By: Andrea Dorantes
I’ll be honest.
After watching Amazon Prime’s cringe inducing girlboss Cinderella a few weeks ago, I was dreading watching what I worried would be another icky attempt to wokeify a shamelessly simple story. After all, Brandy’s performance in the 1997 made-for-TV version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella must have walked so Camilla Cabello’s could run, right? Surprisingly, not really.
Camilla Cabello brought us a rendition so quirky (she’s not like other girls, she’s a girlboss!) that it makes Brandy’s “frothy little bubble” rendition feels even more antiquated. Especially when held up to her counterparts, the “ugly” stepsisters, Brandy’s soft and lovely performance of a girl contentedly trapped by circumstance reflects the way Cinderella exaggerates what it means to be a desirable young woman.
The stepsisters, here portrayed by Natalie Desselle (Minerva) and Veanne Cox (Calliope), and Cinderella are clear cut examples of two classic musical theatre tropes: the scene stealers and the ingenue. The ingenue is the dream girl. She is kind and naïve, virginal but a little sexy, not stupid but not too smart for her own good. She sings in a sweet and lilting soprano so clear it might even symbolize her own purity. Meanwhile, existing on an alternate plane of femininity, is the scene stealer. She is brash and loud, raucous and funny. A little witty, sometimes bawdy. She delivers the over-the-top performance of a lifetime, and even if she has real goals, we laugh to think that someone like her could ever achieve them. When Cinderella expresses a faraway dream of marrying the prince, we believe her. When the stepsisters express the same desire, we roll our eyes and laugh. Why?
The answer appears simple enough. Someone (men, perhaps?) created the formula for a perfect woman that resembles our sweet ingenue. Maybe this version of a woman is attractive because she seems the perfect amount of submissive for wifehood, or maybe because she is more of an accessory than an independent being. Regardless, it excludes any woman who has ever had a complex thought or sung even a note as a mezzo soprano (let alone as a brassy alto). So where does this gatekeeping of femininity leave our stepsisters?
All you have to do is watch the way all three women move throughout their spaces. Brandy’s Cinderella almost floats, serenely smiling and breezing through even the crowded village streets. Stumbling in her wake come Cox and Desselle’s Stepsisters. They trip over each other, bumbling around, comically falling and smiling so exaggeratedly it resembles a painful grimace. Even Cinderella’s effortless wooing of Prince Christopher (Rupert Windemere Vladimir Karl Alexander François Reginald Lancelot Herman Gregory James) is held in stark contrast to Calliope’s “infectious” laugh and Minerva’s frenetic eyelash batting.
If the character choices aren’t enough, the audience is told exactly which slot to fit these women into through each word and note written for their music, most clearly in the contrasting “In My Own Little Corner” and “The Stepsisters’ Lament”. These two “I Want” songs are describing similar goals: both parties desire to step outside of their situation and be swept away by a handsome prince.
“In My Own Little Corner” gently plunks in ebbing and flowing orchestral swells to match moments of Cinderella daring to dream and gingerly retreating to the safety of familiarity. The music matches her delivery. She is airily fantasizing about adventures she is aware she never will have, all while contentedly characterizing herself as “mild”, “meek” and obedient. Even Robert Iscove’s staging of this performance contributes to the tease. Brandy longingly gazes out the window, but not too long to make you think she might actually do something to leave. Just like before, the ideal woman gives you a hint of a spark, but not too much that it burns out of control.
Meanwhile, “The Stepsisters’ Lament” interrupts the lovely waltz from “Ten Minutes Ago”, bursting into life with jaunty trumpets and a much faster tempo. The introductory ascending glissando tells the viewer that this is going to be silly and fun. The Stepsisters sing in a nasally pitch and full-throated short spurts. Cinderella would never belt, but the Stepsisters do to express their frustration and anger (emotions the ideal woman would never feel, let alone display). They are boiling over with jealousy at their own shortcomings in the eyes of the prince, and it all spills out into this number. Just like “In My Own Little Corner”, the staging contributes to the clumsiness of the “ugly” girls. They literally interrupt the beauty of Cinderella and Prince Christopher’s moment, spying and fighting uncoordinatedly until they end up soaked in the courtyard’s fountain, sputtering and indignant.
Now, I know it is unusual to consider the Stepsisters’ feelings. I mean, they are villains at worst and henchmen (henchwomen?) at best. Sure, that characterization contributes to their portrayal. But that’s the whole point. Strong, bold, and combative women don’t make great romantic leads when the requirement for a romantic lead is to allow yourself to be loved on a man’s terms. Women around the world watch Cinderella and leave with an unrealistic expectation of what makes a perfect woman. Walt Disney Television’s 1997 Cinderella, while groundbreaking in its own right, didn’t do much to challenge this expectation. For little girls like me, who preferred basketball shorts to glass slippers, belting to lilting, and experienced several big emotions on the daily, the “ugly” stepsisters seemed like far more relatable women. It’s a shame they aren’t given more to do than stew about being “usual” and therefore undesirable. I guess that’s a problem to tackle with the next remake! Just keep Camilla Cabello far away from it.