Monthly Archives: March 2019

Utopia and Ever After

A Cinderella story that says goodbye to pumpkins!

The 1998 romantic fairytale comedy seemed pleasant – I saw it twice at the cinema – but it is, I now believe, a vehicle for something much more profound. The centrality of Thomas More’s Utopia may be very significant. Like More’s treatise, Ever After bookends the main story with seemingly irrelevant stuffing, but this stuffing is key to the presentation that this is real. The old lady ends by telling the Grimm Brothers that “the important point is not that they lived happily ever after – but that they lived”. We wonder if Cinderella really was a 16th century noble turned servant who caught the eye of one of France’s many Prince Henrys. (That Cinderella has a real full name, and the mention of real contemporaries and lack of magic may make us waver – I’m afraid this is a pumpkin free presentation). We may quickly assume not – just as we realise that More’s Utopia is a made up word meaning ‘no land’, and that the progressive croissant shaped New World island is a society of his making.

Both are positing a world that could be, far enough ago and away to allow us to take on the ideas a little more easily than if they were just spouted to us about our own world.

And told in a story format, by a 3rd party linked to the tale, to give it weight.

The universal appeal of love overcoming all barriers is a myth that deep down we know to be true – or want to be. And Ever After is a tale of social levelling. Cinderella (or Danielle) is Prince Henry’s equal in every way but social standing. As Leonardo the fairy godmother substitute says, Cinderella is the Prince’s match – and that implies possibly his better – in strength, courage, morality, goodness and also education.

For the central theme of this story states that education – or more precisely, reading – is at the heart of equality. Henry’s education has come from privilege; Danielle’s from passion.

(Note the Step Sister’s comment: that books are for those who can’t think for themselves – we suspect we’re meant to think that the reverse is true). After meeting Danielle, Henry wants to make universities open to all.

Both Henry and Danielle resist the roles society expects of them, but Danielle’s unconventional father – who gave her Utopia – has allowed her to cross social and gender boundaries.

Those who want to enforce them are the wicked villains who get their comeuppance. The Step Mother and Step Sister so bent on titles and power end up as the very servants they despised, literally pushed to the bottom of the pile (or vat). Danielle sees her fellow servants as equals and friends, and we are encouraged to see them that way too. It is in defending one that the whole story begins.

In this, Danielle demonstrates not only is she well read, but thinks. She sees the injustices of the world and dares to speak out about them. Her intellectual bravery and evasiveness make her a kind of Anne Boleyn to a prince of the same name, who is captivated and determined to have her. Through Danielle, not only is her dear friend freed, but so are all those destined for America as a punishment. Her earliest words to Henry are a Utopia quote about poverty being a condition created by society, which those who created then punish.

The Prince, his family, and the nation accepts Danielle the former servant as part of the Royals – and the whole court knows as her status is exposed publicly at the ball. A group often excluded and discarded with a negative label – the Gypsies – is invited to the ball, like in the parable.

Ever After has further a biblical echo of the Magnificat – for the humble are lifted high whilst the proud are sent away empty. Religion is mentioned little – apart from the aborted arranged wedding, there is only a Sunday where our protagonists don’t go to church. Our villains do, to ingratiate themselves and flirt with royalty, rather than out of any wish for devotion. Danielle says her faith is best served out of church.

Couched as a rom com, Ever After is really a tale that invites us to make its tenets our Utopia. Its real ending is not “that they lived” but that they could and should, in our time.

 

 

NB This is not to suggest that I support Thomas More or his Utopia but a critique of that here spoils the overall piece

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What can He-Man and Mary of Scots have in common?

They both ended in 87…400 years apart.

And they’re both royal.

And their stories are about leading with justice and tolerance.

The link between Mary Stuart and the royal family of Eternia may take imagination to see. But in the new film with Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, I felt there is an interpretation, if not an intention, to use this historic story to speak to us in our time, just as He-Man and She-Ra were, I believe, meant to have greater morals than the ones spelt out at the end of each episode.

I know this film has now left most cinemas, but I took the time to see it twice and to watch all the other available films/TV and do some reading before commenting, and my observations remain pertinent to our times.

I liked the lack of polarity which I observed in some other films about Elizabeth and Mary.

It seems to me that these women say: if we’d trusted our hearts, and each other, might all this not have happened? If we’d not let our advisors poison us – several of whom wanted the throne for themselves, or to steer its occupier…if we’d let our draw as women, as sisters guide us…

This is not an anti-men story, but I think it is anti the traditional male rule. Elizabeth felt that society only offered her the choice of wife and mother . To reign, she must cast off her gender, or the limitations of it. Even today, women expect to lead but also be defined by our status usually in relation to a man, and by the children we bear.

The 16th Century courts were aberrations of what ought to be. Even the most intimate relationship had become a commodity, a business transaction, nothing to do with love and companionship, but forming an allegiance and keeping bloodlines pure and heirs unambiguous.

What a dreadful way to live – for women and men.

Many of us are feeling that it’s time to do differently. We feel that feeling is a good thing, not something to be suppressed or ignored. In another new film, On The Basis of Sex, Ruth Bader Ginsberg is told she can’t be a lawyer because women are too emotional. What’s wrong with caring? Doesn’t that make better lawyers, political, and any role I can think of?

But Ruth wasn’t content, and changed the law, and history.

Mary and Elizabeth were told that a woman couldn’t reign alone. But as Saoirse as Mary says in the film, she’s done lots of things which her male advisors told her was impossible.

The old way – adopted by women as well as men – was all about fear. And so we watched our backs and plotted and tried to never reveal a weakness, which included caring. We tried to amass power through titles, land and wealth to make us unstoppable. We tricked and trapped, and changed loyalties. We made laws which suited ourselves, making us immune but others culpable. We imposed our version of truth and made violent repercussions for those who disagreed.

We pretended that a strong ruler was one who never showed vulnerability, who had few manners and lots of arrogance; was quick to punish and didn’t do mercy, let alone ask for it. We preserved rank and kept those below on their knees.

We’ve too long cited Machiavelli as our political manual. Utopia is sometimes better, but still far from Eternia, and that’s the imaginary world I’d rather look to.

What if we took from She-Ra and He-Man? They forgive, they save even their enemies (is Skeletor an Earl of Moray?). They care about goodness, and about others. Their power is not used selfishly. And they’ll work together, and with other leaders, not to expand their boundaries and their gold reserves, but to fight injustice – never to harm or kill.

She-Ra, like Wonder Woman, has used her womanhood to recruit and turn wicked people to the side of right; like Xena, Warrior Princess, She-Ra needed turning herself – by her brother. Theirs is not a violent rebellion; it’s not about one set of ugly, inflated power overturning another and then behaving in much the same way.

I’ve often wondered: what would British history be if Mary and Elizabeth had been allowed to work together rather than against each other? Where would we be now? Not in terms of our current royal family, but the governance we have, which like the rest of the world, is all out of shape.

I think these stories invite us to put it back again.

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