Why Disney’s New Cinderella Is the Anti-Frozen

Disney Lily James as Cinderella in Disney's 2015 live-action feature inspired by the classic fairy tale, Cinderella

Don't be fooled by Ella's new look, this fairy tale is full of disappointing stereotypes

Ever since the cast was announced, I’ve been wishing hard on Disney’s new live-action adaptation of Cinderella. This was, after all, a product of the new Disney, whose last princess-based effort resulted in the girl-power juggernaut we know and love as Frozen. And now Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter and even Agent Carter’sbutt-kicking bombshell” Hayley Atwell were on board. Surely this band of power women would have signed on only to a more modern Cinderella, one that finds a way to luxuriate in the lush beauty of the tale while also giving it a much-needed jolt of female agency.

How I wish I didn’t have to deliver bad news. I was a bullied girl who grew up on Disney’s classic animated version, dreaming that a fairy godmother might also reveal me as the radiant woman I knew I could be. I fervently wanted this reboot to be big enough to marry my childhood dreams with my adult belief that women aren’t ennobled by suffering or diminished by ambition. But I guess I forgot to wish upon a star. The new Cinderella is as retro as they come.

The film certainly is lavish. Everything is more beautiful than you thought it could be, from the hyper-real fairy-tale farmhouse to the ornately gilded pumpkin coach to the massive ball scenes at the palace to (of course!) the dresses. Oh, the dresses! Every frame is lovingly, sumptuously composed, and the performances live up to their setting. Aesthetically, Cinderella is an unqualified triumph.

If only the film’s heart were as good as its heroine’s. This Cinderella shares less DNA with Frozen and more with Snow White’s Evil Queen. On the surface it’s the fairest of the fair. But underneath it’s rotten.

You can tell that someone, somewhere had good intentions. There are multiple people of color in this film, and they’re not just playing servants. Lady Tremaine, Cinderella’s stepmother, is given a backstory clearly meant to humanize her — a beloved dead husband and a real fear that she and her girls will be left to starve without a man to provide for them. But what the film suffers from is a profound failure of nerve. Sure, the people of color are there, but the only two who speak at all are tertiary characters at best. It’s 2015. Does the Prince really have to be white for the story to work? Does Cinderella?

As for Tremaine’s motivations, for a moment they gave me hope that the story would go in a Jane Austen direction, exploring the limited and sometimes desperate life choices facing women who are forced to depend on marriage for income and class status. Instead it’s just a way to demonstrate how ambitious Tremaine has become, and how that unseemly ambition is the driver of her evil treatment of our heroine, who in contrast has no ambitions and is therefore purely good. More submissive than Anastasia Steele, Cinderella responds to every insult and oppression forced on her by suffering it prettily and with a song in her heart. That’s no exaggeration: even when locked in the attic by her stepmother, literally held prisoner in her own home, she doesn’t try to escape or even yell to the king’s men just below her in the yard. Instead she just floats about dreamily and sings. If it weren’t for some preternaturally clever mice, she’d still probably still be up there.

What’s truly galling is that we know Disney can do better. In recent years it’s reimagined classic fairy tales in groundbreaking (and lucrative) outings like Brave, Maleficent and, of course, Frozen. And it’s not like it didn’t intend to update the story. Kenneth Branagh, who directed this mess, is featured in a video on Disney’s site bragging, “There’s no damsels in distress here. Cinderella’s not a pushover. She sticks up for herself.” I couldn’t possibly say what he means by that, because all the viewer sees is her parroting her mother’s dying words — “have courage and be kind” — while accepting without protest every abuse Tremaine and her daughters conceive of. Agent Carter would be very disappointed.

And Agent Carter is part of the point. Atwell’s other recent project is but one of a whole constellation of television series currently featuring complex, fully formed female leads, including Orange Is the New Black, Jane the Virgin, Empire, The Good Wife, The Mindy Project, everything Shonda Rhimes touches, and the just-released Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, to name just a few. One glance at a TV (or streaming) schedule is all it takes to see how infinite the possibilities can be when it comes to women onscreen.

But somehow the film-studio bosses keep losing the memo. In 2014, only 12% of top-grossing films featured women in lead roles. Only slightly more than half of all films released since 2010 have even passed the Bechdel test, a pathetically low bar requiring only that a film feature two women who talk with each other at some point about something other than a man. This erasure of women isn’t even mercenary: films that do pass the Bechdel test are repeatedly shown to produce more profit for studios than films that don’t.

And many of the films that do manage to feature a woman suffer from a profound lack of imagination about who women can be. If I wanted to go see a film from last weekend’s top 10 earners with anything resembling a female lead, I would be choosing between watching a dim-witted blond protégé, a retired British lady on an adventure, a naive virgin seduced by an abusive billionaire, a literal monster or an “ugly fat friend.” Meanwhile the male leads in those 10 films are a soldier, a scientist, a con man, a middle-aged superspy, an abusive billionaire, a sports coach, a businessman and a sentient sea sponge.

The theater in which I saw Cinderella was filled with dreamers much younger than I am. No doubt some of them, as I did when I was their age, identified powerfully with that abused young woman, just waiting for someone to see that she could be so much more than her circumstances. Too bad they’ve been let down yet again by movie execs who can’t seem to see past the end of their wands.

TIME movies

Why I Broke Up With The Oscars

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved the Oscars. And not in the way you might tell a friend how much you love her skirt– I’ve loved the Oscars the way some people love spring or Christmas. The way you love whatever your Best Time of the Year is: your season of magic and possibility, of pageantry and ritual and wonder.

But the Oscars aren’t like spring or Christmas, because neither of those wonderful seasons are tightly controlled by a cadre of invitation-only elites, let alone a cadre of invitation-only elites who are almost entirely white, male, and over-50.

Maybe the fact that actual people control the Academy Awards is what made last night feel so much like a breakup. It’s not that Neil Patrick Harris didn’t try–it was the most charming telecast in years, from the Lego statuettes, to Lady Gaga’s surprisingly lovely Sound of Music tribute, to NPH bravely taking the stage in naught but his tighty-whities. But by the time Sean Penn diminished Iñárritu’s Best Picture win with a green card “joke,” I knew it would never be the same again. It hasn’t been for some time, if I’m honest with myself. And it’s not me. It’s them.

There were a few moments in the telecast that managed to pierce the Academy’s glossy bubble. I danced on my couch when lesbian icons Tegan and Sara took the Oscars stage to perform ‘Everything is Awesome,’ whooped along with Meryl and JLo as Patricia Arquette used her precious acceptance speech to praise mothers and demand equal pay for women, and cheered as Common and John Legend, while collecting the sole trophy afforded to Selma, connected the brave sacrifices of MLK’s day to those being made today by civil rights activists in Ferguson and beyond. But that those moments had to be wedged into the proceedings is exactly the problem.

Every year, I look to the Oscar nominations to tell me which films to catch up on, and then I cram in as many of them as I can in the five or six weeks leading up to the Big Day. But this year as the nominations rolled in on January 15, a light inside me went out. It wasn’t because of the Lego Movie snub, though that one hurt for sure. It was because of the endless parade of laurels for films that elevate white men’s stories above the rest of us. This was the whitest list of acting nominees since 1998, and 7 out of the 8 Best Picture nominees told the story of a white guy’s noble journey.

It’s not like I hadn’t lived through Oscar’s whims and biases before. (“We Saw Your Boobs” was only two years ago, after all.) But in recent years there’s been at least one thing each year to distract me — last year’s love for 12 Years a Slave, or Brave’s thrilling win the year before. That used to be part of the magic of the season — nurturing my childlike hope that the Academy would transcend its self-aggrandizement in one or two exhilarating categories.

So, I tried. I really did. But as I was watching Boyhood, I couldn’t stop thinking: why is this his story? This is a gorgeous, groundbreaking film. Why squander it on yet another tale of a white boy growing into a white man? Since then I’ve abandoned my Oscar-approved roadmap and seen Belle and Gone Girl, Selma and Obvious Child, each one a genre-redefining breakthrough in perspective, each one accomplished and wildly entertaining, each one denied their deserved seat at the awards table by my new ex-boyfriends, the Academy.

The Oscars matter, whether I like it or not. An Oscar nomination (and especially a win) reliably increases a film’s box office and an actor’s fee. But if you read the fine print, actresses don’t get the same boost, and black actresses are the least likely to benefit. (Just ask Mo’nique.) Female directors are so regularly shut out of their category that there’s not even enough data to study. (No exaggeration: Ava DuVernay is now the 9th female director to be denied a Best Director nod for a film that is nominated for Best Picture. Only 4 women have ever been nominated in the Director category.) So why should I keep investing my energy waiting for a boy’s club to honor films that don’t slavishly fellate their egos, when it doesn’t change anything even when they do?

This isn’t about quality per se. Birdman is a fascinating, innovative film made by talented people. But when nearly 90% of this year’s Best Picture nominees valorize a demographic that’s only 30% of the US population, we are stunting our ability to imagine our collective equality, our collective humanity.

Like any breakup, it’s both heartbreaking and liberating. Sure, I’ll miss feeling like I’m part of something big, but I’m also a little thrilled to ignore the Oscars and nominate my own list next January, so I can allocate my sliver of box office clout to the films and filmmakers expanding our minds about which stories are worth telling.

In introducing the foreign language Oscar, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Nicole Kidman recited some scripted chatter about how all of our gender and racial differences fall away once the lights go down in a movie theater. Would that it were so. In reality, all of us suffer from implicit bias, which can only be changed when we’re exposed to new narratives that contradict the damaging stereotypes lodged in our psyches. Until the Academy gets to work on theirs, I’ll be finding my magic seasons elsewhere.

TIME Crime

What’s Desperately Needed in Sex Education Today

The tragic story of Elliot Rodger and his misogynistic path to murder in Santa Barbara should compel us to have a truthful conversation about sex ed and intimacy with our teens. It's time.

Most sex education messages in the U.S. go to great pains to elide one basic truth: that sex can be an incredible, pleasurable experience. In theory, that’s to avoid encouraging young people to have sex, but what it does in practice is deprive us all of the expectation that sex should be great. And increase the odds that the sex we do have will live down to those suppressed expectations. When we don’t expect sex to be a mutually satisfying experience shared by two people, it leaves us vulnerable to some truly poisonous alternative ideas, including the stubborn myth that sex is a precious commodity that men acquire from women.

Under this paradigm, women’s bodies are a means to an end for men, whether that end is physical gratification, validation of their masculinity, or both. For women, that means that sex may be about us, but it’s not for us. When you cut pleasure out of the sex ed equation, you cut out women’s humanity as well: if we sleep with men we’re sluts who are “asking for” sexual assault, and if we say no we’re cruel bitches, a crime which Elliot Rodger, the young man who murdered six people in Santa Barbara last Friday, and his ilk, see as punishable by death.

And that’s why, in the wake of this particular massacre, it’s time to talk about sex.

Yes, I know the gunman appears to have struggled with mental health issues and most people with mental health problems don’t ever hurt anyone. But this tragedy shouldn’t be written off as the isolated outburst of a madman. While Rodger’s killing spree was extreme and his situation unique, we should note that he’s hardly the first man to respond to sexual rejection with violence against women. He’s not even the first (or last) one to do so this month.

So yeah, it’s time to talk about sex, because, judging from his videos, Rodger was obsessed with “getting” it. That verb right there, the one in quotes, is key. His last words before the rampage weren’t about the desire to experience sexual intimacy with another, equally human person. His rage erupted in part because he was “refused” something he felt innately entitled to: namely, the bodies of women.

As someone who spends a lot of time with college students discussing their sexual attitudes, none of that surprises me. It’s just an extension of the constant message men receive that they’re only men if they can “get some,” and equally ubiquitous warnings to women about the dangers of “giving it up” without a real commitment, because (we’re told) our sexual purity is the most valuable thing we have.

Those messages are at the heart of the misogynist web sites Rodger frequented, and they’re all over Rodger’s videos and the screed he left behind. But they’re also embedded in the way most of us learn about sex, whether from church, media, or school-based sex education.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s take a deep breath and tell young people the whole truth about sex, not just the scary parts. Shifting emphasis from how much sex we “get” or “give up” to instead emphasize the quality and context of our sexual encounters will pay dividends for everyone, even the majority of us who would never hurt someone else. When we truly show up for our partners, we become better lovers. When we’re free to decide when and how we want to be sexual with someone else, regardless of our gender, we’re free to more fully enjoy the sex we do have. When we stop treating sex like an accomplishment and start approaching it as a creative, collaborative encounter with a fellow human being, we learn to expect more satisfaction from our sex lives, and we increase our odds of getting it.

Obviously, it wasn’t the sexual culture alone that drove Rodger to kill. Most of us who are exposed to these damaging messages don’t stockpile weapons, let alone loose them on our community. But Rodger himself was pretty clear that his beliefs about women and sex were a big part of the fuel that caught fire inside of him. And it didn’t have to be that way.

What if instead young men like Rodger could grow up learning that sex is about communication, not consumption, and that being a man has nothing to do with your number. What if we all learned take care of each other during sex rather than taking advantage? We’d find ourselves in a world that doesn’t shame women (or men) for either being sexual or declining to be sexual, because the important thing is that we’re free to decide what works for us.

It’s scary to propose changes to the sexual culture. But ask yourself this: when the current paradigm leads to an epidemic of sexual assault, and to men who don’t “get” the women they want gunning down strangers in the street, who is being protected by the status quo? Of course no changes to sex education will prevent people from feeling the sting of rejection. It can be immensely painful to feel shut out of such a basic and profound human experience. But when we talk frankly about sex, we can better prepare everyone to navigate the downs as well as the ups. Besides vanishingly few sexually-rejected women hurt another person over it. The kind of violence we saw in Santa Barbara comes not from simple pain but from the toxic combination of pain and the belief that one is entitled to be free of that pain, even when that freedom costs others their lives. And that’s something we can — and must — change.




TIME Sexual Assault

‘I’m Proud’ to See My Alma Mater Investigated For Mishandling Rape

Jaclyn Friedman
Louis Shackleton

Jaclyn Friedman has been been an anti-rape activist ever since she survived a campus sexual assault as an undergrad. She’s the author of What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety

I was proud to see my alma mater, Emerson College, on the Department of Education’s list of 55 campuses under investigation for their mishandling of sexual violence on campus.

Obviously, I’m not thrilled that the university is accused of mishandling rape cases. But I’m proud that students at Emerson expect the best from our school, and refuse to settle for less. In my work with campuses across the country, I often hear that students who’ve spoken out about being raped on campus are facing the wrath of their fellow students in the dining hall, in the campus newspaper, at parties, online. The charge is always the same: disloyalty.

But is it disloyal to keep a drunk friend from driving? Or to tell a spouse a difficult truth? Telling the people and institutions we care about that they’re hurting us and themselves is tough love, but it really is love. On the other hand, when we ask victims to whisper so that no one thinks ill of our alma mater, we’re asking them to give up their access to justice and healing, that ultimately hurts the very institutions we claim to be defending. That’s the true disloyalty.

Most campus rapes are committed by a small number of perpetrators who pursue victim after victim unless they’re stopped. When we squelch victims’ efforts to hold our schools accountable, it leaves those repeat offenders free to attack again. That leads to campuses with more rape, and more victims whose trauma keeps them from fully pursuing their own education and contributing to the college community in all the ways that can make a campus great.

When it comes to addressing campus rape, the financial incentives for schools are inverted: schools that succeed at suppressing victim reporting benefit from the impression that they don’t have a “rape problem,” while the schools that encourage reporting risk a bad reputation and drop in donations. The way to change that dynamic is to raise the cost of schools sweeping it under the rug.

That’s why speaking out is not only brave, but actually fiercely loyal. Students who speak up about rape on campus are saying: I know my campus can be better than this. I believe my campus can be great, and I’m willing to sacrifice to make it so. And that’s why the students who brought a federal case against my alma mater are the best Emersonians I know.

(You can read more opinions in TIME’s special report: Ending Campus Sexual Assault and get the full story in this week’s cover article by Eliza Gray: The Sexual Assault Crisis on American Campuses.)

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