Michelle’s note: This is a throw-back post, one featured on my old blog that, while long since deleted from the interwebs, I’ve brought back from my personal collection to share right now because it feels pretty darn fitting for several reasons. The Covid-induced crisis we’re currently in leaves the future largely unknown and the present painful for many; this is prime time for hope to step in, because it’s when what comes next is so uncertain that we can imagine better and feel like maybe it’s really possible. Also, I love seeing myself in the past and witnessing all the ways I’ve grown, sometimes without even knowing it. Enjoy!
I’m turning 28 tomorrow, which is full-fledged adult status. So in honor of that, let’s talk about my favorite fairytale and the princess I would most like to be like: Cinderella.
I think I’ve made my love for whimsy and storytelling and happy endings quite clear but what I maybe haven’t touched on is my immense love for Disney princesses, most especially Cinderella. Are you looking upon me with disdain? Like, “Really? Cinderella?” Some of you may be thinking, “Hold up, Michelle—you’re a feminist. Your favorite disney princess is the one who gets saved by a guy who is literally named Prince Charming?”
The answer is yes, and I really want to tell you why—because it was only recently that I understood it for myself. See, even as a kid, I had some strange sense that I should be embarrassed by this choice. After all, other girls loved Ariel (who was a mermaid, which is already cool, and gave up her fins to follow her dreams), Jasmine (who got to ride a flying carpet, kept a pet tiger like it was nbd, and, oh yeah, kind of saved her boyfriend from Jafar), Pocahontas (who felt things so deeply that she could paint with all the colors of the wind, knew the importance of listening to your heart and if all else failed could ask for the wisdom of her grandma who also happened to be a willow tree), or even Belle (slightly less cool to some girls because she loved books but come on, who didn’t feel a pang of jealousy when the Beast gives her that library?). And yet there I was loving Cinderella, a fairy-tale straight out of the 1950s which had a central plot point involving a high heel.
It’s easy to talk badly about this movie or look down on it. After all, other princesses used their voices. They stood up to people. Why, they took charge of their own destiny! And Cinderella did what, besides having a fairy godmother who hooked her up so she could go to the ball where the prince instantly fell in love with her and just like that, her whole life changed into nothing short of enchanted? One night in a pretty gown and suddenly her whole life is on easy street, with a full-on prince on a white horse and a picture-perfect happily ever after?
It would be easy to say that, but it would also be wrong. Because that is so not the story of Cinderella. The story is not about a girl who an easy life, or who lucks into a fairytale marriage. Cinderella’s story is one of strength, specifically the kind of strength it takes to not only get through the rampant abuse she suffered growing up but to come out on the other side still holding on to hope.
After all, what do we know about Cinderella? Her mother died when she was just a child. Her father remarried, because he so badly wanted Cinderella to have a whole family, including mother and sisters. Then he died, and it turned out the woman he had married to specifically create a loving stable environment for his daughter was a total nightmare. That is merely hyperbole, though; in reality, this woman was physically, mentally and emotionally abusive to Cinderella, to the point that she more or less makes her stepdaughter an indentured servant—and all this before she is even a teenager! (And Disney drops Cinderella being locked in her room without food or water, or, you know, a bathroom so casually that it never once occurred to me to be like, “Um, I think someone needs to call child services.”) To be perfectly frank, Cinderella’s life basically sucks.
And yet she wakes up smiling. She walks around singing. She finds friends where she can, which is among the animals (even though this story most likely takes place during the Plague, and let’s face it, those rodent friends of hers would’ve brought on the Black Death). She dances while making her bed early early in the morning because that’s when she has to get up to spend her day being ordered around by everyone. Even the clock that wakes her up orders her around! Of course our girl Cinderelly finds the positive—that despite all this, nobody can order her to stop dreaming. And this is what I love about Cinderella. Through it all, she holds onto her dreams, which someday might come true. She even holds onto her gentleness and kind spirit that allows her to believe goodness will prevail.
It is easy to see Cinderella as a passive sort of character, but every day, she actively chooses to be kind in the face of cruelty. (Choosing kindness, by the way, is choosing to end the cycle of abuse. Yep, Cinderella did that. Mic drop.) She holds onto her belief in goodness even when she is given no reason to. And that makes her defiant. That makes her unbreakable. Even in her very worst moment, when she cannot go to the ball and her stepsisters have destroyed the dress that belonged to her mother (surely a memory of what it was to be loved), she hasn’t lost hope—not fully. In fact, as her fairy godmother appears, she is sobbing that she can’t believe, not anymore. Because there’s nothing left to believe in.
Wow. I don’t know about you but that hits me pretty hard. Who among us hasn’t had a moment where they fell to the floor, even if only in their mind, and said, “Nope I give up. I can’t do this anymore”? Just like Cinderella did except most of us are not enslaved orphans. Circumstances aside, we feel broken and empty, like maybe all hope is lost, maybe there is nothing left to believe it.
But—(But! Prepare yourself for magic!) as the fairy godmother tells Cinderella, even in those moments the hope is still alive. If it wasn’t, the fairy godmother wouldn’t be there and yet there she is. So the fairy godmother does her magic and gets Cinderelly to the ball and she is swept off her feet by the prince who just falls madly, deeply in love with her. This could easily seem the luckiest part, but to me it’s the most kick-ass part of the Cinderella story—because if Cinderella had given in to bitterness and hate and let the abuse destroy how she felt about herself, she wouldnt be in a place to love when she showed up to that ball. Sure, the whole ‘having a fairy godmother’ and getting invited to the ball was a stroke of luck—but she’d done very hard work for years and years just on the off chance that if she ever had a possibility at something wonderful like this, she would be ready when it showed up. She ensured she would still be a girl who was present and alive and open to possibility. She did that by rejecting the lies her stepfamily told her—things like how she was useless and unworthy and no one would ever love her and all the other horrible lies abusers tell their victims. Cinderella didn’t just survive her abuse, she survived it with her hope and belief in goodness intact. Her happily-ever-after was not handed to her. She earned it.
It takes a fierce spirit to do something like that, just like it requires guts and courage to believe yourself worthy of love if everyone tells you you aren’t, or to believe you will accomplish things if people say you can’t, or to believe you will find happiness especially if it is the ones you love most in the world who tell you that you won’t. And not only is that hard, but doing so is a downright rebellious act. And Cinderella? Well, she did all that. She had that the spirit and fortitude to keep going. She was able to defy the people who had been keeping hr down and telling her she wasnt worthy enough, important enough, anything enough and say, “You know what, I am worthy. And not only am I going to live my life, I’m going to the ball!” That wasn’t just brave, it was downright rebellious. Cinderella defied what she had been told, making her not such a goody-goody after all, you know? Because it is a rebellion to reject what has been dished out to you and then ask for more, because you know, in your heart, that you are worthy of the love you’ve been denied, worthy of kindness directed your way, worthy of the utter bliss of loving someone and having that love returned. That’s the spirit of Cinderella: a wounded warrior who keeps her vulnerability because she knows to ever have a chance in this world she must keep her heart soft and open to love. If her only choice was to let it harden and lose it completely or have it broken every day so it remains usable, well, she chose heartbreak, in hopes of a possible future filled with love. I don’t know about you, but to me that is utterly and completely badass and brave.
And yeah, part of her happy ending was that she got a man. Well, so what? If she was able to find she could love who also loved her in return, then I say go, Cinderella, go! It doesn’t take much time on this planet to realize what a struggle it is to live in this world and not let pain and sadness and injustices harden you; to do it on the scale Cinderella did is downright extraordinary.
Which is all a long explanation to say why Cinderella was the princess I wanted to be—because the story of Cinderella really has nothing to do with a prince who rode in a white horse. It’s about being resilient enough to hold onto your hope, to your kindness, to everything that is good inside of you through the things that aren’t so that when life gives you another chance, you are present enough to take it.
I want to repeat that because I think it’s so, so important: Cinderella is about holding onto your belief in the good during the very bad so that when life does turn around and possibilities and happiness and love come knocking on your door, you are present and able to respond to that call.
And maybe it’s also about reminding ourselves that most of the magic in this world comes from basic human goodness and kindness, and knowing we have the power to choose to give that to others, even on the days we don’t get it in return. We can choose kindness. We can choose goodness. We can choose to be part of the magic of love.
As I get ready to celebrate 28 years on this earth and begin the next, I can honestly say I’ve spent these last several years living Cinderella-style, or at least trying to. I don’t mean with mice for friends or pumpkins for transportation (though I would’ve been all about a dark-haired gent a la Prince Charming who happens to be my perfect match, and if anyone out there happens to know him, holla at yo’ girl!). I strive to go through life, in all its ups and downs, remaining gentle, hopeful, and kind. I try to do this even when storms come, when life is cruel, when it seems it has been forever since opportunity has knocked. I do it because I know it will happen eventually and when it does, I want to walk to the door with excitement and answer it with warmth and a genuine smile that seems to say “Welcome. Won’t you please come in? I’m so very glad you’re finally here.”
After all, it doesn’t get much more Cinderella than that.