Cinderella’s new moral: Be rich or be a pumpkin

March 26, 2015
CINDERELLA

Lily James is Cinderella. REUTERS/Disney/Jonathan Olley/Handout

Once upon a time, during a brief egalitarian period in postwar America, people of different classes did not live in separate worlds. The promise of mobility and prosperity was alive throughout the land. In 1950, Walt Disney Productions was saved from bankruptcy with its smash hit Cinderella, which audiences cheered at a time when the future looked bright and it was still possible for the dream of marrying up to come true.

A new Disney film of Cinderella is a big box-office success today, but how different things look! Cinderella marriages are getting to be as rare as golden coaches. Economist Jeremy Greenwood has found that your chances of marrying outside your income bracket have been dropping since the 1950s because of something called assortative mating, which means that we are increasingly drawn to people in similar circumstances.

Since the 1980s, inequality has grown and mobility has stalled. Today, the rich forge their unions in exclusive social clubs, Ivy League colleges and gated communities. Unless you have a fortune or a fairy godmother, you’re probably out of luck. Without that magic, the gates remain closed.

At first glance, Kenneth Branagh’s remake of the classic Disney film seems to offer a sunny romp through the magic kingdom. But a closer look reveals a troubling economic message.

Economists like Thomas Piketty have been warning that if we don’t do something to stop growing income inequality, we may end up back in a 19th-century world, where hard work won’t lift you up the economic ladder because the income you can expect from labor is no match for inherited wealth. This is the world of the new Cinderella.

More so than the original Disney film, Branagh’s version highlights what happens when people are forced to compete for illusive rewards in a harsh economy. Families turn on each other, chances to get ahead are few and you’d better hope for a magic wand.

CINDERELLA

Lily James is Cinderella and Cate Blanchett is the Stepmother. REUTERS/Disney/Jonathan Olley/Handout

Subtle changes to the story bring the point home. In the original animated version, the father is a gentleman, a widower who remarries and then promptly dies, leaving a jealous stepmother and her mean-girl daughters to torment his beloved only child. But in Branagh’s film, the father is a merchant, and his death deprives the family of his income — leaving them all in straitened circumstances.

The stepmother’s first thought on hearing of her husband’s demise is entirely practical: How shall we survive economically? Her answer: Turn Cinderella into a servant and search for wealthy matches for her two daughters.

The marriage market illustrated in the movie reflects what economists like Robert H. Frank describe as a tournament, a “winner-take-all” game associated with economies where wealth is increasingly concentrated at the top. In these cutthroat markets, only a handful of people can win big, while the rest are left with little.

Cinderella and her stepsisters are locked in a down-and-dirty competition for scarce resources, and they understand how high the stakes are. Luckily for her, Cinderella possesses advantages that her sisters lack: She is beautiful and charming.

She is clever, too. But there’s no notion that her intelligence can be put to any use other than besting her competitors in the marriage tournament. She’s not going to be looking for a job or an education. That’s for suckers. Or peasants.

CINDERELLA

Lily James is Cinderella. REUTERS/Disney/Jonathan Olley/Handout

The importance of being rich is clear when Cinderella goes to the ball — the fairy godmother must make her appear to be a wealthy young lady.  You can’t win the prize dressed in rags. The film may give lip service to the values of kindness and courage, but it’s the ability to gain access to luxuries like a bedazzled gown and golden coach that really gets you places.

The privileges of the prince and his fellow one-percenters are simply accepted as an immutable law of the universe. There’s no notion of busting up the system, Katniss Everdeen-style. Best to just accept it and grab the goodies if you can.

In the end, Cinderella gets the prince and the palace, and the other women get absolutely nothing. That’s the way of tournaments.

The postwar America that was demonstrates that extreme inequality does not have to be our reality. Americans can write their own story so that even people without a fortune can lead a secure and dignified life. Things like making the rich pay their share in taxes, allowing unions to organize and increasing fiscal spending on things like infrastructure and jobs would ensure that many more Americans could expect a happy ending.

But Branagh’s Cinderella in no way attempts to question, much less abolish, a paradigm of haves and have-nots that leaves us with fewer opportunities.  The film teaches little viewers a harsh lesson: If you’re not rich, you may as well be a pumpkin.

18 comments

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postwar America was a united community – citizenship and fellow citizen meant something.

Maybe we need another world war to bring the country back together again.

Posted by michaelryan | Report as abusive

It’s nice to see that there is still wisdom on the planet. Makes me a bit less cynical….

Posted by rhess595 | Report as abusive

I love the leftist social commentary, “Since the 1980s, inequality has grown and mobility has stalled. Today, the rich forge their unions in exclusive social clubs, Ivy League colleges and gated communities. Unless you have a fortune or a fairy godmother, you’re probably out of luck. Without that magic, the gates remain closed.” This coming from a woman that teaches at NYU. I guess that until everyone is equal and irrespective of their contribution lives in the same little pink house we can’t “.. just all get along.”

Posted by Subwavelength | Report as abusive

Once the Revolution arrives those rich silky broads will be able to experience a real men , passionate hug by those hard working hands and hairy chests.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

“the fairy godmother must make her appear to be a wealthy young lady. You can’t win the prize dressed in rags.” –Really! I recall the Prince falling for her when he met her while hunting. She was not in rich attire at that time. Must have been a different movie ;)

Posted by edwaters | Report as abusive

Lily James is breathtakingly beautiful. I have enjoyed watching her as Lady Rose MacClare on Downton Abbey.

Posted by houtex77 | Report as abusive

Wow, wonder what put the burr under Lynn Stuart Parramore’s saddle?

“Things like making the rich pay their share in taxes, allowing unions to organize and increasing fiscal spending on things like infrastructure and jobs would ensure that many more Americans could expect a happy ending.”

When his/her internship is over and she get’s his/her degree and has to start to understand you have to find your own job and actually pay back the loans, life is gonna slap the snot out of him/her.

I know that is ignorant, but I really think this op/ed just reeks of someone who really needs a reality check. It’s Cinderella. It’s OK to be rich. It’s OK to want to be rich. IT IS FANTASY, NOT REAL. DO NOT DERIVE YOUR SELF WORTH OR OUTLOOK ON THIS WORLD FROM THIS MOVIE!!!

Lynn, DO NOT GO SEE God’s not Dead. You will have an aneurysm.

Posted by RCSteve | Report as abusive

Wow rcsteve…use your/the caps button much?

Posted by jill9999 | Report as abusive

“Economists like Thomas Piketty have been warning that if we don’t do something to stop growing income inequality, we may end up back in a 19th-century world”

Quoting the thoroughly debunked Thomas Piketty in a non-ironic way helps your narrative about as well as quoting David Icke in a non-ironic way.

And hate to break this to you but Cinderella is not an American story, or a story that has anything to say about America. It was written in 1634 and kudos to Branagh for not doing a Cinderella retcon aimed at pleasing leftist American cultural critics.

Posted by evilhippo | Report as abusive

http://www.wikihow.com/Build-a-Guillotin e

Posted by Rhino1 | Report as abusive

But consider the life that a fortune or a fairy god-mother would put you in. The people who have fortunes (and make the press, especially the tabloids) seem to be trapped. I have the freedom to walk into town for a paper, and would not trade this for anything in any world.

Posted by NBE | Report as abusive

http://theeconomiccollapseblog.com/archi ves/33-strange-facts-about-america-that- most-americans-would-be-shocked-to-learn

Posted by Rhino1 | Report as abusive

rhino1 that link made my day.

good to know there is intelligent life left on the planet.

Any body ever read any Howard Zinn?

Posted by wastingtime | Report as abusive

“Things like making the rich pay their share in taxes”. The author does understand who pays most of the income taxes in the US doesn’t she?

Posted by jambrytay | Report as abusive

Quite agree with this commentary, but how to explain to a 6-year old?

(As an aside I wonder how many Cinderella-loving parents would want their young boy to be brought up wanting to be a prince?)

Posted by AngryPancho | Report as abusive

# “in postwar America, people of different classes did not live in separate worlds”

Ask me how I know Lynn Stuart Parramore knows nothing about postwar America.

Posted by moebadderman | Report as abusive

# “postwar America was a united community”

Ask me how I know Michael Ryan knows nothing about postwar America.

Posted by moebadderman | Report as abusive

so now hard work doesnt lift you up is the worst case scenario?

how about work all your life in govt slavery, and be lectured about how evil you are day in and day out,
and how if you dont give up even more of your rights and money your hard work may not lift you up.

these ppl continue to p1$$ in our face and tell us its raining.

Posted by yobro_yobro88 | Report as abusive