In The School For Good And Evil, The Most Dangerous Thing You Can Do Is Play The Part

Photo: Courtesy of Helen Sloan/Netflix.
Spoilers ahead. On the surface, Netflix’s The School for Good and Evil looks like another girlboss-ified, live-action aladfairytale update. And in some ways, it is. The Paul Feig-directed adaptation of Soman Chainani’s novel stars not one, but two strong young women who must survive in a fairytale world, but unlike other recent contributions to the genre, this film isn’t satisfied with giving the female protagonists a feminist makeover and calling it a reinvention. Instead, The School for Good and Evil goes one step further, not just updating the genre to reflect a modern audience, but also calling out the entire canon of beloved fairy tales as reductive and harmful. 
The School for Good and Evil begins like many other modern fairy tale retellings: with protagonists stuck in roles they don’t belong in. Sophie (Sophia Anne Caruso) and Agatha (Sofia Wylie) are best friends and outcasts. Sophie, with her blonde hair and evil stepmother, dreams of escaping her provincial life to become someone who is destined for more. If this were a Disney version of a fairy tale, then Sophie would undoubtedly end the film ruling over a magical kingdom and living out her happily ever after with her own prince charming. She communicates with woodland creatures like Snow White, loves design and fashion like Cinderella, defeats ignorant villagers with a frying pan like Rapunzel, and is a regular at the local bookstore like Belle. Her first words in the film are, “Someone save me.” Agatha, on the other hand, with her unkempt hair, baggy clothes (pants, naturally), and DGAF attitude is more of a traditional baddie — just without the resentment and desire to harm. She’s not mean in any way, but she does have a cat named Reaper and lives in a cemetery with her mother who sells love potions. If Sophie is the princess, then Agatha must be the witch. 
The first break from the expected fairy tale narrative occurs when Sophie and Agatha learn that fairy tales are real and the characters who populate the stories were all educated at the School for Good and Evil (SGE). After an unexpected series of events, they find themselves at SGE, except the fair-haired Sophie is destined to be a Never (a student at the School for Evil), while Agatha is to be an Ever (School for Good). 
Things at SGE are pretty much in line with how fairy tales of the modern era have been marketed: it’s all about appearance over substance, and students are expected to look the part they’ve been assigned. The female students at the School for Good are perfectly coiffed and dressed in pastel-coloured gowns. At the School for Evil, students are all dark-haired and dressed in black. Sophie even points to her blonde hair as proof that she has been placed in the wrong school. At the School for Evil, Sophie attends Ugly class — because villains don’t care about looks — while Agatha is taught how to smile in Beauty class — presumably because all princesses must catch the attention of a prince. It’s Disney Princess 101: villains are undesirable and princesses must be beautiful (see: Sleeping Beauty, Tangled, and Aladdin). 
The students at SGE must learn to play their parts perfectly so that they may one day star in their own stories, creating fairy tales that will not only teach the world about good and evil but maintain the balance between the two sides. But it becomes evident very quickly that the school has a sinister underbelly. The only way to leave SGE, Agatha learns, is death — and even then nothing is promised. Students who fail three courses are transformed into magical creatures against their will and forced to serve the school. And what’s worse, the Evers and the teachers at the School for Good don’t question it. 
It’s a harsh but stark reminder of the ruthless nature of classic fairy tales, which tend to end in pretty brutal deaths for the villains (remember when Maleficent was stabbed through the heart and fell off a cliff in Sleeping Beauty?). The violent aspect of these stories is often glossed over in your typical princess movie, but is emphasised in The School for Good and Evil by a series of tragic injustices — RIP Gregor (Ally Cubb) — and culminating in the movie’s big twist, which reveals that the evil sorcerer Rafal (Kit Young) has been pulling the strings all along, writing stories that slowly turn protagonists into villains. He made Hansel and Gretel murderers by letting them escape by burning the witch to death, and he orchestrated the death of the Evil Queen in the original Snow White, who was forced to put on iron-hot shoes and dance until she died. The fairy tales that have been packaged and sold as stories about good triumphing over evil, were actually deadly tales of corruption and the lack of compassion. 
Part of how Rafal has been able to corrupt the system is by making Good all about the superficial. As pointed out by Professor Anemone (Michelle Yeoh), who used to teach Magical History before being demoted to Beautification, the school has become “insufferably shallow,” which feels like a not-so-subtle jab at Disney animated films that taught a generation of viewers that true love is based on beauty (The Little Mermaid, Snow White, Cinderella). Rafal’s tales have also made Good pompous and proud, filled with certainty that they can only do good because they have been told that they are good. 

Those of us who grew up collecting Disney VHS tapes are now old enough to realize that the world isn’t black and white — nobody is fully good or fully evil.

There is a danger in a world in which every person, every character, is assigned a specific role. Good, evil, witch, princess, stepmother, and prince charming — these are the archetypes that populate fairy tales. But despite what the stories have told us, they are not inherently good or bad. The witch is not always there to offer a poison apple, the prince is not always there to save the day, and the damsel is not always in distress. And in The School for Good and Evil, the most dangerous thing one can do is play the part. As Dean of the School for Evil, Lady Lesso (Charlize Theron), and the Dean for the School of Good, Professor Dovey (Kerry Washington), say, “It’s not who we are, it’s what we do.”
In the end, The School for Good and Evil speaks to a modern audience’s desire for complexity, even in beloved fairy tales. This is reflected in the growing popularity of villain origin stories — like Disney’s live action films Maleficent and Cruella, or even in The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Those of us who grew up collecting Disney VHS tapes are now old enough to realise that the world isn’t black and white — nobody is fully good or fully evil. And one shouldn’t judge others based on superficial biases traditionally encouraged by popular fairy tales. This is not to say that all fairy tales are inherently bad, but that they should be interrogated. Because, just as the end of the film promises, stories and the characters that fill them are much more interesting and valuable when you look beyond the surface.
The School For Good And Evil is available on Netflix now.
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