Cinderella: Trash or Treasure?
Look deeper and find insights & life lessons worth treasuring.
Posted Mar 31, 2015
This month, Disney released Cinderella, a live-action remake of their 1950 animated classic. Is this just more grist for the princess mill, which feeds little girls' fantasies about how, some day, their prince will come? Unfortunately many film critics hold this opinion and only see “a retrograde notion of what constitutes wish fulfillment for girls". Or perhaps your children will be “drugged by sexist and imperialist archetypes that lost their potency decades, if not centuries, ago.”
But I vehemently disagree.
This new version does remain faithful to the original film and fairytale—think mice, pumpkin, glass slipper, handsome prince—but it goes way deeper. Writer Chris Weitz and director Kenneth Branagh have intentionally created a film that thoughtfully examines the dynamics of the human mind and spirit.
In fact, fairy tales are timeless classics because they embody powerful archetypes of good and evil, courage and fear, love and despair, depth and shallowness, power and helplessness, wealth and poverty, feminine and masculine, soul and ego. You can certainly view Cinderella as a simple fantasy if you so desire. You can even get your knickers in a twist over it. Or you can see it as a profound exploration of life, philosophy, spirituality, and lessons to embrace. Viewed through this lens, the film becomes a study in how your resilient, soulful, essential self can shine through adversity and manifest love, happiness, and prosperity. It’s a brilliant film, visually and psychologically. I invite you to see it (or recall it as you read further) and go deeper. It’s a supremely satisfying ride. Here are just a few themes and the soulful lessons to be gleaned:
Cinderella (played with grace and plucky perfection by Lily James) is not a helpless female who needs a prince to save her from a terrible fate. Early in the film, her dying mother asks her to promise that she have courage and be kind, no matter what life dishes up. Though Ella falters at times (don’t we all?) she demonstrates time and again how courage and kindness form the foundation of her resilience and empowerment. She doesn’t cave or even turn the other cheek, but rather rises above the mess around her. Her courage and kindness also attract others who are courageous and kind (the Prince, his faithful sidekick, her animal friends), while repelling those who are fearful and cruel (the evil stepmother, the stepsisters, the Grand Duke). She essentially rescues herself, by having integrity and pure intention. The lesson: You don’t need to be empowered by others—you always have access to your own power, by embodying courage and kindness.
What is typically done doesn’t mean it has to be done. When Ella and the Prince (played charmingly by twinkly blue-eyed, square-jawed Richard Madden) first meet in the forest, he and his party are hunting a stag, which Ella has already discovered and sent off into hiding. When Ella asks the Prince why he wants to kill this majestic animal and he says simply that’s what’s done, she challenges that convention and opens his mind to questioning authority/ tradition/ history and doing things differently. Lucky for them, he takes that insight and applies it to his search for a bride, and he rejects the princess who's been chosen for him. Questioning tradition and assumptions is how you free yourself from unconscious/powerless existence. The lesson: Rely on your inner wisdom instead of unthinkingly doing what you’re told or what others have done in the past.
Cinderella is “Ella” first and foremost, and never loses sight of her essential self in spite of others’ attempts to define her. The film starts with a substantial glimpse into the life of a girl named Ella, long before the evil stepmother moves in. After her beloved father dies, she’s banished to the attic for sleeping and the kitchen where she’s put to work. Her ditsy, spoiled stepsisters give her the nickname, “Cinderella” when her face is sooty after a night spent on the hearth. But she makes a conscious choice to not see herself through their haughty, bullying eyes, and as a result, we too can continue to see her as Ella. Even when she refers to herself as “Cinderella,” she owns it, as in, heck yeah, I’ve got cinders on my face, but inside, I’m still me and I am worthy. The lesson: You are who you think you are, and as the great Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
“See the world not as it is, but as it could be.” While it can certainly be therapeutic to accept what is, let go of what might have been, and live in the present moment, it can also be therapeutic to patiently strive for improvement and make lemonade out of lemons. For example, when Ella is banished to the attic, she looks around the filthy, spare garret, but then excitedly sees it as a refuge and sets about creating a peaceful, quiet, private nest for herself. Instead of feeling sorry for herself and cursing her fate, she enjoys peace and the view from the top of the house, essentially and symbolically “rising above”. The lesson: Life is not about what happens to you, but what you make of it.
Ella's dying mother promises, “Where there is kindness, there is goodness, and where there is goodness, there is magic.” There is magic because embodying kindness can transform the world and your experience of it. It’s what turns darkness into light. It’s what turns terrible situations into love. It can even turn a pumpkin into a gilt carriage. In short, it’s how you can create a bountiful, fulfilling life. Ella's life is Exhibit A. Doing the opposite is what Yoda warns against when he says, “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” The evil stepmother is Exhibit B. The lesson: Whatever you focus on gets bigger and sprouts varieties of itself, until that’s all you can see. So be careful what you wish for.
It is all about the dress. A lot of thought—and money—went into its creation, and the designer Sandy Powell got it right. It is an otherworldly blue, with multiple moving layers, ultimate twirl factor, and approximately 10,250 hand-applied Swarovski crystals. It was important to get it right because it represents Ella coming into her own. She becomes her most beautiful and powerful self—and visible (though fittingly, not to her stepmother and stepsisters, who only think and see negativity). When she arrives at the palace, she knocks and the doors swing wide open. She enters the ballroom, and people are compelled to stop and stare. They are captivated. We are captivated. As she dances with the Prince, she and the dress demonstrate the beauty, ecstasy, and bliss, which are the deepest truths of who we are when we are being our best, essential selves. Even the swirling and twirling can be seen as the way energy flows in and out and around us, and the lusciousness is the divine self. The lesson: When you are aligned with your true self, the world is your oyster and you are the pearl.
What you think is what you see. The evil stepmother demonstrates this lesson in a powerful way. After the ball, when the Prince mounts a kingdom-wide search for Ella, “the mystery princess,” the evil stepmother figures it out and corners Ella, demanding an explanation. But first she tells her side of the story—that life is cruel and her only option is to be bitter and spiteful. It’s a fascinating confrontation between two entities who’ve both suffered greatly. There’s Ella, who embodies resilience, and the evil stepmother, who embodies misery. The lesson: You can create your own suffering by clinging to distressing thoughts and perspectives. So don’t believe everything that goes through your mind. When you master this, you realize you’ve thought some crap and thereby created some crap.
If others see you as “less than,” this says more about them than about you. This point was driven home near the end when Ella stands up to the evil stepmother and asks, “What did I ever do to you?” Played by Cate Blanchet to deliciously icy depths, she responds, “You are young, innocent, and good, and I’m...” The rest remains unspoken, too painful for her to utter. But we finish the thought and feel sorry for her, because it’s clear that she creates her own suffering by how she views herself. The lesson: When someone spews hatred, it’s a sure sign that they hate themselves.
Love yourself for the very one you are. As the Prince, glass slipper in hand, finally lays eyes on Ella, the commoner—not really a princess—she stands before him and asks, “Will you take me as I am?” With equal humility, he asks her, “Will you take me as I am?” The Prince then holds out the glass slipper and Ella gladly and effortlessly slides her foot into it, demonstrating that this self-acceptance is what creates true happiness and wealth.
The lesson: When you can love yourself, you put yourself out into the world as loveable, and the world can’t help but love you back.
When the shoe fits, wear it. The fitting of shoe is also the culmination of Ella’s long journey, where she is reunited with the Prince, the feminine and masculine energies are joined, and love triumphs. The effortless fit matches the feelings of “I’ve always known you” and “we belong together”, and represents alignment and wholeness. Even though the evil stepmother breaks one shoe, the shoe that matters appears with the Prince. (The shoe was made of Swarovski crystal. According to Lily James, “You had the fear of God whenever you held it.”) The lesson: Even when forces try to break you and keep you from wholeness, you can prevail. Your true self can never be broken.
Forgiveness is the key to forging peace. Forgiveness is being able to see the person who wronged you as acting out of a place of hurt or fear. It’s rising above petty vindictiveness and power struggles, and realizing, as Ella says early on, “They treat me as well as they are able.” Near the end, during the moment when Ella tells the evil stepmother, “I forgive you,” she is also literally leaving the house with her Prince, embarking on a new, fabulous life. Forgiveness is what frees Ella from evil’s clutches. Holding a grudge would only mean keeping evil in her presence. The lesson: Forgiveness is the ultimate kindness—to others and to yourself.
You don’t have to look outside yourself for solutions to your problems. The King begs the Prince to marry the princess from a foreign land, as he believes this will create an alliance that will strengthen his kingdom. In the end, the Prince marries Ella, which ends up making their kingdom even more stable and prosperous than if he’d married an outsider. The lesson: Look inside yourself, “inside your own borders,” for solutions, as you already harbor the potential to be and do whatever it takes.
See the film, go deep, and tell me what resonates with you!
With gratitude to Rani Jennings, M.A., who contributed substantially to this post. She is working on a manuscript entitled, “The Spiritual Journey of the Mind, Illustrated.” She also teaches a class on the dynamics of the mind, using her illustrations and original music for the Lessons of A Course in Miracles.