Disney and Disney
In her beautiful exploration of the evolution of Cinderella, NPR’s Linda Holmes concludes by suggesting that the Cinderella story is so universal that even Captain America falls under the broader category. Small person with a big heart gets a magical thing that helps them escape a normal life.
If it’s just a rescue of a deserving underdog from an ordinary life and delivery to an extraordinary one, then The Little Mermaid is Cinderella, and Pretty Woman is Cinderella, and – to be honest? – Captain America is Cinderella. Lots of our current stories are. What is a fairy godmother, after all, that isn’t also present in the idea of being bitten by a spider and gaining the ability to climb buildings? What is that pumpkin coach but … the Batmobile? And not to return to the tone of cannibalism and murder, but what consideration of unloved pop-culture girls whose evil mothers won’t let them to go dances is complete without Carrie?
She admits that it’s a broad reading, and what she’s tapping into is one of the thousand faces of the hero, but invoking a comparison between Cinderella and our modern, bespandexed dreamers highlights the core difference between someone like Captain America and the Disney princess. One gets to be an active participant in the story while the other is a passive, gorgeous participant.
The Princess Problem isn’t a new one, but it got new life this year with Jupiter Ascending, a movie where galactic forces approach an Earth girl and essentially tell her, “There’s nothing special about you, except that you’re the most important person in the universe.” She’s the Chosen One. Like so many characters in movies, she was born special, plucked from obscurity, magical without knowing it. Her dumb life is about to become extraordinary.
The only problem is that she isn’t trained to fight or given special instructions on how her new world works. In most cases, Chosen Ones are given some Morpheus-style training so that they can rise to the occasion and won’t need to be caught mid-air constantly by Channing Tatum. Instead, Jupiter is stuffed into a pretty dress and told that she’s an important and wealthy princess, not that her new power is all that, you know, powerful. She also doesn’t start her story with any skills or positive traits that secure empathy for her good fortune. To put it crudely, she doesn’t deserve it.
Now we have a new incarnation of a fairy tale where a young girl make a wish, gets some new shoes, and reclaims her rightful place where dirt doesn’t get under her fingernails. She’s kind, and in this new, old version that apparently makes her a doormat.
So here comes the big difference between Captain America and Cinderella. Once Captain America’s pumpkin is turned into a brilliant coach, he gets to solve problems, punch people, interject his political philosophy and save the day. All Cinderella gets to do (in most modern versions) is wait around on the floor until a prince rescues her. Both make wishes, but the results seem uneven.
It’s easy to argue that both are rewarded for inherent moralistic qualities. That’s par for the course for most Chosen Ones. Dorthy gets to go to Oz because she’s a dreamer, and when she gets there, her kindness and acceptance earn her important allies (despite murdering the first person she sees). Neo gets to escape The Matrix because he’s an intelligent, gifted hacker who’s open to the idea that life isn’t what he believes it to be. Frodo gets to leave The Shire because he’s small enough to avoid detection and strong enough of will to carry a poisonous piece of jewelry.
The most recent pop culture icon that draws heavily from the Cinderella story is Harry Potter, but he gets to learn how to shoot blue liquid death from a stick.
Steve Rogers can’t run two miles, but he’ll jump on a grenade to save his peers. He’s brave and true to principle in demonstrable ways. Cinderella is kind and sweet and loving, and perhaps those are difficult qualities to show cinematically or maybe some versions simply can’t express how the character works for her outcome instead of watching the clock until it happens.
Captain America isn’t Cinderella because he doesn’t have to sit around waiting like she does. Then again, at least she doesn’t sleep through her own story.