The world we live in isn’t perfect. There are two ways to deal with it. One, either you take what you want by force and be angry about everything that’s not going your way. Two, you can accept that you can’t change everything, and you can still treat others the way you want to be treated.
The two leading ladies of the recent Cinderella remake fell on different ends of the spectrum. I admit, because of the complete reversal of character roles in Maleficent I was curious what direction Disney would take with this new live-action fairy tale. I wondered about the evil stepmother especially. Would we see Lady Tremaine’s motivations for abusing her stepdaughter? Would she be given a sympathetic angle? As it turned out, my questions were answered, but only very subtly–blink and you’ll miss it. I have only figured out Lady Tremaine after almost a year of reflecting on the film and of course rewatching it multiple times. Cinderella and Lady Tremaine aren’t much different from their counterparts in the classic animated film on the surface, but on closer inspection they are very well-rounded characters.
Lady Tremaine gets the most time in the spotlight in the scene were Ella comes across her in the attic. And Lady Tremaine tells Ella her story. “Once upon a time, there was a beautiful young girl who married for love.” Lady Tremaine explains herself clearly: she has been widowed twice. She wants to provide for her two daughters. But her chances for the happiness she thinks she deserves have been taken away by circumstances beyond her control. After she smashes the glass slipper, Ella outright asks her: “Why? Why must you be so cruel?” Lady Tremaine answers her: “Because you are young and good and kind and beautiful, and I — ” Unable to speak further, she breaks off, and then leaves, locking Ella in the attic.
If the person you’ve spent the last few years of your life hating asked why you hated them, would you be lost for words too?
The first time I saw Cinderella, I was confused by this response. I felt like it hadn’t explained enough. But like I said, the beef of why Lady Tremaine hates Ella was explained earlier in the scene—earlier in the rest of the film, period. What makes Cinderella a unique film is because it finally explains the motivations of the characters. In Ever After, Danielle asks the Baroness why she never loved her, and the Baroness only compared her to a pebble in her shoe—she’s a nuisance. The animated Cinderella never touched on the issue at all.
So what is Lady Tremaine’s problem? The narrator introduces her as “a woman of refined taste.” She was not raised to “have courage and be kind.” She was taught that happiness comes from having material things, and you get material things by taking what you want without caring about others’ feelings. Lady Tremaine must have come from an extremely wealthy family–far wealthier than Ella and her parents were. And she married rich, too. She was used to having all the comforts of life, all the luxuries that Ella could never have dreamed of. Of course her daughters Drizella and Anastasia were spoiled, and they go out of their way to insult Ella and her home and put her down and treat her like she’s stupid because, compared to them, she’s poor. Lady Tremaine, however, has the good manners not to say anything.
What gets under skin is her new husband’s favoritism of his daughter from his first marriage. Her first husband must have given her his undivided love and attention. Lady Tremaine may have expected the same from Ella’s father. Ella’s father, however, either didn’t realize this or was still too caught up in grief over the death of his first wife or both. Ella’s father and Lady Tremaine don’t get any screentime together to establish whatever bond they may have had. However, Lady Tremaine watches her new husband lovingly caress his daughter and mourn her mother with her. It’s like she’s not even there. And her feelings are hurt. Marrying Ella’s father was a step down socially, but she did it for her daughters with the mindset that it would be better than nothing. In her mind, her new husband could have at least given her the love she was craving.
Lady Tremaine is not just jealous, she’s angry. She’s angry that her new husband seems to have excluded her from his life. And so banishing Ella to the attic is, to her, justice: she’s excluding Ella from the family and from having a comfortable life. Lady Tremaine holds on to her anger even after her second husband dies. In fact, his death makes it worse. She has lost her second husband and her source of income. And word has it that his last thoughts were with Ella and her mother. While grief can cause some people to relinquish their grudges, Lady Tremaine continued to hold on to her anger, and she took it out by making Ella the household servant.
“You are nothing but a dirty servant girl,” she says to Ella multiple times. Ella isn’t her family. She’s nobody to her. Lady Tremaine treats Ella the way she feels about her.
Ella is everything that Lady Tremaine is not. She is a young, beautiful, kind girl that everyone loves. She is not fancy or ostentatious but she’s kind as well as smart. She has lost both of her parents and she’s being treated poorly by her stepfamily, and yet she chooses to do good to others and to have a positive attitude—in other words, to have courage and be kind. She treats others the way she would like to be treated even though her situation is less than ideal. Lady Tremaine sees herself as a victim who has lost everything. Ella is in the same situation, but unlike Lady Tremaine she has chosen to not become bitter about her losses. And Lady Tremaine can’t compete with Ella’s goodness. The only thing in her power is to either forgive Ella or continue to abuse her. She pulls out all the stops to get her daughters to the ball and try to get them to marry the prince—Ella, a commoner, becoming the queen without raising a finger is the last straw.
“Where did you get this? Did you steal it?”
“No. It was given to me.”
“Nothing is ever given. For everything you must pay, pay, pay.”
Lady Tremaine has never had anything given to her freely. Even the things that brought her happiness—her first marriage, a life of luxury, being able to spend whatever money she wants—she had to pay a price for in the end. Ella only has to “have courage and be kind” and everything is handed to her, even when Lady Tremaine has done everything to hurt her.
This is also why Ella, in spite of the traditional retelling of her story, is a strong female character. She knows she can’t change her own circumstances, but she can control how she reacts to them. And unlike her stepmother, she chooses to forgive and forget when other people hurt her. She stands up to Lady Tremaine, but she does so without being mean about it. She understands perfectly what her stepmother fails to learn: that true power is not in money and political influence but in kindness and courage and choosing to have a good attitude.