Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
Throughout my time at Christ and Pop Culture, I’ve written a lot about strong women and how they come across in stories. From Joyce Byers of Stranger Things to Lara Croft Tomb Raider to Captain Marvel to Wanda of WandaVision (and more), I feel it’s particularly important to define what is unique about female characters, representation of women in stories, and why and how female strength is portrayed. Humans are imitative beings, and even though art flows out of life, we also imitate art. Therefore, the women that grace our screens and the pages of our books matter a great deal.
Although I love feeling inspired by the female heroes and superheroes on the big screen as much as anyone, in the real world, women are more often called to a sort of strength that is far more quiet and persevering than what our favorite heroes demonstrate. As Disney chooses to highlight (and therefore create empathy for) their “Cruel Devil” woman in Cruella in their latest live-action release, my thoughts wander back to my favorite female Disney character and a time when Disney chose to highlight courage and kindness instead.
The classic animated Cinderella came out in 1950 and was a staple of my childhood—far and away my favorite of the Disney princess films. And for those of us of a certain age who grew up watching Disney movies in the 1980s and 1990s, I don’t think we can discount how formative these stories and characters were to us. Cinderella was more than just an animated figure on a screen; she was someone I wanted to be. I believed that “a dream is a wish your heart makes,” and I longed to someday find my very own Prince Charming. I recognized the wickedness of her stepmother and the selfishness of her stepsisters. Cinderella taught me many simple lessons about good and evil, compassion, and longing, and fortitude. I didn’t think that Cinderella was weak or that the story was underdeveloped and simplistic until those ideas were introduced to me in 1998.
Strength of a very modern sort was introduced to the Cinderella character of Ever After when Drew Barrymore portrayed a reimagined version of the well-known rags-to-riches princess in 1998. Barrymore’s Cinderella was called “Danielle,” and whether it was the intent of the filmmakers or not, one takeaway of the film was that we were invited to view the gentleness of the animated Disney film as being deeply flawed. Ever After came along and, in fleshing out the Cinderella story, it seemed to say that Cinderella as previously depicted by Disney was a bit of a doormat. She’d let herself be trodden upon, she’d done the chores without complaint, she’d let the animals take care of her—she’d never fought back or fought for anything in her life. Did the Cinderella of Disney-past even deserve to win the prince? Danielle of Ever After is a fighter, and she fights for good things.As the months of the pandemic translated into far more hours spent inside and online than outside and in person, I have seen more ugliness—more meanness—in this world than ever before.
Which is true! Ever After in many ways told a story well ahead of its time when we consider the balance and equality between male and female characters—especially between Danielle and Henry, her prince. Danielle is thoughtful, fiery, and compassionate, and she fights for not only what she wants, but also for what is right. She fights for her homestead, her friends, the memory and legacy of her mother and father, and, when she falls in love with the prince, she fights for that love. Ever After is riddled with scenes ranging from witty and lighthearted displays of strength, such as when Danielle rescues Henry from a band of ruffians by bodily carrying him from a forest clearing, to poignant defiance, like when she refuses to hand over her mother’s gown and is whipped for punching her stepsister. Danielle’s Cinderella is mistreated as often to punish her for her defiance as she is merely because her stepmother and stepsister are cruel and delight in it.
I’ve always admired Barrymore’s Danielle and Ever After for the version of the Cinderella story it gave me as a young teen girl looking for female role models. Danielle was a feminist Cinderella who could fight her way out of anything life threw at her—and the prince loved her for her independence! She saves herself at the end of the story; she’s used to taking care of herself. She’s a strong woman, and she’s got this.
In 1998, Cinderella was rebranded “Danielle,” was given a sword, fists, and utopian sensibilities. Ever After took the Cinderella of my youth and reinvented the story in such a way that I was able to imagine the possibilities of the character—of who she might have been had she actually existed. What sort of strength would it take to survive as a woman in that world and under those circumstances?
Looking back on Ever After now, I still admire Danielle’s fighting spirit, but I also recognize that it’s not only the will or the ability to fight that makes a woman strong. Another true and beautiful take on the Cinderella character demonstrates that sometimes—perhaps most of the time—strong women are those who practice quiet, daily fortitude.
In 2015, Disney handed the reins over to director Kenneth Branagh who cast Lily James as Ella and who set to work on a new live-action Cinderella—one that would be far closer to the animated classic while still fleshing out Ella’s and Kit’s (the prince’s) stories and characters. The result is a rare gem of a film, stunningly beautiful, and with protagonists who are so good as to be “practically perfect in every way.” But rather than coming off as shallow or superficial, Branagh’s film returns Cinderella to her traditional demeanor—and grounds her in a strength that comes from real virtue.
James’s Cinderella is not a fighter; she is gentle, soft of voice and deed, and genuinely kind. She always puts others ahead of herself, and she lives according to the mantra “have courage and be kind.” This is a strength I find both particularly radical and infinitely more challenging these days than learning to fight against those I disagree with (even if they deserve it). But this strength is also more relatable. As the months of the pandemic translated into far more hours spent inside and online than outside and in person, I have seen more ugliness—more meanness—in this world than ever before. I myself have been tempted to be more mean, because, as I think we all know, it’s easy to be unkind from the anonymity of a computer. True kindness takes strength; it takes fortitude, and it is itself a sort of courage.
Ella’s courage gives her life-preserving strength and the will to survive in Branagh’s Cinderella when her stepmother locks her up, and although Kit does save her physically in the end, it is her kindness and courage that sets her free. When Ella is leaving her house with Kit, she turns back to her stepmother and says, “I forgive you.” Ella walks out the door a free woman while her stepmother sinks into the shadows in which she’d once enslaved Ella. In contrast, Ever After ends with Danielle having her stepmother publicly humiliated and punished. Does she deserve it? Probably, and it’s satisfying on a human level to see the comeuppance. But Ella’s courageous forgiveness of her stepmother, and her refusal to publicly humiliate or condemn her, is a far better ending. Cruelty enslaves, but true kindness leads to forgiveness that sets free.
Kindness is strength, especially in the face of cruelty. Kindness is a type of strength that has nothing to do with fighting. And it does not mean that there is never a time or a place to fight for what is right, because of course there is! But there are many strong women out there who practice strength and courage in ways largely invisible to us. Why? Because a “soft answer turns away wrath.” Without wrath, there are no fireworks—no grand displays to show everyone how strong you are (and we love a good show of strength and virtue on social media, don’t we?). Most of us are strong in ways that go unlauded, and maybe we don’t see our daily routine as strength because of it, or we think we have to be fighting for something—whatever that might look like. But we are strong women when we practice virtues like kindness, when we are patient, when we show compassion and turn away wrath. When we follow in Jesus’ steps, we are strong. Despite deep oppression, Jesus spent far more time practicing the fruit of the Spirit during his ministry than he ever did turning over tables.
Female strength, like femininity itself, cannot and should not be put in a box. Searching for simple definitions or reducing us to one type of fighter disavows the many, many women who will never lift their hand or voice in resistance, but who daily practice the next right thing. The label of “strong” is not denied to the gentle, the soft, the compassionate, the kind; sometimes the strongest people are those who simply practice kindness with courage in their hearts.