Saving Cinderella: A Conversation With Faith Moore

Saving Cinderella: A Conversation With Faith Moore March 13, 2019

Faith Moore

If you’re like me, you’re a sucker for old Disney movies, by which I mean actually old Disney movies (read: not 90s Disney movies). And if you’re a sucker for old Disney movies, you’re probably wondering what happened to the Disney princess movie. It turns out that I am not alone in asking this question. Faith Moore, daughter of crime author and conservative pundit Andrew Klavan, has written a new book that attempts to answer it in style. It’s called Saving Cinderella: What Feminists Get Wrong About Disney Princesses and How to Set it Right. Each chapter is devoted to a different Disney princess movie, working chronologically from Snow White through Frozen. It is guaranteed to rekindle all your nostalgic feels, while also making you giggle-snort as Moore irreverently decimates feminist princess movies and their critical champions. (It even offers balanced praise for newer entries in the catalogue like Tangled and The Princess and the Frog, neatly avoiding any accusations of blind “old Disney” bias.)

After picking up and thoroughly enjoying a copy of my own (only $3.99 on Kindle, currently) I thought about writing a review. But Faith and I seemed to be such kindred spirits that I decided an interview would be more fun. It turns out I was right, and this was the best decision ever. We actually have some differences of opinion (read on!) but I think this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. So without further ado, I give you… a conversation with Faith Moore!

I laughed out loud multiple times throughout this book. You have a savage sense of humor, much like your dad. Is that all him or is that your mom coming through too? (In fact your whole family are monster writers—your aunt [Caitlin Flanagan] is like the reincarnation of Florence King or something. Is this just in the genes or what?)

Gosh, well thank you! It’s an honor to be compared to anyone in my family. They’re all — perhaps my mother most of all — a source of light and inspiration in my life.

Related, any other top writing influences?

It’s funny, I never meant to write non-fiction. I always wanted to be a novelist, but I’ve been so grateful for the amazing opportunities I’ve had to write opinion pieces, personal essays, and — of course — my book. But it means that the writers whose writing I love the most are novelists, people like Charlotte Brontë, Wilkie Collins, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens. If I had to name one nonfiction writer whose writing I most admire I’d legitimately have to go with my aunt, Caitlin Flanagan.

You have a degree in English literature. I imagine you encountered some nonsense in the course of obtaining that, as critical theory has infested Disney and Shakespeare alike. If a person wants to learn to love literature well, do you think it’s still worth it to get a degree, or is he better off just reading a lot on his own?

Good question! If your goal is to fall in love with literature, then I definitely think the best thing to do is read literature. But I also think it’s important to figure out which books you want to read, and then I think it’s really helpful to have a group of people to talk with about what you’ve read. If you can find a college that isn’t completely taken over by leftists, then I think college is a really great place to do that. It’s pretty much already set up so you can do what I described. But if  all the schools that you get into or can afford or whatever are just going to assign you The Vagina Monologues over and over and over again, and every discussion is about how to take literature back from white male chauvinists or something, then I don’t see the point in spending your money on that. But I do still recommend finding a way to discuss what you’re reading with others. Actually . . . I’ve got something in the works that may help with that. Stay tuned!

I loved your exploration of “fairy-tale shorthand,” especially all the symbolism intended to manifest a princess’s “princessly” nature. I couldn’t help thinking of Shakespearian heroines like Perdita, Desdemona, and others, whose inner purity is meant to be evidenced by their outward “fairness.” Of course these things are not literally connected, but that’s not the point. Similarly it’s not the place of a fairy-tale to point out that ACKSHULLY some handsome, charming men are psychopaths (cough, Frozen, cough). This is all shorthand, as you say. What happened to this lost language? How did we lose it?

Well, one problem, I think, is what you were alluding to earlier: most people aren’t getting a good education in literature anymore. Good literature is full of symbolism and metaphor. If literature professors spent less time worrying about “female agency” and “power dynamics” and more time teaching about how language and symbols work I think people would be a lot better equipped to understand fairy tales. But I also think there’s a strain right now — particularly on the Left — of literalism in general. The further we move away from God — and become less able to accept that there is something bigger and deeper than what we see with our own eyes — the harder it will be to see past the literal.

You seem to have finished writing this before Moana. Have you seen it, and if so, how does it rate on the Moore-o-meter?

I have seen it! I actually watched it when I was writing the book but ultimately decided to only include princesses who had been dubbed “official” by Disney (and then I broke that rule with Elsa and Anna because Frozen is such a phenomenon that I felt I had to talk about it). You can read my full take on Moana here, but I basically found it less offensive than some of the other modern princess movies because it wasn’t trying to beat you over the head with the fact that she doesn’t have a love interest. She just doesn’t have one. Moana is basically the hero’s journey and, as such, isn’t a typical princess narrative. Can the hero’s journey be undertaken by a woman? Sure. Do I wish she found love along the way. You betcha.

You’re a fan of The Little Mermaid, but one respect in which it disappoints me is the trope Steven Greydanus has dubbed “Junior Knows Best.” On the one hand one could say “Well, some fathers *are* misguided and some juniors *do* know best,” but Greydanus convincingly traces a consistent and troubling pattern across multiple animated flicks where clueless parents are holding back their ultimately vindicated offspring. I’d be interested in your take on his piece here.

Okay, here’s the problem with that argument: Ariel (and most of the protagonists in the other movies Greydanus mentions) aren’t children, they’re young adults. The point of this dynamic — and the reason it doesn’t bother me at all — is that the child has reached an age in which it’s time for him to make his own decisions, and the parent isn’t ready. That’s not to say that this is how it always is with kids and parents, or that 16 (or whatever age) really is the right age to become completely independent (remember we’re talking about fairy tales here and fairy tales deal with symbolism and metaphor), it’s just a way of depicting something that really happens. I think, too often, we watch these stories from the perspective of the parent rather than the perspective of the young adult. Many young adults find that they are very different from their parents and that following their dreams means breaking away in some really radical way. When they’re children, their job is to be a part of the family they were born into and follow its rules. But, when they grow up, they may need to break away from that family — and possibly break its rules — in order to become who they truly are. This type of narrative gives them that permission.

You rate Sleeping Beauty one of the weaker entries in the classic princess catalogue, and I think I agree, although I was entertained by it as a child. I was a bit surprised that you didn’t include any nods to the original fairy-tale in your analysis, which seems to me more effective by being more understated. Would you agree?

There are quite a few versions of Sleeping Beauty and many of them are so symbolic as to be sort of off-putting (there’s one where the prince/king rapes Sleeping Beauty while she’s asleep). In writing the book, I wanted to treat the Disney princess films as entities unto themselves because I think they often are. The earlier ones, it’s true, stayed closer to their origins than the later ones did, but they’re still able to stand alone. The films use the same fairy tale shorthand as the original stories, but they use them to create slightly — and sometimes not so slightly — different narratives. For me, Disney’s Sleeping Beauty had more to do with what was going on at Disney studios at the time than it did with the original fairy tale.

There’s no easy way to say this, so I’ll just say it: I’m still not convinced that Beauty and the Beast was NOT the Beginning of the End of Disney princess movies, despite your passionate defense thereof. Considered in the broader context of the 90s culture wars, the film seems to be a rather unsubtle dig at conservatives who took issue with the feminist agenda. Gaston feels like a caricatured stand-in for all non-feminist men (even though bona fide creepy patriarchalism has always been a small fraction of the anti-feminist resistance). (Additionally, the mob’s chanting “Praise the Lord and here we go” plus “We don’t like what we don’t understand” could be shorthand for a number of issues where battle lines were being drawn.) But you don’t seem to think it had all the seeds of what was to come. Why not?

There’s no doubt that “feminism” had begun to creep into Disney princess films by the time Beauty and the Beast came out in 1991. Filmmakers were certainly thinking about it with the creation of Ariel for The Little Mermaid in 1989, and Linda Woolverton, who wrote the script for Beauty and the Beast, overtly called Belle a “feminist.” But I think — perhaps despite the filmmakers intentions — that Beauty and the Beast offers a really clear and positive picture of true masculinity. The prince is turned into a beast because he has let his base masculine urges run unchecked. He becomes on the outside what he is on the inside: angry, aggressive, quick-tempered, and easily provoked. But, through loving Belle, he channels those urges into protection, love, and loyalty. He doesn’t become a woman — he fights, he kills, he roars, and he takes action even once his inner self is transformed — he simply becomes a gentleman. Gaston, then, is an example of what happens when a man allows his baser urges to run amok and doesn’t care in the slightest about reining them in. And Belle is repulsed by Gaston and drawn to the Beast. I think that’s a really positive notion that feminism (in its current form) wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot-pole.

In your chapter on Mulan you touch somewhat on the problem of women in the military more generally. This is a concern I share, yet some Christian friends of mine don’t seem to see the problem with the idea of women in combat. But I echo C. S. Lewis in saying that battles are ugly when women fight. Is this your general feeling as well?

To be honest, this isn’t really my issue. In Mulan, my complaint is that Mulan couldn’t possibly compete with the trained warriors she ends up besting. The movie promotes the idea that, in order to successful, a woman must act like a man. I think that’s limiting and demeaning towards women. In terms of women in the military generally, I think that it can be problematic, but ought to be allowed. If a woman is able to perform every task that a man in her same position would have to perform, then I don’t see why she can’t join the military. (I don’t know why she’d want to, but that isn’t for me to say.) The issue is that — with some exceptions — most women can’t compete with men when it comes to the kinds of physical tasks people in the military need to be able to perform. I don’t think they ought to be given a free pass simply for being a woman. That’s not fair. But I imagine that women who join the military and risk their lives in service of this country are just as brave as the men who do the same.

Time for an obligatory Jordan Peterson reference. You told me a lot of people have compared you to him, so apparently I’m not the first. But for real: Both of you are obsessed with Disney, both of you hate Frozen, both of you ramble about archetypes and narrative and fairy-tale shorthand… honestly if you weren’t young and female and wearing a tiara I couldn’t tell you two apart. More seriously, I think you both grasp the nettle of what feminine virtue, strength, and fulfillment actually mean, as opposed to what we’re all told these things mean now. One woman said she wanted to thank Peterson for allowing her to feel that “it’s okay to want what a woman wants,” meaning a husband, children, etc. Are you on a mission to convey that message too? Is marriage and motherhood the bravest and most adventurous journey a woman can take?

Well, I’m certainly honored to be compared to Dr. Peterson, thank you! My issue is this: I agree with the initial premise of feminism — that all paths open to be men should be open to women, if physically possible. But I don’t think that most women actually want to follow traditionally male paths. The current narrative is that being a homemaker or a stay-at-home mom is something women only do because they are brainwashed by the patriarchy. But how demeaning is that?! If a woman truly wants to have a career, or stay unmarried, or never have kids I’m not going to stop her. (I do think she’d be happier if she got married and had some kids, but it’s her life and what she does with it isn’t any of my business.) But if a woman wants to stay home with her children, or aspires to marriage rather than a career, then I want her to understand that those dreams are equally — if not more — valid. Being a homemaker or a stay-at-home mom certainly is one of the bravest, most selfless, most demanding things you can do. We ought to be celebrating that, not seeking to eliminate it.

Tell us a little bit about how you met your own Prince Charming!

My husband and I met on the first day of college. We were in a class together and, during the obligatory introductions, I’d said that I wanted to be a writer. After class he came up to me and asked if I’d like to write for his comedy radio show. I said I would. We were friends for a long time before we started dating. We fell in love over games of foosball and catch. We’ll be married 10 years this August.

This book will show readers your witty side as a writer, but I was deeply moved by a very serious piece you wrote for The Federalist about your miscarriage. You’re a relatively new Christian. How did that experience deepen your faith instead of shattering it?

I go into more detail about this in the piece (which you can read here if you’re interested), but the baby that I miscarried had a genetic abnormality that couldn’t sustain life. When I was praying “Please don’t let me lose this baby” I was praying the wrong prayer. My baby was growing in a body that couldn’t hold it, and God knew that when I didn’t. When I learned why the miscarriage had happened, I realized that, at any given moment, I only had a tiny piece of a picture which God could see completely. From that moment onward, I put my trust in him.

If Disney hired you to save the Disney princess movie tomorrow, how would you do it? Would you write a new story or pick an old one?

Definitely an old one. That’s not to say that we can’t make new princess stories — we can — only that we’d have to start by going back to the originals and building things back up from there. The trick would be to make sure the story was infused with fairy tale shorthand, and followed a young woman on her quest to grow up, but also had modern-seeming characters, dialogue, songs, etc. It would have to be a fairy tale they haven’t touched at all yet. I think I’d go with Rumpelstiltskin.

I’m imagining you’re probably a fairy-tale collection connoisseur, so is there any particular collection you’d recommend for parents of littles to read aloud?    

To be honest, most original fairy tales are pretty inaccessible to kids today. The stories themselves aren’t, but the language is. The best way to get little kids interested in fairy tales is to tell them out loud. I’ve got a four-year-old son and we love to tell fairy tales when we’re walking down the street. I tell them in language I know he’ll understand and he’s hooked. Later, he’ll be able to understand the originals better because he knows how the stories go. There are also some fun kid-accessible versions that retell the stories with characters they already know. For example, we have the Mickey Mouse fairy tale collection. It’s pretty good!

Any more writing projects in your future?

Yes, but they’re a secret. Call me old fashioned (or superstitious or whatever), but I don’t talk about the projects I’m working on until I’m ready to publish them. I know this isn’t the norm — and I love to hear what everyone is doing — but I just think that talking about something is a good excuse for not doing it. In the meantime, I can be found at Evie Magazine (which is a cool new publication everyone should check out) and on my website. Fans of the book can learn about my online class (which is based on the book) here. Oh, and one thing I can tell you is that I’ve written a modern fairy tale called “The Girl With The Broken Heart” (illustrated by the lovely and talented Laurel Sprenger) and I plan to write a few more!

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