A common story line in many well-known tales, especially those targeted to children, is the rags to riches story. At the beginning, there is a poor (usually a) girl that is kind and has hope despite her horrid circumstances. She then overcomes great odds to end up wealthy and happy at the end of the story (by circumstance, not by work), all the while remembering to be kind. These stories provide the message that hope and kindness are rewarded with wealth.
- In the musical Annie, the poor orphan girl sings “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow” despite having nothing and being under the thumb of the evil and greedy Mrs. Hannigan. But luckily, she ends up softening the heart of Daddy Warbucks (he’s even got money in his name!) and being adopted by him at the end of the musical when she trades her ragged clothes for her signature red dress and white collar.
- In Cinderella, her wise father’s demise leaves her at the mercy of her evil step-mother and two vain step-sisters. Despite being demoted to the scullery maid, Cinderella remembers to be kind and have hope and is rewarded with the fairy Godmother giving her a glimpse at fame and fortune with her evening at the royal ball. Things get worse before they get better and even though she is locked away, the Prince finds her and she ends up as a princess in the palace after all.
A Little Princess
In Alfonso Cuarón’s film adaptation* of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book A Little Princess, these messages are demonstrated visually with wealth represented by exotic colors. Sara is raised in colonial India as the daughter of a white English colonizer.** When she arrives in New York, she is the light. She is the only one wearing white in a sea of green and black. She begins the film with wealth. She is light and colorful. Her room in the boarding school is decorated in beautiful silks and she carries around her orange doll. When news is received that Sara’s father has been killed in battle, she loses that wealth, and the color is stripped from her life by the mean and selfish house mother, Miss Minchin. Sara is moved into the servant’s quarters with Becky, the servant, and Miss Minchin declares “you are not a princess any longer.” Although the tagline for the film states: “Every girl everywhere is a princess,” these royal powers and the colors with which they are associated are linked to wealth and Sara must begin her “rags to riches” journey to gain back her wealth and color through hope and kindness.
This film complicates the message: “kindness leads to wealth,” however, because Sara is only required to be kind to those who are also servants. She is not kind to people that are not inherently kind. Levinia is a snobby white girl at the boarding school that bosses everyone else about. Rather than trying to interact with Levinia and show her kindness as the message of the film would suggest, Sara tries to scare Levinia into changing. She dances around Levinia’s room chanting in what we assume is Hindi pretending to curse Levinia into losing all of her hair.
Color is also only present in Sara’s life when she remembers to be kind to servants or beggars. When Sara gives her own bread to someone that needs it more, she is presented a yellow rose–“for the princess,” the lady says. At the climax of the film, Sara is able to tell Miss Minchin that despite everything being taken away from her, she knows she’s still a princess. That night, she and Becky wake up to see their destitute room decorated with lavish and colorful silks and pillows and what looks like a royal feast waiting for them. In the end, Becky and Sara are reunited with Sara’s father (who was NOT dead***), and the colorful flowers are shown blooming all over New York. Wealth and color returned to Sara’s world because she was kind to those that were poorer than she was.
While it is a great message to teach children that all things will turn out in their favor if they are simply kind and have hope, the world is a bit more complicated than that. In the above examples, we have to add “if you are white and extremely lucky.” Hope and kindness are important. But they do not lead to wealth. Circumstance is definitely a factor in wealth, but so is work. And that is not as often demonstrated in the traditional stories. We can agree that money can color an otherwise dark world (with silks and pillows!), but money does not solve everything. Interestingly, Cuarón’s film reunites Sara with her father and her previous wealth and color. In the book, however, her father remains dead. Money can’t solve everything. It’s not actually capable of giving us our lost loved ones again. The reward for hope and kindness is happiness in all of these stories. But it would be better if that happiness wasn’t depicted with money. It’s perfectly possible to be happy without ending up rich.
*This is a beautiful, well-crafted film and I highly recommend it if you haven’t seen it.
**Despite it being a beautiful and amazing film, it definitely raises difficult questions when examined through the lens of post-colonialism and Sara’s interaction with “the Other.” However, that is an essay for another time and another place. 🙂
***“Muppet Christmas Carol” reference.