This piece appears in the latest issue of the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. 20 Childhood
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I have a child who is colicky, so we stay up nights. She is not so old that she can watch movies and understand them, but we do anyway. She does not need to watch movies made for children as result of the first point, but we do anyway. I could put on something educational — Chinese, for instance — but I don’t. The process of educating a child is going to be draining. Why start now, before we can properly scream at each other?
The movie I pick is Cinderella. It is the new Cinderella, the one with the gorgeous Lily James, and is meant, by Disney, to echo the “original” Ella, a classically blonde girl in a blue dress with a waist the size of my thumb. The last movie titled Cinderella was the 1997 musical featuring Brandy and Whitney Houston.
So what does going back to the original mean?
And if we are being entirely accurate, the earliest version of story is believed, but not proven, to be about a Greek slave girl who marries an Egyptian king.
The 1998 movie Ever After is one of my favorites. I was 10 and had just arrived in the States. I have watched this movie enough times to know all of Drew Barrymore’s lines. I know the expression on the pig when she takes him out to find truffles. Barrymore’s Ella likes to read. She befriends a fictional da Vinci, who at one point walks across water in giant wooden shoes.
Over the years, I have become a shoe snob.
Yet which would I rather have? Ugly shoes that get me across water or slippers made of glass?
Is glass a metaphor?
Why still call it a slipper?
My baby puts her foot in her mouth.
The new Cinderella might know how to read, though it is unclear. The message, said again and again, is to be kind and have courage. These are also the dying words of Ella’s kind and courageous mother. A good message, but then why are Ella and her mother also beautiful? The baby prefers the new Cinderella to Ever After. The former has brighter colors, more twirling. When I tell my neighbor about the new Cinderella, she asks why. You are a professor of gender studies at an all-women’s school, why are you watching movies about a princess? I don’t know, I reply. Probably because I am tired.
When I was 10, I did not know what gender studies were. I did not know about metaphors. I did not understand why ignorance was bliss.
The new Cinderella is more diverse than Ever After. At the ball, the prince is presented with an array of other princesses. Here, the princess of India, Nigeria, China. Diversity is good, and this is good for the actresses hired. But now, more apparently, the story boils down to choosing, out of the pack, the woman of non-color in the most color-saturated dress. So I turn the movie off. And the child becomes colicky again.
Weike Wang is the author of the novel Chemistry, which won this year’s PEN/ Hemingway Award and Whiting Award in fiction. She is a National Book Foundation 5 under 35 awardee.