by Vanessa Tottle
What does Cinderella look like to a victim of child abuse? If you’ve been hit, or beaten, or terrorized, or tortured – what does Cinderella tell you? “Shut up, take it, know your place. God sorts out the rest.”
Or, in Kenneth Branagh’s latest re-imagining: “Have courage and be kind.”
Courage is to not sit there happily like a dumb puppy glad even for negative attention, wagging her tail for more. Courage is to not stay silent and accept that being abused is your destiny in life. Courage is to say, God may get to it eventually, but if it’s wrong, it’s wrong, and I’m here now.
Be kind doesn’t mean to take the slights of abusers like a whimpering simp. It doesn’t mean to knuckle under.
If you’re getting beaten, terrorized, tortured, enslaved, we don’t need a fairy tale or a movie or a Disney movement being sold to little girls telling you to shut up, take it, and know your place.
And don’t tell me that it’s just a movie or just a princess. It’s “just” part of a multi-billion dollar industry with more than 25,000 princess products, and “Cinderella” conveys messages to children seeing their first movies about what is and isn’t heroic, what is and isn’t courage, what is and isn’t being kind. What it teaches them about those values is wrong and dangerous.
I knew my place once and that was getting hit and having my life threatened day after day. I was Cinderella, told she was destined to be nothing and sit in her attic and think of why she deserved this abuse, who looked out the window and wondered what was wrong with her – just her – so special in all the wrong ways that she became determined to accept it, live it, suffer it quietly and cry and cry and cry, but only when no one was looking.
“Have courage and be kind.”
That’s what I believed. It sounds like a good message, but not to women, not to abuse victims, not the way it’s perverted and redefined by Cinderella and especially Branagh as, “Shut up, take it, know your place.”
I believed that courage was being quiet and kindness was to be forgotten. Branagh’s Cinderella – most Cinderellas – follow suit.
As Cleopatra pointed out, Cinderella – especially Branagh’s lavish but insane retelling of it – is at its heart a way of reinforcing the idea that if you suffer now and don’t complain, you’ll be rewarded later. Disney-brand Indulgences are on sale in the lobby.
Branagh’s Cinderella tells an abuse victim, “Have courage and be kind.” It tells her suffering is its own reward, so don’t fight, don’t object, just accept, and get locked in that attic with a stiff upper lip.
Others may watch it and see the pretty dresses and the handsome hair and the CGI slippers. I watch and I see myself as a child, not knowing better than to accept. Courage was being quiet. Kindness was to be forgotten.
I know better now than to think those are the marks of a role model, of a hero. These aren’t traits to emulate, this is a character to pity, and for most women in similar situations, no magic will arrive. They will have what they’ve been taught is courage, which is the courage to stay with their abusers. They will be too kind, forgiving every hit they take. They will have this courage and be this kind until they are broken, until they are abusers themselves, or until they are dead.
This is what Branagh teaches in a Cinderella more conservative and patriarchal than any other version: accept the abuse, but look good enough in public to hide it. Don’t breathe a word about it, just smile and be polite. If you sustain enough without objection, your reward will find you.
“Have courage and be kind.” Courage was being quiet. Kindness was to be forgotten…
Those weren’t the exact words I whispered to myself every night, but they’re close. I used to wake up drenched in sweat. I used to piss the bed. I used to hit myself to stop from crying because I was quieter that way. I took the long way home to weep behind bushes where classmates couldn’t see me. I believed myself courageous. I believed myself kind. Nobody taught me what those things really were. All I had were tales like Cinderella that taught me wrong.
And even if the magic does save you, and I was very lucky to get out, you don’t stop the screaming in your head, you never lose that urge to cause yourself pain to quell the wound that never heals, you never trust the way that you see other people trust, the way that you see Cinderella trust. You still wake up in the middle of the night. You still take the long way home.
Branagh’s Cinderella teaches that abuse leaves no lasting impression, that if you suffer quietly enough you will be rewarded, and it misrepresents courage and kindness as meekness and self-subjugation. It is the wrong message to send to abuse victims, to women, to children, to society. I don’t care how “classic” it is. I care how dangerous it is.
So fuck you, Kenneth Branagh. And fuck your dangerous, damaging movie, too.