Monday, March 30, 2015

Cinderella's Chrysalis

This post is the sixth in what will be my Explorations in Womanhood Series. Please understand that while I intend to write things that are consistent with church doctrine, this blog is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For this reason, I ask that you consider prayerfully interacting with anything published here.

"And every woman that hath this hope in her purifieth herself, even as he is pure."
1 John 3:3

A reunion occurs in the opening scenes of Disney's new Cinderella. It's a reunion between a merchant father, and his young daughter, Ella. He has just returned from France, and he's brought with him a gifta paper butterflyor as he teaches Ella to call it, a papillon. A young and thoroughly delighted Ella accepts the gift, and keeps it among her treasures after her parents have died.

It reminded me a bit of the merchant father in another Cinderella adaptation. Do you remember the father in Ever After? If you've seen Ever After I doubt you'd forget. He brought his daughter, his Danielle, a copy of Thomas More's Utopia after coming home from one of his trips. You'll probably recall that this gift served as a key point for character development in the film. Danielle's political perspectives, even her very ahead-of-its-time brand of feminism seemed to have been quite informed by More's ideas. Perhaps informed by More, but I think cemented by her father's devoted (and rather egalitarian) parenting. She even spouted More at the prince, when, disguised as a courtier, she prevented her servant-friend from being shipped to the America's.

But I digress.

Cinderella is a popular story. And while Disney might seem to have a bit of a monopoly on it these days, it came into being long before 2015, or even 1950. The origin of both filmic adaptations was Charles Perrault's fairytale, which was published in 1697. Charles Perrault is credited as being the inventor of the contemporary fairy tale genre (he was on the scene about 200 years before the Grimm Brothers), but in all reality, he was merely a vehicle through which pre-existing folk tales were preserved. It would appear that Cinderella has been told for centuries.

Which is a lovely notion. And hardly surprising. It's the classic triumphant underdog story. People have always been people, haven't they? Through the ages there's something about characters rising above hardships that we, as audiences, gravitate towards. We still fill our movie theaters to watch the old story play out. I wonder if it's because Cinderella is about more than overcoming oppression.

It's not that Cinderella simply came out of her situation, that she broke even. The end of her story, her quintessential 'happily ever after' shows us that the final state of things can be better, so much better, than any given beginning.

And I suppose that's something else I love about Cinderella. Her. A herione. Hers is the story of a timeless heroine, a story that mothers have been telling their daughters for hundreds of years. And what is she celebrated for? For courage and for kindness the 2015 film would tell you. For these and more, I'd like to posit. For courage and for kindness yes, but also for patience, for faith, and most of all, for hope.

One of my favorite moments in the film is when Cinderella descends the stairs of the family manor dressed in a pink dress to go to the ball. She tells her step family that the dress was her mother's, and that she has been mending it so that she could wear it to the palace.

Just like in the 1950 version, the stepmother approaches and rips the gown. Her daughters follow suit until Cinderella's dress is unwearable. They leave Cinderella inside the house, but where they really leave her is at the very bottom. Because she's tried, you see. She's tried to have courage, to be kind, to keep the promise that she made her mother. And until this point, somehow, through all the hardship, she's managed to keep a bit of hope alive. Enough hope that she was able to secretly mend her mother's old dress. Enough hope that she was able to come down those stairs and ask her abusive step family to go to the ball with them. The loss of the dress seems to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.

Have you ever felt like that? I know I have. Although it's never been a gown, I've certainly had things that I loved so dearly, things that I'd worked so hard for, cherished so much, taken from me and treated more like garbage than the sacred things they are.

It's what happens next that redeems the moment. As you know, Cinderella's fairy godmother appears. After the coach, and the horses, and the footmen, and the driver have all been transformed from pumpkins, and mice, and lizards, and geese, the fairy godmother turns her attention to Cinderella's now very ragged pink dress.

Cinderella asks her fairy godmother not to do away with the dress entirely, because it was her mother's. And so the fairy godmother agrees. She'll simply modify the dress. Transform it. Beautify it. Beauty for ashes it, you could say.

And that's where the butterfly motif appears again. A whole kaleidoscope of butterflies surrounds Cinderella in the most whimsical flurry since "Colors of the Wind." Then, the lens directs the viewer to Cinderella's feet, where we see that two magical butterflies, one for each foot, adorn her iconic glass slippers.

And here there exists another similarity between this telling and the Ever After adaptation. Ever After features inanimate connections to each of the protagonist's parents; for Danielle it is her mother's dress and her father's book.

For Ella though, it is her mother's dress and her father's shoes.

Sometimes caterpillars struggle to emerge from their chrysalises. But did you know that if someone on the outside were to attempt to help, to maybe cut a small incision in the chrysalis, that it would actually do more harm than good? Such caterpillars can become butterflies, but they will never have the muscle necessary to fly.

And I think that's what Cinderella is really about. It's about a girl who reaches the tipping point in her journey of personal metamorphoses. She loses her mother, then she loses her father. This latter loss catapults her into a dark, oppressive situation. A step mother who neither understands nor loves her. She's taken advantage of and cornered into servitude, where slowly, gradually she's led to what appears to be the bottom.

And it's interesting that her liberation doesn't actually come the night of the ball. And it doesn't come through the prince either. Because after everything, after being locked in the attic, with no chance of being reunited with the prince, Cinderella still chooses to hope. And she sings. It is this action, her voice, that ultimately liberates her.

Her arc isn't simply a tale of an ugly, under-appreciated duckling becoming a swan. And it's not exclusively a story about social ascension either. It's a transformation. She finds herself.

But how does she do it?

Writing about Cinderella has really touched me today. Because I've been in dark places. I've even been led to dark places. Containers of pressure, of grief. But it wasn't until today that I reframed the experience. What if that dark place were actually a chrysalis? And I am a caterpillar; a caterpillar who must stay inside of her container until she is ready to emerge. Which might explain why I so often find myself believing that God has abandoned me. He (and She) wouldn't want me to break free until I have been pressurized long enough to fly.

And doesn't that make Cinderella's journey the journey of all women? I like to think so. First she loses a mother. It seems that our Mother might have been the first person we lost when we left the presence of God. For some reason she is missing, forgotten, veiled.

But we retained our Father. We are taught about our Father. We pray to our Father. Inevitably though, there comes a time in all of our lives when we lose him too. Perhaps we sin. Perhaps we get hurt. Perhaps we lose faith. Whatever the reason, the pattern seems sure. We grow through distance. We find ourselves.

So how do we do it?

The armor of God comes to mind. Particularly this phrase: "and your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace." I've been tossing that phrase around in my mind for months. Ever since my sister Emily gave me a pair of flats that came in a shade of turquoise that I particularly like.

I guess there is some debate in Christian circles about what the word 'preparation' means. John Locke said that the word preparation would be better translated to readiness. So the entire phrase would mean "with a readiness to walk in the Gospel of Peace." I like that. Especially the connection to walking. As we walk the path back to God, we can do it with our feet, the instruments of our walking, clothed and covered in peace.

But what is peace? I think it is an acceptance of God's plan. It is fully accepting that when our paths get dark, and when the way is hedged up, that we are merely entering a chrysalis, and that eventually we will emerge as butterflies.

Which paints an entirely new picture of Miss Cinderella and her glass slippers doesn't it? The magical glass slippers that were just for her. She entered the ball in the shoes of her fatherthe peace that he'd given her long ago. A promise almost. That she too was a butterfly, and that once she had been under pressure long enough she would grow wings and fly.

She was robed in the dress of her mother. She walked the path of change, in the garments of kindness and courage. And I think that it was her unconquerable sense of hope that eventually procured the strength necessary for her to emerge from her chrysalis.

So perhaps as we continue to walk our own paths of change, we can walk behind Cinderella. That is what good stories are for after all. To show us the way. Every morning we can exercise good faith and good hope and put on our shoes of peace.

As for me, I think I will imagine them as glass slippers.

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