Issue #52: Girl, Boss 👠
Zola + Cinderella
The GirlBoss™ was one of the many casualties of the last couple years, if not just 18 months. Hastened by the implosion of many prolific female-led companies, the death of the girlboss is one of the few bright spots to come out of 2020. As it turns out, achieving feminist equity isn’t as simple as putting power in women’s hands. We’ll simply replicate the same harmful systems that men have always preferred.
Surprise! Women are people. Who knew?
This week we’re looking at two movies with different approaches to the GirlBoss™ ethos. First up, Zosha on Zola and the transformational power of a shifting medium. Then, Cate on Amazon’s Cinderella, and how the girlboss has infected fairytales.
Zosha on Zola
We talk a lot — obliquely, discreetly, intentionally — about why something needs to be a movie. What does it do that earns the artform, that deserves our attention and massive screens? Zola is a film that plays with these, flitting between the story we know, the story we don’t, and the truth like a fly knocking against a window.
If you’re at all familiar with the 155-tweet thread that kicks it off — about a dancer who decides to go to Florida for the weekend with a dancer she just met — the foundation of Zola won’t be a surprise to you (or, at least, it won’t be totally unfamiliar). But Zola cannily sees the forest through the trees; where the Twitter thread zinged along, Zola coils, pooling the upset and trauma that one should reasonably read into the story. It is the terror accordioned in between the replies.
Janicza Bravo, who directed and co-wrote the script, and co-writer Jeremy O’Harris achieve this feat by leaving so much between the lines. We may see how the thread becomes informed — hell, we often hear it, in the form of the Twitter sound effects that haven’t been part of culture in what feels like eons — but just as much is left unsaid, or only glancingly mentioned. As Taylour Paige’s Zola studies the situation she’s found herself in, she is just as much penetrating as she is a wall; all she can do is guard herself where she can, but we understand her inner dialogue is not for us, or even her Twitter feed. Paige finds such delicious relish in the way she reads the texts of Zola, read aloud as if they are monologues. As anyone who’s typed “lol” knows, texting is far from an accurate representation of the sender’s actual mood. But in Zola and Paige’s hands, texts become multidimensional, read on their face as something other than how she reads them to us.
It’s just another way Zola toys with the narrative — who controls it, how it’s framed, and what gets left out. Bravo laces in passing, uncommented upon vignettes that capture a fuller picture of Zola’s situation: a Confederate flag flown proudly above Tampa as they pull in; police misconduct driven past on during the perhaps the darkest part of the 48-hour odyssey, clearly captured by the camera craning around from Zola’s seat in the car. While the thread gained instant notoriety because of its deft storytelling and raucous rides, Zola reminds us that a much wider lens shows more than just the inherent tragedy and danger of the situation, but also the humanity.
When I saw Zola for the first time, the bait and switch felt almost anticlimactic (coupled with, I suspect, a fresh reading of the thread, and a few minor tweaks to the story that still don’t quite strengthen the tale in my mind). The second time (the world is reopening, and so is my ability to see a movie more than once in theaters with different groups of friends), I was struck by how profound every scene seemed to be, how cannily it hypnotized me, layered itself, planted and paid off. It’s fair to say that truth is often stranger than fiction. But Zola supposes that fiction can find greater truth yet.
Cate on Cinderella
I’m perfectly happy to admit that I went into Amazon’s Cinderella ready to hate the entire thing. I’m not a huge fan of titular star Camila Cabello (despite the occasional bop) and I’m even less a fan of James Corden, who serves as producer. But before hitting play, I decided that not even they would diminish my love of a good jukebox musical. So, I got out a bottle of red wine and hit play — and I have to say, I could not recommend the experience more.
Cinderella is far from the worst musical film I’ve ever seen. Ironically though, Corden had a hand in that one too. With such well-worn ground, it was hard for this adaptation to do anything novel that would justify its existence. But the film does try. In this version of the story, the basics remain: orphan, evil step-family, prince in need of a wife. However, instead of wishing for said prince to come and save her, Ella dreams of opening a business selling her original designs. This Cinderella is a girlboss. And she doesn’t need a man — even if she does still fall in love with one at first sight.
The thing is, despite how utterly silly the entire enterprise was, I had a grand old time watching, because it just wasn’t serious enough to merit any involved critique. Once I let the movie (and the wine) wash over me, I found myself not only shimmying along to such classics as “Material Girl,” “Let’s Get Loud” and “You Gotta Be,” but sincerely enjoying myself.
Aside from Cabello, the cast is rounded out with some serious vocal heavy-hitters like Pose’s Billy Porter as Ella’s Fabulous Godparent and Broadway legend Idina Menzel — Queen Elsa herself — as the requisite Evil Stepmother. While I wished the trope had been in any way examined given the heavy-handed faux-feminist slant of the movie, I guess that’s too much to ask of a film that opens with a cover of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation. Minnie Driver and Pierce Brosnan also turn up for a bit. The less said about Ella’s prince the better, though he didn’t have the worst singing voice, so props to him.
Among the other changes the story makes is the inclusion of the crown prince’s younger sister Princess Gwen, who is desperate for the crown her brother doesn’t want so that she can finally implement her socialist agenda in the kingdom (huzzah!). But despite eventually getting her wish, the movie never actually tells us anything about her other than that she has a knack for politics and a penchant for eavesdropping. It’s hard to root for an allegedly progressive monarch without ever really getting to know her.
One aspect of the story that I did like is that it dispensed with the pretense that the prince woudln’t recognize Ella when she showed up at the ball. This is explained away with magic so that while he knows who she is, she’s still an enigma to everyone else at the ball. It closes the loop on one aspect of the story, but it as Linda Holmes notes in her review for NPR, it opens many, many others. The fundamental structure of the Cinderella tale exists because it is at its core a tale about class mobility:
It's hard to write a Cinderella story at all if you don't build in the idea of a person who might reject someone they fall in love with based on status. [...] Because Cinderella isn't about mice or dances or fireplaces; it's about an elemental fear: This person would never love me if they knew who I was.
Amazon’s Cinderella dispenses with this fear and instead makes the central conflict one between love and career — how to have it all. And while that might still be interesting story ground, it isn’t really what the Cinderella tale is about.
Despite all that, and a truly cursed few seconds of screen time in which a mouse has James Corden’s head, Cinderella is absolutely the kind of largely harmless nonsense that will get you through a slow afternoon of laundry or a few too many glasses of wine. It’s a true all-ages crowd-pleaser. It may not be very good, but you will likely enjoy it despite yourself.
Assorted Internet Detritus
ZOSHA: A celebrity profile that actually digs into body changes and how they feel about that. What to do with Linda Tripp in Impeachment. Give teen girls more respect! Against the commodification of community. Reshaping the internet for digital privacy. True crime doesn’t help your brain. Rihanna.
CATE: Saeed Jones writes about the folly of Dave Chappelle, the hidden organizing potential of Slack, the Supreme Court needs a reality check, more on Dave Chappelle, Adele is back, and my conversation with Phoebe Robinson. Also, I can’t get this song out of my head.
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