Shattering the Glass Slipper: Emma Watson, Feminism and Fairy Tales

by / 0 Comments / 354 View / April 8, 2015

The live-action fairytale has seen a Hollywood renaissance in recent years, marked by films ranging from the Oscar-winning Mirror Mirror to the newest addition to the live-action fairytale family Cinderella, as well as the wildly popular TV series, Once Upon a Time. The trend shows no sign of slowing down: Disney’s recently announced plans for a live-action version of Beauty and the Beast, with Emma Watson slated to star. To some, this may seem a head-scratching–if not hypocritical–career choice for Watson, who has most recently caught the public eye as a spokesperson for “HeForShe,” a UN-backed feminist initiative. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Watson is rapidly becoming the definitive icon of fourth-wave feminism, so accepting the role of Belle–a Disney princess who, while championed for her intellectualism, can rarely be discussed in popular forums without the mention of Stockholm syndrome–could be problematic.

Comments that Watson made during her International Women’s Day Facebook chat on March 9th, however, denounced once and for all the Tall-Tale-As-Old-As-Time that chivalry and feminism can’t coexist. The idea of embracing the inherently traditional while standing firm in a gender-equality ideology–one that I would even go so far as to say that Watson’s public persona has perfectly embodied–has actually been reflected in several recent fairytale adaptations, which, if similarly championed, may eventually provide an obligatory feminist blueprint for Beauty and the Beast and all other such adaptations to come. In other words, we may soon see the day when it is impossible to make a fairytale adaptation without a feminist slant.

In spite of the fact that it was one of the highest-grossing films of 2014, Maleficent was praised nearly solely for Angelina Jolie’s performance, which critics felt was the savior of an otherwise unwarranted reimagining. The film did receive substantial positive commentary, however, on its exploration of abuse and victimhood through the character of Maleficent–who, in the film, was portrayed as a fairy driven to vengeance after being stripped of her wings by Aurora’s father in his ambition to rule her kingdom. In fairytales, women are typically either the damsel or the villain, and allowing Maleficent to tell her story–let alone one that mirrored rape culture–defied this stereotype. Maleficent also ultimately upheld the notion that the relationships between strong women are more powerful than romance, by making the spell-breaking “true love’s kiss” a maternal act of love on the part of the title character.

Similarly, in Once Upon a Time, Snow White’s daughter Emma saves her son Henry after selflessly collaborating with his ill-intentioned adoptive mother (the Evil Queen) and giving him a kiss on the forehead, once again emphasizing the strength of maternal love, but also indirectly emphasizing sisterly love. Disney’s most recent animated Princess adventure, Frozen, received widespread praise not only for its chart-topping soundtrack and quality as family entertainment, but also for establishing a new paradigm in Disney’s princess genre by making the kingdom-thawing “true love” the bond between the two royal sisters, rather than involving any male counterpart.

The popularity of Frozen, and the critical praise of its feminist twist, may have been part of what made possible the popularity of the film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods, a musical whose defining feature is its use of fairytale tropes as a framework for social commentary. In the film, the character of Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) is non-admittedly nonplussed by her Prince (Chris Pine), one of a pair of preening royal buffoons who later cheats on her with the Baker’s Wife, claiming “I was raised to be charming, not sincere.” In this single line–and a dashing, splashing musical number featuring the two princes–this film upends one of the worst gender stereotypes that fairytales have been subliminally imparting upon us for years: Princesses are to be kind and good and obedient, weathering hardships valiantly, while Princes are privileged enough to survive on their allure alone–so much to the extent that “Charming” has become an integral portion of the generic moniker.

In shaking up the “Cinderella Story,” as well as that of many other fairytale characters, Into the Woods has sufficiently set Disney’s stage for the new Cinderella, which premiered on March 13th. The film’s buzz has been built largely around ooh-and-ah ploys of the film’s visual splendor that pander to both a young audience and nostalgic adults. Dialogue from more recent trailers, however, does seemed to indicate that Disney was aware that Cinderella would come under feminist scrutiny as a regressive–if not redundant–retelling, and is attempting to convey the idea that the titular heroine plays a more active role in her fate than in many other adaptations. In the film’s current 30-second TV spot–enigmatically entitled “Conspiracy”–Cinderella states: “I will protect the Prince, no matter what becomes of me,” which, although it may be indicative of a bolder take on the character, implied that the storyline will feature some element of self-sacrifice not present in the original version. Although this element may be seen as an indicator of a new level of assertiveness for the typically demure character, and therefore might be seen as step in a feminist direction, it is more likely to be considered a misstep.

It is difficult to speculate how the new Beauty and the Beast could avoid falling into Cinderella’s glass-slippered missteps. One challenge that Cinderella faces is the fact that many of today’s moms will not be toting their little princesses to see to movie for fear that the live-action film will make the fairytale elements–including star Lily James’ controversially teeny waist–seem all too real. One advantage that Beauty and the Beast has over Cinderella, however, is the fact that its beastly Prince needs Belle more than she will ever need him. Belle is condemned for wanting “more than this provincial life,” but refuses to be bullied into marriage even when her father’s life is threatened, and it’s difficult to think of a better embodiment of sexual menace than Gaston. Beauty and the Beast is less about dreams coming true and more about overcoming dire circumstances; it possesses a certain darkness that, if properly tapped into, could speak to gender inequality in society rather than making incomplete–albeit well-intentioned–attempts to co-opt feminism into fairy tales.