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FROM BRANAGH'S CINDERELLA TO
OPLEV'S THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO:
ON THEME AND FAMILY VALUES




While many may argue that Cinderella (Kenneth Branagh, 2015) asserts positive, family values as the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Niels Arden Oplev, 2009) corrupts, my own experience with the films ran exactly in the reverse.

Cinderella was promoted as an update to the classic fairy tale - and I did note the emphasis on the protagonist being good over the obvious fact of her beauty - I also noted her role as encourager-in-chief to the prince - but the film failed to alter the negative impact it had on me as a child and continues to have on me today. Indeed, in some respects, I feel my entire adult life has been a process of unlearning the lessons the story ingrained in me as a female adolescent.

 

Shut Up and Wait: The Passive Approach

Goodness. We generally accept that being good is a positive trait, but when goodness extends to abuse from a stepmother and stepdaughters to the point of them tearing your mother's pink dress off of your shoulders, the lesson has gone too far. Girls, females generally, are taught to be patient, even passive in the face of abusive behavior, and they are taught to wait. If you are good, the film argues, and you wait, then the cavalry will come to rescue you. But only if you are good, patient, passive, only then will a magical force - say a fairy godmother or a prince - appear to save you. Only then.

The stepmother (Cate Blanchett) who acts to advance her daughters by marrying them off to a prince is framed as a negative persona, having negative personality characteristics. No doubt, she abuses Cinderella (Lily James) - that point has already been conceded - but the active female as witch and the passive female as worthy of saving - that model continues forward in the 2015 version of the fairy tale, and I find that model problematic.

I concede that the previous two paragraphs don't present groundbreaking information, but in face of the marketing campaign that argued for a new modern tale, I thought it worth mentioning that the changes were so slight as to be negligible. Indeed, her "goodness" and her "encourager-in-chief" role to the prince, offering him advice and counsel, further underscored The Good Wife complex so cleverly exposed in the network show of that name. In other words, far from being revolutionary, Branagh's version enforced the same bland stereotype of woman's role in society and in relationships.

Be quiet. Be patient. Wait. Your time will come when someone will make a change that will alter your circumstance. Those sentences sound suspiciously like the advice Martin Luther King Jr. was given, advice he recounts so movingly in "Letter from Birmingham Jail." In addition to rejecting that mentality, King reminded his followers throughout his sermons, lectures, and speeches that the real enemy of the Civil Rights Movement was not the loud objector, but the silent middle who did and said nothing. Voice and action, MLK would argue, remain crucial for positive and lasting change. Neither, I regret to say, are qualities afforded Cinderella even in this remake of the classic fairy tale.

 

Lisbeth: A New Joan of Arc

You'll get no argument from me, Oplev's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo does, indeed, contain two very difficult rape scenes: the first sin followed by the revenge sequence. I will also admit that I was unable to watch the scenes and did turn my head to the right during the action. Many have argued that this film is unfit for mainstream consumption, that it contains scenes that corrupt the viewer. I argue that the underlying theme is so positive that this film contains stronger "family values" than the 2015 Disney film supposedly preaching those to the most high, the aforementioned Cinderella.

First, Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace) has been abused; rather than sit silently and take it, she plots to rid herself of her guardian while assuring her income. Then she devotes her life to helping girls who have been raped, abused, even killed, by capturing the serial killer who has been on the loose for decades.

Toward the end of the film, Mikael (Michael Nyqvist) is nearly murdered by the serial killer, Martin (Peter Haber), when Lisbeth rescues the reporter from the torture dungeon. She then chases Martin on her motorcycle until she comes upon his car, wrecked and burning. Later that night, Mikael asks her if she could have saved the burning man. "Yes," she replies. He responds, "I couldn't have done that."

Yes. Exactly.

Most of us could not have fended off Mikael's murderer, chased him down, and ensured he was finished off and could do no more harm. We've been raised on Cinderella stories, after all. Lisbeth, however, has been abused - and now she has grown stronger - a callous effect has taken place. She is a new kind of Joan of Arc, saving those girls who can't save themselves, then protecting girls in the future by ending the reign of the abuser.

Lisbeth eschews moral comfort for the greater good. The theme of the film emerges through her actions: speak out and act to make positive and lasting change. Like a police officer or a soldier, Lisbeth does the job that many of us cannot do. She protects the weak and innocent from predators. Not only do I find this subtext inspiring, I am arguing it is a far more positive and uplifting message than that which most family films - supposedly espousing family values - deliver.

I don't want my girls to be good and silent; I want them to speak and act for good, to silence the predators among us.

That is a lesson I learn from Lisbeth, not from Ella.

 

February 2016

 

 

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