little girl cleaningWhen I first heard that Disney was making a live action version of Cinderella, I cried tears of joy at the prospect of seeing my favorite fairy tale brought to life. But as the film’s release has drawn criticism of the classic story, I find myself brought to tears again by how misunderstood Cinderella is. It’s not the tale of a mindless girl who simply waits around looking pretty until a prince swoops in. This is so much more than just a romance. Cinderella is actually a story about overcoming abuse.

Blogger Lisa Owens touches on the underlying abuse narrative in a recent post for BlogHer. But while Owens is frustrated by Cinderella’s seemingly lack of action in regards to distancing herself from her stepmother’s abuse, if you look carefully you see that Cinderella does act to protect herself. She works hard in an attempt to avoid making her abuse worse and, like many abuse victims, uses disassociative daydreaming as a means to escape her reality. In the gradual way she comes to the choice to leave, she portrays a realistic representation of both what it’s like to be a child who’s being abused and how difficult it is find the courage to leave an abuser.

It’s been said Cinderella has no future until her prince comes to rescue her, but that’s not entirely accurate. Cinderella is without a future and resigned to her fate only until she finds the courage to stand up to her abuser, her stepmother. Once Cinderella decides to try and attend the ball, when she realizes she’s worthy of a better life, that she doesn’t have to live this way, then incredible things begin to happen before the prince even enters her life.

Owens comments that during the screening her own child turned to her and asked of Cinderella, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” It’s comments like these which perpetuate the idea that abuse victims are to blame for what happens to them. Cinderella is a realistic story in that she doesn’t run away because with no living family or resources to support herself, she doesn’t have anywhere else to go. It’s not until she both finds the strength to want to leave and finds help in the form of her fairy godmother that Cinderella has a plausible (for the fairy tale world) exit strategy.

In a moment near the end of the film, (spoiler alert) Charming asks the heroine her name and she replies, “Cinderella.” Owens is confused that Cinderella would do this rather than call herself by her birth name Ella, saying:

 It made absolutely no sense that she would actually own that name to a man (no longer a Prince, but now a King) she hoped would find her worthy enough for his affections.

Owens is wrong, this scene is fantastic. In terms of demonstrating to abuse victims that their abuse isn’t all of who they are, that it doesn’t define them, this line in the script means everything. To be honest with new people in your life about your past, to acknowledge your abuse as part of what makes you who you are instead of trying to hide it like it’s something to be ashamed of is powerful. By calling herself Cinderella she is standing her ground. This isn’t a girl running to a man to be rescued. This is a girl saying here I am, scars and all, take it or leave it, but don’t expect me to be something that I’m not. A fairy tale can’t get more empowering than that.

If you’re a child who’s being mistreated by an adult in your life, when you watch the film you see the story of a girl who so clearly doesn’t deserve to be treated like this, who strives so hard to be a good person in spite of what’s happening around her. And then, if you watch it enough times, you begin to recognize glimpses of yourself in this beautiful girl. You start to have this awareness that you too, aren’t a bad person who deserves what’s happening to you. It’s hugely powerful. Perhaps even magical.

If the Cinderella narrative doesn’t resonate with you, if your childhood was so different from the story that you’ve never seen her as anything other than a silly girl looking for a husband, consider yourself lucky. But for the 6.4 million children who were referred to child protection agencies in 2013 and other victims whose abuse goes unreported, Cinderella’s story is still very much relevant. And for me, that pretty blue dress will always symbolize so much more than party attire.

(image: Franck Camhi/gettyimages.com)