Human beings have a way of holding onto stories. Be it “Romeo and Juliet” in Victorian England, or “Laila Majnu” in 7th century Arabia, or “Heer Ranjha” in pre-partition Punjab — the essence of the story remains the same, revamped and retold to suit the needs and times of each age. This tradition continues to this day, with new mediums such as novellas, films and TV shows keeping alive our beloved tales of the past.
One such retelling was the umpteenth version of “Cinderella” which was released earlier this month and promised to bring its own fair share of twists. For starters, to keep with the present times, the Camila Cabello-starrer decided to have Billy Porter play a gender-binary version of the famous fairy godmother, now called a fairy godparent.
The biggest promise of this movie, however, was its ‘feminist’ spin to Cinderella’s character — instead of the conventional damsel-in-distress labouring away at her step family’s orders, this Cinderella had ambitious dreams of being a dressmaker and selling her designs worldwide. In the movie, she’s seen telling the prince that she does not want a life caged in a palace any more than a life in her stepmother’s basement.
While it was designed to be a message to young girls around the world to put their careers and themselves above men, the film falls short of being a beacon of feminist empowerment and seems more like a failed attempt to stuff progressive values in an archaic setting. The movie tried to expand Cinderella’s character from her unidimensional arc of needing to be rescued by the prince, by putting her into yet another unidimensional arc of being a ‘girl boss’ — whose success is measured only in terms of her rise in the male-dominated world of business or entrepreneurship. Amidst all this, we don’t get to see the complexity that makes a character human, or even relatable. On the other hand, the plot left the prince’s character woefully unexplored, while ensuring that he gets the girl in the end — like in all other “Cinderella” retellings.
The makers of the movie manage to both raise expectations and dash them.
Girlboss Cinderella might prioritize her craft over marrying a rich prince in this story, with quippy one-liners such as “If it’s a choice, I choose me,” but the movie reminds us that there is only an extent to which their feminism, and hence the imagination of the moviemakers, must stretch. Implications of Cinderella being a self-made entrepreneur fighting to change her patriarchal society never manifest into reality — in the end, she marries the prince and travels the world with him, escaping her society instead of changing it. Her ‘feminism’ doesn’t emanate from her, but from the convenient circumstances that bring a prince into her life and allow her to pursue her dressmaker dreams. But what about those who can’t escape it? Like her stepmother who was stopped from pursuing her dream of playing the piano professionally? They remain stuck in a society that still functions on patriarchal and sexist terms. Progressive values in films can’t be checkboxes to be ticked off only for the protagonist — they must actively contribute towards building a more positive society in the fictional world.
Cinderella wearing a pantsuit to the ball, or rejecting the prince’s proposal, were only fanciful scenarios that needed to be rejected for the film to stick to its classic tropes of thin, attractive main characters, pretty dresses, and marriage as the only viable ending. The makers of the movie manage to both raise expectations and dash them, by giving us a glimpse of a self-aware, determined Cinderella but sadly making her toe the ‘fairytale ending’ line, like countless others before her. The film refuses to do justice to all the women in it — proving that its feminism extends only to woke one-liners (“yaas queen”) and a confident protagonist, and not genuine social change or liberation for women from societal expectations of marriage, beauty and submission.