whose life of isolation and violence ends in an instant, Cinderella makes it clear that even if the stepmother is forgivable, there is no way she can suddenly start being good in an instant. In Cinderella, character endures.
For months now, my daughter has pretended to be Elsa. It always makes me feel uncomfortable because I don’t really know what in Elsa she is emulating. I worry about the parts of Elsa’s character that she finds attractive. But today after the movie she told me that she wants to be Cinderella. And that doesn’t worry me at all.