When I'm talking narrative and I want someone's eyes to light up, I just tell them this: Die Hard is one of my favorite Cinderella stories. I cannot take credit for making the connection myself. It was at a conference. An editor from a well-known publishing house was defining an elevator pitch for the benefit of a new writer. "It's like: Cinderella meets Die Hard," he said. The audience laughed, and the editor with them. "I know," he continued. "What would that even look like?"
Reader, I was shaking. Instantly abuzz. If I hadn't been conspicuously seated in the second row at this panel, I'd have run straight out of the room and started writing.
OF COURSE Die Hard is Cinderella. A mysterious stranger crashes a party he wasn't officially invited to. His feet are covered in glass. Later he is pursued by people who are desperate to uncover his real identity. He ends up reunited with the person he went to the party to see. Holly is the prince. Al is the fairy godmother. Argyle's limo is the pumpkin carriage. And Hans Gruber, naturally, is the wicked stepmother.
I've been thinking a lot about this in context of a recent NPR story by the ever-revelatory Linda Holmes -- this paragraph in particular:
[Cinderella is] partly a fantasy about simplifying the relationships between social standing and coupling — one that makes the most sense in a world in which class differences are an accepted barrier to a good man choosing to marry a woman. If the prince is a man who believes from the outset that love conquers all, the story doesn't really make any sense. It would be hard to set Cinderella on a properly functioning egalitarian collective.
The gender-flip in Die Hard turns the prince into a princess -- but the class chasm stays the same. Bonnie Bedelia's Holly is a corporate ladder-climber, an executive at a Japanese company that occupies an entire LA skyscraper. Her job is far more high-status than that of her scruffy blue-collar cop husband. But where the original Cinderella is about elevating the low-born heroine to the prince's aristocratic level, Die Hard's perfect, meticulously constructed plot inexorably undermines the foundation of Holly's higher status.
Imagine Cinderella blowing up the palace.
Yes, technically Hans Gruber is the villain -- but our hero John McClane does at least as much blowing up of things as his nemesis does. One by one, the connections between Holly and her career are severed: her boss is killed, her douchey co-worker is shot, the company is burgled, the building is destroyed, and finally even her new Rolex must be sacrificed to ensure Hans Gruber's downfall. (See what I did there? Oh, Hans, please forgive me that joke, I love you -- you were raised to be charming, not sincere.) She is given no choice but to take John back almost out of self-defense.
It's not just me saying this, either -- witness this really detailed PopMatters essay about the political/social/cinematic context of the film:
The obvious professional success of Holly at Nakatomi, which led her to forsake her husband in New York, is presented in Die Hard as a metaphor for the threat of feminism to the family institution and to the established patriarchal social order.
There's a lot in there about westerns and WWII and Vietnam and categories of masculinity; it's pretty dense and I recommend reading the whole thing.
Getting back to the fairy tale, everyone's always framing Cinderella stories in terms of agency. Here is Linda Holmes on the Prince in Disney's earlier Cinderella film:
If you were putting on a stage play based on that cartoon and you were short of actors, my very first suggestion would be that you obtain a large bag of flour and a toupee, allowing you to dispense with casting anyone at all as the prince.
And yet when we criticize the storytelling in Cinderella tales, it's never the prince's role that comes under fire. Because even in the most bare-bones versions, the prince goes in quest of something -- and there is a long, long, Western narrative tradition that tells us the quest story is a hero's story and automatically worthy (oh hello, Star Wars fans who like to cite Joseph Campbell). We read the prince as a little mini-hero in this tale, while we dismiss Cinderella for being confused and conflicted and passive. (Sondheim's Into the Woods will always be the most resounding critique of this structure, for me.)
Joseph Campbell has a lot to answer for.
But agency is only one axis on which a character can be given importance. Perspective, choice, centering of a protagonist can happen regardless of the level of doing-ness. For comparison: Hamlet is notorious for passivity and indecision, but his inability to act is a feature of the story, not a bug, and critics discuss it as such. Die Hard reads as anti-feminist thus not so much because Holly is inactive -- she is the agent of several key turns of the plot. The movie is anti-feminist because Holly's perspective/wants are not centered by the film's arc. We see a little bit of her emotions at the beginning, on the phone with her children, but we never see the real defining moment where she decides she and John can make their relationship work. (They ultimately don't, as the next few films demonstrate.) We do see John's moment of revelation -- but crucially, this transformation appears in a scene between him and Al. Al and John's developing trust, of course, is the real emotional arc in the film, and a much more convincing romance.
Using pure action-based agency as a metric to judge female characters as more or less feminist has become this year's Manic Pixie Dream Girl: it started as a useful critical lens, but when it's the only lens we apply it blinds us to other aspects of storytelling. The protagonist's lack of agency in recent glorious mess Jupiter Ascending was frequently singled out as poorly written and regressive.
From the Mary Sue's review:
If I had to critique this movie in any sort of, you know, actual way (beyond “it was a hot-ass mess”), I would say that I do wish the film had been a little less caught up in the traditional model of princess-saving. When I hear “Mila Kunis black leather space princess,” I want to see her bulked the hell up, Emily Blunt style, kicking ass and taking names. We don’t get to see Kunis looking really cool until the very end of the film, at which point I wanted way more of that. Which, I guess, means I would pay for a sequel.
Although clearly conceived as an empowered female heroine, poor Jupiter spends most of the movie being kidnapped and shuffled from one unpleasant situation to another...
Though she has more space opera swirling around her than any actor could possible hold together, Kunis does an admirable job even if never given much of a chance to be the prime mover in her fairy tale.
All these reviews and many others have bought into a limited concept of agency: kicking ass and taking names. Partly this is habit -- quest narratives and violence-as-agency are hugely enshrined in sff/geek culture and film blockbusters both, most especially when those two fandoms overlap: see The Matrix, The Fifth Element, Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien/Aliens, Terminator/Terminator 2, and even The Princess Bride. Take a good hard look at your love for The Princess Bride, those of you who found Jupiter Jones too passive a heroine.
See also: critiques of Twilight that point out how much of the series is designed to give Bella Swan everything she wants. People hate when you suggest that maybe Twilight is doing something interesting with its heroine. (Standard disclaimer: not a Twilight fan, haven't read it, found some persuasively written articles.)
Jupiter Jones does not hit very many people in the course of her movie, it's true. But her life, her experience, her anxieties, and her choices are all central to the film's framework. She is important, and not merely as a vessel of power: she narrates her own birth in voiceover and explains how it is significant, she worries about trust and love and an inherited history of unhappy relationships, she struggles with a difficult family whose engagement is embarrassing and an irritation, she is burdened with sudden knowledge and terrible power and galactic prominence without ever asking for it, without being sure if she even wants to be a part of what seems like a really shitty system of government and exploitation. That she hesitates to wield this power is, I think, a mark of intelligence and good moral sense. She mistrusts her sudden elevation in rank, and does not consider herself automatically an expert in an ancient and politically fraught hypertechnological culture she's only known about for three days.
Imagine Cinderella realizing she has no inclination to rule a kingdom where three of the most powerful nobles are constantly trying to kill one another.
Caine, by contrast, is given the cardboard quest narrative: get your wings back, brooding hero, and find your pack or mate or whatever. It's as plain and predictable as the prince's agency in the traditional Cinderella. Caine has only one possible choice or motive in this movie: to save Jupiter, to choose Jupiter, to support Jupiter. Jupiter, meanwhile, gets everything she wants. Caine objects to a relationship between them because of her higher rank, but she laughs this off and they end up together despite his objections. Caine gets his wings back (hardly a spoiler), and Jupiter lovingly caresses them as though they belong to her. She insists that he call her "Your Majesty" because she likes it -- and then she straps on his gravity skates and flies away with him.
Is our heroine really the one with the lack of agency in this framework?
The scene where Sean Bean lays out Caine's angsty backstory for Jupiter's benefit is so full of lingering shirtless Tatum camerawork that I laughed aloud in the theater. It is the single most romance novel-esque thing I have ever seen on film (though I haven't seen the wedding episode of Outlander, which author Alisha Rai assures me is the most Female Gaze-y thing in all the world). The critics focusing on action might have misread the film: the romance readers and authors I know were all hailing it as one of our own.
Romance as a storytelling form has long existed in counterpoint to the mainstream male narrative canon -- counterpoint both in the sense of alternative, and in the sense of harmony (since not all romance is automatically feminist in nature or perspective). Romance features happy endings instead of 'important' tragedies, female characters given pride of place as heroines, love and family and domestic concerns treated as weightily as wars and battles. Romance also deals quite often with limits on agency: the unmoneyed gently born heroines of Austen's novels; those notorious scenes of forced seduction during the era of Woodiwiss, Rogers, and Small; even E. L. James' The Book That Shall Not Be Named explores what it means to be constrained on both a physical and metaphorical level.
A romance heroine's limited agency is, like Hamlet's, not a bug but a feature.
Jupiter Ascending is a Cinderella story -- but it is also, importantly, Jane Eyre. We begin with our heroine's birth, we see her thankless labor and her mortified body (someone write me an essay comparing the egg-selling clinic with Lowood School IMMEDIATELY PLEASE), she finds a secret family and a brooding love interest, there is an interrupted wedding and an unpleasantly insistent relative and at the end everything burns to the ground but our heroine finds happiness anyways. And you could make a pretty good case for this narrative being anti- or ambiguously feminist, as people often do with Jane Eyre --but the critics of Jupiter Ascending have not been making this argument. The sci-fi movie lovers have not been making this argument. They have been arguing for more violence, more unquestioned use of questionable power. More doing simply for the sake of doing-ness.
It is not enough to critique a character's lack of action, especially a female character, without looking at the context in which that action or non-action takes place.
If what Jane Eyre really wanted from her story and her wold was agency for agency's sake, she'd have gone off with St. John Rivers. Rochester would have struggled alone with his disabilities. Jane herself would have died while bolstering a racist colonial empire in a sexless marriage with a coldly principled, joyless man. Instead Jane makes a choice -- as Jupiter Jones does, over and over, not carving out a space with fists and weapons but picking the least bad of several options -- and that choice is given weight and heft by the narrator. Reader, I married him, she says, speaking out to us from the page.
I've always loved dogs, says Jupiter Jones. And we laugh, because it's ridiculous, and she rolls her eyes, and says it again, horrified at what's just come out of her mouth.
And we laugh again, in recognition. Because we've been there, so many of us, at the peak of a crucial romantic moment, saying something that initially seemed clever but turned out to be an absolute disaster.
Jupiter Jones may not be the Heroine With Agency we're supposed to want -- but she may be the heroine we didn't know we've been missing.
There's always someone, somewhere, writing about Cinderella. Here's a very incomplete list of the most recent/most interesting ones I've seen:
- Malinda Lo, author of beautiful lesbian YA Cinderella story Ash, has a new post up about her personal reading and reinterpretation of Cinderella.
- I've written twice on Cinderella, once to contrast Lo's Ash with Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted, and another time to revisit Ash with a new appreciation for the plot structure.
- Sara Maitland explores agency in a whole host of Cinderella variations for the Guardian.
- Sady Doyle in the Baffler says Cinderella is dead.
- Jenny Crusie's older but still thought-provoking post on Cinderella from an author's perspective.
- Todd VanDerWerff writes about the new Cinderella movie's regressive politics for Vox.
For bonus fun, here is a short and pointed Jupiter Ascending fanfic that imagines an alternative wedding scene because, per the author, "I spent too much of the movie waiting for Chekhov's bees to go off."