The beginning of the new Cinderella movie is a fairy tale ending.
We see a couple cooing over their baby daughter, sitting in a sunny meadow, wildflowers abounding. The little girl grows older, but the idyllic quality remains. We see young Ella learning to dance with her dad, her mother watching them; we see her going to sleep, her mother singing to her, her father in the background.
And then—to use a phrase singularly appropriate for Cinderella—the other shoe drops: Ella’s mother dies, after telling her daughter she must “have courage and be kind.”
So begins a downward spiral for Ella’s life: she gains a cruel stepmother, Lady Tremaine, and stepsisters, her father dies, and she finds herself the mocked family maid.
Then, of course, she gets her twist of fate: she meets and falls in love with a man (Kit) who, unknown to her, is the kingdom’s prince. He eventually finds her and they marry. At the end of the movie, Kit and Ella stand on a balcony, radiantly happy, waving to a crowd of supporters in the castle’s courtyard.
But if anyone knows there’s no happily “ever after” guarantee, it’s Ella—and it’s us, who over the course of a movie have seen her parents’ fairy tale destroyed and have seen Kit watch his own dad die.
And that’s why the movie’s most powerful scene isn’t the couple whirling together in a ballroom or reuniting or standing on that balcony. Instead, it’s Ella, trapped in an attic, singing.
She has been banished there after her stepmother realized she was the mysterious beautiful girl at the ball who captivated Kit—and yet she won’t give in to Tremaine’s proposed exchange of Tremaine gaining a powerful role in the kingdom for giving Ella the freedom to reveal herself to the prince as the mysterious girl.
And so Ella remains imprisoned. She tells herself the memories of dancing with the prince are enough. In the crucial scene when the prince’s guards are looking for the lady whose foot fits the glass slipper (and being told Ella doesn’t exist), Ella is sitting on one of the attic’s window ledges, singing.
Ella is an orphaned woman who fully expects she is losing her chance to marry the man she loves and start a family of her own because of her wicked stepmother’s actions. Yet instead of cursing or sulking or weeping, she sings the song her mother sang to her as she fell asleep, all those years ago.
Some have taken that moment to be Ella’s failure to be a feminist. In an article headlined “The baffling anti-feminist politics of Disney’s new Cinderella,” Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff complains, “The overall effect is that Cinderella ends up being someone who suffers beautifully and . . . that’s about it, actually.”
I’m sympathetic to that view: initially, I was exasperated with Ella for not trying to make a ladder to climb out of the tower with or use some of that old musty furniture to try to break down the door.
But in the end, these are quibbles. Perhaps there truly is no way for Ella out of the tower. After all, as we saw from her imploring Kit to not kill the stag (they meet when he is hunting) and from her mending her mother’s dress to attend the ball when she realizes her stepmother won’t be giving her a new dress, Ella has made active decisions before—she isn’t passive because she lacks the imagination or the character to be active.
And it’s hard to suffer beautifully.
Doubt that? Just look at Lady Tremaine. She overhears her second husband telling her stepdaughter Ella how much he misses his first wife—and shortly after, she banishes Ella to the attic. When she confronts Ella about the glass slipper, Tremaine tells her side of the story: about being stuck with two daughters she knows are hopeless, about marrying once for love and then losing him. Tremaine, too, has had—and lost—a fairy tale life. Perhaps she’s even had that happen twice: she says she didn’t love Ella’s father, but the look on her face when she heard him talking about Ella’s mother suggests otherwise.
But Tremaine has reacted so much differently than Ella. Instead of embracing kindness and cultivating courage, Tremaine has allowed herself to become embittered, has struck out at others, and has responded to life’s disappointments by nourishing her own vices.
Ultimately, Cinderella upholds the knowledge so many of us have painfully learned: Bad things happen to bad people and to good people and good things happen to good people and to bad people. Both Tremaine and Ella have suffered, and both have had blessings, too.
There are no guarantees for that radiantly happy Ella on the balcony: the kingdom may flounder (after all, Kit’s not making a politically astute decision to pick Ella over a princess), she may lose one or more of her children, and she might lose Kit. Or perhaps she will live happily ever after, surrounded by a flourishing kingdom, devoted husband, and happy children.
But whatever Ella’s future, she remains a fairy tale heroine: one who learned to sing from her mother, and who will undoubtedly teach her own children to sing.
In the end, this Cinderella makes the case that the essence of a fairy tale isn’t the externals: the castles, the glass slippers, even the Prince Charmings. Instead, we’re awed by Ella’s internal character, by the idea that a woman, even one who has suffered as much as she has and who doesn’t have reason to believe that suffering will end, can remain good and kind, can dodge being thwarted and warped by suffering, and can even choose to embrace what joy is given her, and in imprisonment, sing.
We all know the Lady Tremaines. But what fairy tales teach us is that the Ellas can also exist. And that is a miracle more astonishing—and harder to believe in—than a pumpkin becoming a carriage, mice becoming horses, or a servant girl marrying a prince.