Cinderella is alive and well and living in America

Makeover shows capitalize on desire for `happy ending'

Pop Culture

April 04, 2004|By Phoebe Flowers | Phoebe Flowers,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

In the recently opened movie, The Prince & Me, Julia Stiles plays Paige Morgan, an undergrad intensely focused upon getting to medical school and, eventually, saving the world. The unknown but wildly foxy British actor Luke Mably is Eddie, an exchange student from Denmark who drives Paige insane and thus is destined to fall passionately in love with her.

As you may have inferred from the title, there's a twist. Eddie is actually a Danish prince (no, not Hamlet), so a serious relationship with him means that Paige might have to compromise her hard-won independence and academic fervor. On the other hand, it also means servants, pretty dresses and a totally awesome vault full of priceless jewelry.

Magically beautiful

The Prince & Me makes weak stabs at post-feminist ideals, concluding with a scene so patently improbable that it can't even be construed as a happy ending. But the guiltily entertaining film is just a variation on the Cinderella myth, which is currently beating moviegoers and TV watchers over the head with its glass slippers.

In the past few years in movie theaters, we've seen Maid in Manhattan, The Princess Diaries and What a Girl Wants. Ella Enchanted, about a girl unintentionally cursed by a fairy (and in love with a prince), is set to open Friday, and the unsubtly named A Cinderella Story, as well as a Diaries sequel, are coming out this summer. On TV, you can find everything from Extreme Makeover to Made to the coming The Swan.

Hollywood producers will never go broke underestimating the desire of the American woman to become magically beautiful, rich and/or coupled overnight. Essentially, every reality show is predicated on that wish. On the just-finished second season of UPN's America's Next Top Model, we watched gawky Walgreen's clerk Shandi transform herself - with the extensive help of a team of makeup artists, designers and the shrieking harridan Janice Dickinson - into a willowy waif who could actually walk in heels. (Shandi ultimately came in third.)

Even more blatant in its approach is The Swan, which premieres Wednesday on Fox. It's being billed as the show on which a "fairy tale turns into reality" (an interesting echo of The Prince & Me's tagline, "The fairy tale is real"). The goal of The Swan is to make ordinary women extraordinary; those who survive the resurfacing project will compete in a pageant for the chance to become (no, seriously) "The Ultimate Swan." Presumably, being an ultimate swan also means becoming a more worthwhile person in every respect, deserving of infinite romance and riches.

In movies, there is probably no better example than 1990's Pretty Woman, which catapulted Julia Roberts to stardom and instilled in little girls everywhere the precious dream of becoming . . . streetwalkers. With the help of a rich businessman (Richard Gere) mysteriously not repulsed by her line of work, Roberts' character gets better clothes, better jewelry and a better life. Just get out on the street in a micro-mini, girls! You never know when your Prince Charming might drive up and buy you a new life.

The Cinderella ideal appeared more literally in 1998's Ever After, in which Drew Barrymore played Danielle (code name: Cinderella), a beleaguered girl whose life is dramatically improved when her beauty and charm are recognized by a prince.

The fantasy that is exploited by all these movies and shows is one with which all women have probably dallied at least once: That if only given the opportunity to prove how gorgeous/brilliant/talented you are - or have the potential to be - everything else would fall into place. A lifetime of hard work, without a fairy godmother, just isn't as appealing.

In an age of widespread obesity, when Americans are in desperate search of anything to make them less fat - except, of course, boring old diet and exercise - there is a lot to be said for instant transformation. The prince aspect is not always spelled out - sometimes, as in The Swan, it's more of an obvious assumption: Become "x," you will sooner or later get "y."

This is a twisted sense of progress, in which a woman can ostensibly seek change for herself, but really be focused on the effect her transformation will have on others. The comic title character in Helen Fielding's 1998 novel (and subsequent movie), Bridget Jones's Diary, exemplifies this when she vows to "develop inner poise and authority and sense of self as woman of substance, complete without boyfriend, as best way to obtain boyfriend."

Simple escapism

Capitalizing on a widespread female fantasy is not inherently evil. After all, one of the main reasons many people turn to TV or movies is for simple escapism.

Dreaming of becoming a princess, whether literally or merely possessing the requisite clothes, money and princely accessory, is not going to single-handedly undermine feminism and create a nation of starry-eyed, delusional girls.

But the rash of films and TV shows imbued with this theme does indicate a growing and perhaps dangerous trend. Image is more important than ever before, and becoming so for girls at an ever-younger age, thanks to the old guard - Britney and Christina - and the new, Hilary Duff (who will star, incidentally, in A Cinderella Story) and Lindsay Lohan.

The Cinderella-themed genre sends a message that may not be lost on the new generation: Why bother trying to break the glass ceiling when you can just hold out for glass slippers?

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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