Film criticism is a very dude-heavy industry. According to a 2016 study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, men account for 73% of the top critics on Rotten Tomatoes, resulting in men often shaping the narrative of what makes a "good" film or a "bad" film—what's worth seeing and what's not. And even the most well-meaning, wokest of men wouldn't necessarily catch the microaggressions or tropes that tend to define whole genres.
Do you like romantic comedies and Renaissance Faires? Are you into fairytales and fashion? Do you remember that hot minute when Dougray Scott was a thing? If you answered “yes” to one or more of these questions, then you probably remember the “realistic” retelling of the Cinderella myth, Ever After: A Cinderella Story, which has finally turned 20 years old.
Has it really been 20 years since Drew Barrymore mangled whatever accent that’s supposed to be and swept into our hearts as Danielle de Barbarac, the plucky peasant, and blatant Belle knock-off? Has it been 20 years since Anjelica Huston gave her iconic performance as Baroness Rodmilla de Ghent, the wickedest named wicked stepmother in history? Yes, it has been 20 whole years. Time passes, inexorable and cruel, but our love for kinda cheesy '90s rom-coms remains steadfast and true. To honor Ever After’s birthday, let’s look back and see how its grrl-power credentials stand up.
First, as a movie Ever After remains a delight. Its period setting saves it from looking dated, the costumes are DIVINE, and Anjelica Huston is a powerhouse. It is one of the more obvious instances of Drew Barrymore just Drew Barrymore-ing her way through a script, and her accent is a nightmare, but she’s so darn spunky and cute, it’s hard to resist her. (FANGRRLS HBIC Cher Martinetti has a theory that Barrymore is always just herself in roles, and she is…not wrong. But Barrymore is so likable on screen you go along with it anyway.) And Dougray Scott is a total dish. As pure entertainment, Ever After is as enjoyable today as it was 20 years ago.
And as a feminist reworking of a fairytale, it holds up surprisingly well. It’s not perfect, but there are so-called feminist movies coming out now that are not as progressive and positive as Ever After (ahem, Red Sparrow). Its central conceit of reimagining Cinderella as a real person and not just a girl who gets the guy by virtue of foot size allows the film to retell the fable as, essentially, a wrong-side-of-the-tracks love story. Danielle is referred to as a “peasant,” even though she is, technically, the heiress of a manor and estate, but her commoner status does prevent her from being presented at court like her step-sisters. This is an era when there were strict laws reinforcing class barriers, which the film actually does reference—Danielle risks public punishment if she is caught dressing “above her station.” (Sumptuary laws, in colonial New England, lower-status people could not wear lace, among other fineries.) She works the farm attached to her ancestral seat, is often shown to be dirty from labor, and she frequently sleeps near the hearth, thus “Cinderella.” So Danielle is the spunky girl from the wrong side of the tracks and Prince Henry is the preppy popular boy. Ever After is basically Renaissance Pretty In Pink.
But Ever After is not interested in critiquing classism—beyond the very obvious moral that slavery is bad—though its feminism is intersectional with class. Rodmilla is scheming and cruel, but she is also the product of a society that gives her no opportunities but to marry, and that does not value her as an intelligent person. She is clever and intuitive but has no outlet for her cleverness except conspiring to marry her daughter to the prince. Further, marriage is the only option to advance socially for women. Leonardo da Vinci takes the place of the fairy godmother, and he is shown to have risen to the highest levels of society by virtue of his genius—born a bastard, now the honored guest of the King of France. There is no such similar path for Rodmilla, however. It makes sense, then, that she would focus her attention on Marguerite, the conventionally beautiful of her two daughters. Marguerite represents the only chance the family has of advancing in society, which is the prescribed goal of aristocratic feminine life in the 16th century. In this way, Ever After is similar to Sense and Sensibility.
Where it falls down a little is in the competition between the women. Screenwriters Susannah Grant, Andy Tennant (who also directed), and Rick Parks must have been aware of the problematic trope of portraying women as catty schemers who can’t get along because they do attempt to ameliorate the worst of the conflict. Only Marguerite is a wicked step-sister; Jacqueline, the other step-sister, is kinder though she still frequently ends up at cross-purposes with Danielle. But the systemic conditions that force women into competition is another thing Ever After doesn’t want to look at too closely, even though there are multiple opportunities to explore forcing women into competition as a means of control.
I can hear you now. "It’s just a movie! It’s supposed to be fun!" It IS a movie, and it IS fun. But Ever After is a clear attempt to make an inherently sexist fairytale palatable to modern tastes. For the most part, that works, as Danielle frequently saves herself and attracts the prince through scholarship. But Ever After also turns away from pushing deeper into the issues it’s raising, so in a lot of ways, its female-empowerment attitude is only skin deep. Still, skin deep feminism is more than most movies and certainly more than most fairytales. They might be stifled by feudal patriarchy, but the women of Ever After do have brains and ability and whatever agency a marriage-centric society allows. It probably doesn’t say anything good about our progress over the last two decades, but Ever After is 20 years old and still feels relevant.