Imagine this: your family is cruel, cutting you down at every opportunity. Maybe it gets physical sometimes, maybe it doesn’t. You’re old enough to start making decisions for yourself, but not old enough to really “make it” on your own. They have control of everything – your time, your money, your possessions. But you know that if you hold out just a little bit longer, something good will happen. Things will get better. But for now, you just have to grit your teeth and endure.
Sound familiar? I’ve just described the basic concept of Disney’s live-action Cinderella, which has received a lot of criticism from feminist circles for depicting Ella as “too passive.” But as someone who came from a difficult home situation, I found Ella to be an incredibly realistic depiction of a young adult facing some tough choices.
Before it happens to you, you want to think that you’ll have the “strong female character” response and stand up for yourself, preferably with wit and style, and that you’ll somehow manage to shame or frighten your abuser(s) into never bothering you again.
Unfortunately, all too often reality reads like Cinderella. There are many, many reasons women and girls stay in bad situations, and we need to get rid of this concept that staying means they deserve whatever happens to them.
While the #WhyIStayed campaign on Twitter mostly focused on spousal and partner abuse, many of the reasons can apply to young adults and children in abusive homes. You may technically be old enough to leave, but what then? Is homelessness really a better option than a place where you at least have a roof over your head and an expectation of food? My situation was not nearly as bad as many others have been in, but when I had a choice, like Ella, I also chose to stay.
While I don’t have the same attachment to a physical place as Ella did, I can understand clinging to the few things left that you know. It’s actually validating for me to see a heroine like Ella being rewarded for sticking it out until she could resolve the situation on her own terms instead of just running off in the heat of anger with nothing more than the clothes on her back.
You may choose to stay because it’s all you know and you lack the financial resources to make a change. You may need the physical stability of home while you finish school even if it is mentally and emotionally terrible. Need your parents’ health insurance? Perhaps placating them until you get a better job makes sense. I’ve also known of several very brave individuals who chose to stay in bad situations until their younger siblings were old enough to leave with them.
And if you’ve never had to deal with a bad home life, then you need to understand that society is prejudiced to believe the parents no matter what (remember, teenagers are just moody and sullen!), just as Ella’s society would have been inclined to believe Lady Tremaine, a noblewoman, over Ella, a merchant’s daughter.
I found that when I turned to even trained professionals for help coping, I was blasted for being ungrateful and told “if it’s really as bad as you say, you would find a way out.” Even trusted family members may be unwilling to acknowledge problematic behavior because goodness gracious, we’re perfectly respectable here and not that kind of family.
So we wait, and we endure, and when we get a chance, we take it.
I think our biases are definitely showing in criticisms of the movie – many of the accusations leveled against Ella’s character are similar to things I’ve heard for years. We need to destroy this idea that you have to have enough Strong Independent Woman Points to be worthy of help or sympathy.
Ella isn’t passive, she isn’t weak, and she isn’t complacent. If she were, she would have taken the easier route and made a deal with Lady Tremaine to get the glass slipper back. I was terrified I would face a similar situation one day and might not be able to hold on to my values. I kept telling myself that I was weak, stupid, and that I deserved it because I hadn’t booked it at the first opportunity.
And maybe it’s dumb, but stories like this or A Little Princess with similar plots gave me courage to hold on.
It is certainly important to show young adults deciding to immediately leave abusive situations and I am definitely not arguing otherwise. It’s also important to show them not leaving right away. We need heroes, too.
Editor’s note: Interested in another take on the Cinderella story? Check out Cinders! It’s a beautiful game that explores the more complex issues behind the fairytale without the moralizing.
This piece was published anonymously. The Geek Initiative occasionally publishes anonymous pieces, especially when safety is a concern for the writer.