(I saw Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella at the Gillian Lynne Theatre last night, this is about that. Sorry if there are any spoilers)
Carrie Hope Fletcher, who plays the titular role, and been swearing blind on her instagram stories that this Cinderella is NOT a ‘I’m not like other girls’ story. She says that yes, Cinderella thinks she’s better than the women surrounding her because she’s not obsessed with her looks, but that the character only degrades these women because they are cruel to her. And that Belleville, the fictional town the show is set in, isn’t real. Belleville isn’t real, to be fair, but it is surely acting as some kind of horrid, misogynistic satire for instagram, Love Island culture, and if it isn’t satirising modern culture in some way, then what’s the point of the adaptation?
Let’s get into it.
The show starts with the residents of Belleville singing about how they are beautiful, and their town is beautiful. We are invited to laugh at them, to mock and pity them, for living up to a societal standard of beauty. Cinderella appears in the third number in a black dress and chunky boots. There have already been two jokes about eating disorders. Cinderella tells her stepsisters she has a higher IQ than them because they….take selfies? It’s bleak. It’s very bleak.
However I think the real issue is the misunderstanding of what Cinderella is, as a story. I saw an interview with Fletcher and the book-writer, Emerald Fennell, where they say that the original story, and subsequent Disney adaptations, is sexist because Cinderella changes everything about herself to win a man. This is fundamentally wrong, and a premise the show pivots itself around. Cinderella doesn’t change herself for a man in the original story, she doesn’t want to be dressed in rags. She has to wear them because she is living in poverty, as an unpaid servant to her stepmother. She wants to look nice and go to a party, and forget about her problems at home. Meeting the Prince is a bonus, although if you do want to criticise her transformation from servant-girl to ball-goer, you couldn’t certainly acknowledge that she is only able to go to the ball when she is decked out in the class-marker that is a sparkly ball gown. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that two of the most privileged people on earth, Fennell and Lloyd Webber, have totally disregarded the (significant) class element to the story, and instead have misread it as sexism.
(If I wanted to talk about sexism in Cinderella, I would start by looking at the treatment of the stepmother and sisters in the original story, and make them more rounded characters………that doesn’t happen here either).
One of the shows biggest sins comes in its use of the Fairy Godmother, just The Godmother here, no fairy. There is much feminist criticism of fairytales that acknowledge that one of the big anti-feminist themes in the Grimm Brother’s stories is the extreme lack of female collaboration. Women are turned against each other constantly, and rarely work together, or even just speak to each other nicely. Cinderella is one of the few examples that throughout tellings and re-tellings features one woman helping another with not ulterior motive. Sometimes this role is fulfilled by the ghost of Cinderella’s mother, but is often portrayed as the Fairy Godmother who helps her get ready for the ball. In ALW’s adaptation, The Godmother is an evil plastic surgeon, who sings a terrifying number about the price of beauty while injecting Cinderella and stealing the only memento she has of her mother. Wanna talk about sexism Fennell? Why are you taking away one of the few moments of female empowerment anywhere in the Grimm Brothers stories and using it to push your agenda that plastic surgery is inherently bad and people who get it are stupid?
Ultimately the question here is who wins? Cinderella does (randomly) decide to go to the ball to try and win her prince, but he doesn’t recognise her in her fancy ballgown and snubs her, saying she’s ‘just another bimbo’. When she’s back in her emo-garb they eventually get together, but neither of them acknowledge at any point that the other woman they have constantly belittled are not stupid, or lesser, for not dressing the way Cinderella does. It’s so, so outdated, and damaging, to imply that women who like to invest time and effort into the way they look are inherently oppressed and unenlightened. Cinderella, neither the character or the show, apologises to these women. They are objects of pity, and Cinderella judges them even more harshly than they do her. Any attempt to claim this show as any sort of feminist win is deeply wrong and frankly upsetting. It turns women against each other more than even the original. Also I’m not going to hate those women, they have the coolest clothes and the funniest lines. I’d rather hang out with them than Cinderella, who would probably find me vapid because my make-up is pink and hers is black.
There were loads of little girls in the audience, dressed as Disney’s Cinderella, and I truly shudder at the thought of any of the sexist garbage having a lasting effect on them. Thankfully they all looked hideously bored for the duration. Honestly just watch Ella Enchanted instead. Or watch last week’s Love Island debate about plastic surgery. Actually watch A Cinderella Story because at least Jennifer Coolidge is in that.