Strength of Character: Cinderella Stories in Live-Action Film

Strength cannot be universally defined. It is, in its truest form, an individualized characteristic. Some perceive strength as staying true to oneself and refusing to bend to the will of another while others may view it as taking in stride what ambles down the path of life with grace and dignity. The struggle for women to be viewed by society as strong, independent beings has existed from the beginning of time, but has recently begun to evolve. Both Danielle of Ever After and Vivian of Pretty Woman bring to life a modernistic air to the classic Cinderella story. Vivian of Pretty Woman portrays a better, more modern Cinderella through her self-assurance, independence, and emotional strength than does Danielle of Ever After.

The Cinderella story truly comes to life in Ever After, focused on Danielle de Barbarac. Danielle’s mother passes while she is a child, and her father passes shortly after introducing her stepmother and stepsisters, leaving her orphaned and under the care of her “wicked” stepmother. As she grows older she learns to accept her position as being below those of her stepsisters, Marguerite and Jacqueline. Having fallen from her title of nobility, she resigns to being no more than a scullery maid. On more than one occasion she stands up to Prince Henry, heir to the throne of France, dressed in clothes of a higher class than her own, a crime punishable by beatings. When he finally asks her identity, she panics and gives him the name of her deceased mother, one of a noble family. Throughout the duration of their romantic journey together, she conceals her truly average identity in fear of being rejected for her social standing. At a grandiose ball in the Prince’s royal gardens, Danielle is forced by her stepmother to reveal her true identity. Prince Henry royally rejects her in front of the entire kingdom, causing a deplorable display of royal power. In the end, Prince Henry is brought to his wits and runs to save his maiden to find that she has already saved herself. Through a heart-wrenching apology, the two find their “happily ever after”, despite the wretched journey they took to stumble upon it.

Vivian Ward of Pretty Woman gives a raw depiction of the modern Cinderella. In true rags to riches fashion, Vivian, a prostitute, meets her match with the rich Edward Lewis. In a twist of fate, the two end up spending a week together in Lewis’ hotel suite. Throughout the course of the week, Vivian explores the luxurious world in which Edward lives. She is by no means polished or put together like the other people in Edward’s life, but there is something to be said for her fortitude in attempting to accustom herself to their ways. She learns to be a sophisticated, modern woman while still holding true to herself. After all is said and done, Vivian returns to her motel in Hollywood to pursue her next life endeavor, while Edward watches her leave. Not being able to stand seeing her go, Edward is compelled to pursue her and “save” her from the life she has been leading. In their own way, Edward and Vivian find their “happily ever after” together, accepting one another for who they truly are. At the end of each story lies true acceptance, but the paths taken are significantly different between the two. Madonna Kolbenschlag, a feminist critic of fairy tales, writes,”She [Cinderella] wants to be ‘chosen’ for herself in her natural state, rather than because of a splendid appearance wrought by magic” (Kolbenschlag 537). Disney’s characterization fell shy of this mark. Eventually, Prince Charming found out who she was, but she never directly told him, implying a sort of shame. Vivian never once hides from who she is. When she first meets Edward, she presents herself as she truly lives without trying to create a new image to impress him. Vivian holds steadfast in her personality while still trying out Edward’s lifestyle. She gets accustomed to his way of life, but is able to return to her own after all is said and done.

Danielle presents herself to Prince Henry as her mother, who came from a noble family. It isn’t until the very end of Ever After that Danielle reveals her true identity. She finds herself at the Prince’s feet, feeling as if she truly belonged at the bottom of the social caste. Danielle and Disney’s Cinderella share the same twinge of guilt over their backgrounds, whereas Vivian accepts herself as she truly is. The distinct difference in strength here lies within the methods of coming-to-self between the two women. While Vivian is forthright in sharing her identity, Danielle guises Prince Henry into believing a glamified ruse of who she could have been without the death of her father. Throughout women’s history, independence is one of the core factors of how strength is perceived. While Danielle gives off a strong sense of independence through saving herself from her troubles, Vivian portrays independence with a stronger presence. In Pretty Woman, Edward and Vivian get into an argument in which Vivian had, “never felt cheaper” (Pretty Woman). Vivian packed her belongings and stormed toward the door, leaving behind all of Edward’s money on purpose. This showed her deep understanding that she was worth more than her pay. It also showed Edward that she did not need his money to live on. If it meant being treated poorly, his money meant nothing to her. Her action showed him that his actions were more derogatory than being a prostitute in itself.

Jane Yolen, author of children’s books, describes this distinct difference between Danielle and Vivian with, “[Cinderella] is a sorry excuse for a heroine, pitiable and useless” (Yolen 544). Danielle could have asserted her independence in ways stronger than those in which she did. While still making a valiant effort, her attempts at independence ended up being spoiled by her poor upbringing. Danielle rescues herself from the grasp of the evil Monsieur Le Pieu and storms out his castle in triumph only to find Prince Henry, come to rescue her. She asks in a mocking manner,“You have come to rescue me?” (Ever After). After his truly heartfelt apology, Danielle finds herself weak in the knees at his will, and her independence collapses into shambles, along with her emotions. Emotions are some of the biggest traits of weakness that can be seen in the Disney “Cinderella”. She relies on her helpful animal friends to keep her hopes up, rather than being realistic. Vivian’s strong characterization comes into play once more in the scene in which she kisses Edward on the mouth. While Kit, her roommate, warns against kissing on the mouth due to emotional attachment, this is one of Vivian’s strongest moments. While Vivian is making herself vulnerable to Edward, she is also strengthening herself by allowing him in. She is essentially taking control, giving Edward the power to break her, but also receiving the power to break Edward. Unlike Vivian, Danielle never finds this opportunity. Her emotions are generally dependent upon her surroundings. In one of the final scenes, Danielle becomes upset with her stepmother for never having loved her as a child. Danielle cries out in anguish, “You are the only mother I have ever known. Was there ever a time, even in its smallest measurement, that you loved me at all?” (Ever After). Bruno Bettelheim, an expert in sibling rivalry, writes, “The child fears that… he is thought of little by his parents, or feels rejected by them” (Bettelheim 280). Danielle evidenced this by feeling betrayed by her stepmother’s inherent love for her own daughters more than Danielle. The strength that she lacks is that of control over her own emotions. To be successful in the already-vulnerable position in which she lies, one must assert control over that which can be controlled.

Strength will never be a well-agreed upon subject within society, containing too many facets to be defined by one simple phrase. It is a complex entity of its own separate affairs, and to confine it to one definition would be shameful. Danielle of Ever After and Vivian of Pretty Woman both show traits of a strong, modernized Cinderella. However, Vivian’s intricate characterization shows her to be a better icon than Danielle for the modern woman on the indefinite conquest for strength.