Cinderella Dreams of Labor

The new Cinderella doesn’t want to be a queen. She wants to work for one.

In “We Are All Very Anxious” (a series of theses that every reviewer of Amazon Studios’ Cinderella is sure to reference), the Institute for Precarious Consciousness theorizes that each phase of capitalism has its own dominant reactive affect holding it together. These affects are public secrets through which capitalism prevents the use of formerly effective strategies of resistance against it, as well as the emergence of new strategies of resistance, and they are only effective in doing so as long as they remain secret. However, this arrangement is unstable, and whenever the public secrets are exposed, and new strategies of resistance developed, capitalism evolves to a new phase, recuperating the struggles against the previous phase.

The first reactive affect of capitalism was misery, and this affect lasted until after the second World War. Strikes, unions, mutual aid, and other similar strategies were developed to resist misery by providing people with a certain level of security. This was recuperated by capitalism’s next phase, in which the Fordist system provided security, and within which the dominant reactive affect was boredom. The countercultural resistance to the dominant affect of boredom emphasized individuality and an escape from the work-consume-die cycle, and was recuperated by capitalism’s contemporary phase.

The original Cinderella movie served to recuperate the struggle against the dominant reactive affect of the phase of capitalism preceding it, that of misery. At the start of the movie, the titular character lives in a state of misery, forced into what essentially amounts to servitude, but by the end of the movie, through virtue and deservingness, she gains security through marrying into wealth.

The new Cinderella movie serves to yet again recuperate the struggle against the dominant reactive affect of the phase of capitalism preceding it, this time, that of boredom. At the start of the movie, Cinderella (as played by Camila Cabello in a performance marred only by the ability to Google the words “Camila Cabello racist” and the looming dread of the fact that whenever she’s on screen, James Corden might have a line) is no longer a miserable laborer. Instead, she’s an ambitious young entrepreneur who wants nothing more than to participate in the liberatory and meritocratic free market, but is held back by the patriarchal traditions of her society. By the end of the movie, Cinderella and the characters around her gain individuality.

Over and over again throughout the movie, characters achieve self-actualization by breaking out of the roles that traditional society demands of them and seeking their own goals instead, and over and over again they are rewarded for it. The arc of Robert, the wayward prince played by the rather uninspiring Nicholas Galitzine, starts with him being bored and unsatisfied with the monotonous life of a royal and the obligations that come with that role, and ends with him actually giving up security to seek what he truly wants, abdicating his throne and running away with Cinderella. Princess Gwen, the Elizabeth Warren-esque liberal reformer played by Tallulah Greive, achieves self-actualization by breaking from her prescribed role and taking the throne in the prince’s stead. Even Idina Menzel’s evil stepmother and Pierce Brosnan’s overbearing king get shoehorned-in sympathetic arcs which end in them breaking from tradition. But, by far the most utterly baffling story arc is that of Cinderella herself.

Cinderella is lured away from her old life by the promise of the life she’s always wanted, working the job of her dreams and traveling to exotic locales with Queen Tatiana, a human MacGuffin with maybe five lines and no actual characterization beyond her strictly functional role in allowing Cinderella’s self-actualization through labor to take place. However, there’s no discussions of hours or wages, or assurances that, should the work not be to the queen’s liking, she won’t leave Cinderella high and dry with no money and no way to reach her friends or get home. I mean, it’s a kids movie with mice that turn into humans for a song and dance number, so I’m not expecting them to discuss complex contract negotiations. But in a movie implicitly framed around the liberatory nature of liberal capitalism, a movie in which Cinderella’s first attempt at achieving individuality involved her trying to sell her dress at the market, a movie in which taking this job with Queen Tatiana is presented as the ultimate realization of Cinderella’s dream, you’d imagine they’d find the time to even mention in passing whether or not Cinderella would be getting paid for her work. But, I suppose the main character’s arc ending in her essentially being trafficked is par for the course for a movie whose central theme boils down to the slogan most well known for appearing at the gates of Nazi death camps (which is one way to keep Walt Disney’s legacy alive, I guess).

The Institute for Precarious Consciousness identifies the dominant reactive affect of the current phase of capitalism as anxiety or precarity. According to them, “Precarity is a type of insecurity which treats people as disposable so as to impose control. Precarity differs from misery in that the necessities of life are not simply absent. They are available, but withheld conditionally” (Institute for Precarious Consciousness, Thesis 4). Ultimately, the resolution of Cinderella’s arc places her in a wildly precarious situation, and only because the movie carefully frames that precarity as liberation is this not immediately obvious to the viewer.

The new Cinderella movie isn’t even remotely good. But it’s bad in some interesting ways, ways that reveal something about the role of popular media in our capitalist society. In Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher describes the titular ideological framework as “a pervasive atmosphere…acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action” (Fisher 16) and conditioning us to believe that there is no imaginable alternative to capitalism. Capitalist realism says that we cannot change harmful systems, and should instead only seek to mitigate the harms they cause on an individual level. Amazon Studios’ Cinderella doesn’t dream of creating meaningful change in her patriarchal society in order to uplift all women who may be stuck in similar situations, because ultimately, she can’t. Instead, Cinderella only dreams of labor.

Words Sophi Seley
Illustration Grace Demba

Armour Magazine Editorial Season 27 — F/S 2021

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