In Defense of Cinderella’s Stepmother

In Kenneth Branagh's remake of the classic Disney cartoon, Cate Blanchett explores the difference between cruelty and evil.

Cinderella, if you look beyond the bedazzled squashes and the perky rodents, is the story of a woman who is rewarded for her patient tolerance of abuse. Her salvation: not just marriage, but marriage to a handsome prince. The means of this salvation: magic, for the most part, and also our heroine's fortunate possession of a pair of daintily tiny feet.

So, yes. Let’s definitely not overanalyze Cinderella as an object lesson or a morality play, and let’s definitely also not overanalyze any film, animated or otherwise, that exploits its oof-inducing story. The tale is what it is, both grim and Grimm, and any earnest talk directed toward it—of feminism, of victimization, of Marxism, of tiara syndrome, of liberation theology, of awkward royal foot fetishes—simply won’t stick to a story so slippery that it pivots on a human female’s ability to sprint in shoes made of glass. Fairy tales may shape the way children, and especially little girls, understand the world and their place within it; they may teach the virtues of passive aggression; they may mindlessly celebrate women who voluntarily cut out their own tongues because they spotted a handsome dude on a beach. At this point, however, they are so miasmically diffused into the culture that the best we can do is take them for what they are and then, ideally, ignore them.

So it’s a strange thing that fairy tales, instead of skulking away into the shadows of moral obsolescence, are—today! in 2015!—just as popular as ever. We have, most recently, Maleficent. We have Mirror Mirror. We have Snow White and the Huntsman. We have Grimm and Once Upon a Time and Into the Woods and Shrek and myriad other adaptations both satirical and very much not. And now we have, thanks to Kenneth Branagh—he of Shakespeare and Shelley and Mozart—a production of Cinderella that is remarkable only in its insistent eschewing of irony. Branagh's version of the classic story, released this weekend, takes the form many of us are most familiar with—the animated confection unleashed by Walt Disney in February of 1950—and re-imagines it in three dimensions. The new Cinderella, with Lily James in the starring role, stays faithful, for the most part, to the original: There are mice. There are comically ridiculous stepsisters. There is tulle—so much tulle!—and sparkles (Cinderella’s dress required 400 LED lights to construct) and invocations, via a shape-shifting sorceress, of “bibbety-bobbety-BOO.”

This whole thing would be, and to some extent is, weird and awkward and cloying. Live action changes the stakes, not just aesthetically, but semantically. In animation, a woman talking to mice is quirky; in live action, it’s a little bit creepy. There's the lizard who becomes a man who becomes a lizard again. There’s the tiny-waisted dress whose corset, James noted, "was pulled [within an] inch of my life." (The actress went on a partial liquid diet to fit into it.) There's the prince who seems to have been imported from a Mentos ad. And there is, overall, the earnestness. So much earnestness.

But there’s one character who, in adding some spice to all this spun sugar, saves the movie from itself: the stepmother. Who is played, pitch-perfectly, by Cate Blanchett, all haughtiness and hatred and cheekbones. In many previous adaptations of the Cinderella story, the telling adjective applied to the stepmother has been “wicked”; in others, it's been "evil." In this one, however, with the nuance Blanchett brings to the role, the defining descriptor is cruel. Lady Tremaine's abuse of Cinderella is not the result, her performance makes clear, of some sui generis malevolence; it is instead the direct result of the cruelties her own life has heaped upon her. And those, in turn, are the direct result of her being a woman. Lady Tremaine had a husband she loved once, she explains to Cinderella, and they had two daughters together. But then: Her husband died. She was left to fend for herself in a world that has little appreciation for single mothers of, no less, daughters. So she did what she had to do, out of social and economic necessity: She married again.

This time, though, it was not for love; this time it was to a man who still mourned his own dead wife, and who preferred his daughter’s company to hers. Desperation gave way to jealousy; then, when Cinderella’s father died, hope gave way to hatred.

“Why are you so cruel?” a baffled Cinderella, after years of abuse, asks her stepmother.

“Because you are young, and innocent, and good,” Lady Tremaine replies. She pauses. “And I ...”

She does not finish her sentence. She does not need to. We understand from her story, and from our anecdotal knowledge of what will tend to happen when pride is met with humiliation, why she is the way she is. Her trailing reply to her stepdaughter—evil, explained with ellipses—was, Branagh has said, a strategic decision. “At one stage,” the filmmaker told The Huffington Post, Blanchett said the line as “And I am not.” He told her, though, that he preferred the line without its verb, or without any other predicate. “Let the audience,” he said, “work it out and fill in what that means. It could mean many things.”

And so could Lady Tremaine's cruelty—a cruelty that is an indictment not just of her character, but of her world. Cinderella, its title notwithstanding, is interested not just in its heroine, but in the woman who is the cause of its heroine’s suffering. It wants, by extension, to understand not just the what of evil, but the why of it. The causes of it. The systems of it.

And that, just barely, redeems it.

It also puts the film in good company. Branagh’s Cinderella is akin to Wicked (Oz’s witch, backstoried!) and Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty’s “Mistress of Evil,” backstoried!) and Snow White and the Huntsman (the Evil Queen, backstoried!), and even Shrek (the terrifying ogre, backstoried!)—and also, in their way, to Wide Sargasso Sea and Orange Is the New Black and Breaking Bad and every other work that offers depth and story to characters we’d normally dismiss as emptily evil. These movies and shows, in emphasizing the perspective of the villains, don’t celebrate wickedness; they insist, instead, on something vaguely hopeful: that evil can be explainable. And that it can thus, just maybe, be preventable. As Branagh explained of the stepmother’s trailing justification of her own cruelty: “What you do feel is a great passionate woman who seems to have made a different choice when faced with these kinds of challenges, these moments of heartbreak which we saw Ella face. She makes a different choice in the face of those things."

He added: "It’s a great mirror.”