Alright, it’s time to talk about Ella, the title character of Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted.
Ella is, well, special. She’s been given a gift by a fairy–and not a very good one. The gift is obedience, and so Ella must follow any order given her. She’s protected by her mother, but this is a Cinderella-tale, which means that Ella’s mother dies, leaving her to the care of her father. And then of course Ella ends up at school, plagued by sibling duo Hattie and Olive. . Eventually, of course, Ella’s father marries Hattie’s and Olive’s mother, and the two become her stepsisters. (Remember, this is a Cinderella tale.) Hattie, who has discovered Ella’s gift while at school, tells her mother about it, and Ella is pretty quickly reduced to a household servant.
Meanwhile, Ella meets Prince Charmont at her mother’s funeral, and the two exchange letters for a while. They of course fall in love, but Ella realizes that her “gift” could be used to hurt Char, and she tricks him into believing she doesn’t love him. But when he returns and holds a homecoming ball, Ella can’t resist seeing him, and so she goes in disguise to the ball. Char is of course smitten by Ella-in-disguise, and before she can get away on the last night of the ball, her disguise is revealed. Char orders her to marry him—and everyone around appears to be ordering the marriage, too.
And only then is Ella able to overcome her “gift,” able to tell Char”no.” But of course, as soon as she can do so, she says yes, because she’s overcome the spell.
There are so many things in here that I just don’t know where to begin. Obedience has been a highly conversed-about quality of children—and is often considered to be one of the best qualities of a child. We expect children to do what they’re told in a way that we don’t expect adults to. We can, and do, interrupt children when they’re playing, reading, or doing-whatever-it-is-they’re-doing. Part of this is that we do not place as much value on what children are doing as on what we are doing. They can’t possibly be doing important stuff right? For instance, Little Jedi is just building with Legos, so it’s totally ok for me to ask him to bring me some juice from the fridge, as I’m writing, and that’s Productive. He’s also a child and needs to learn to do what he’s asked in order to prepare himself for the future, when teachers and then bosses will order him to do things.
But I’m fairly sure that we ask our kids to do more, and to do more things we could do for ourselves, than most teachers or bosses are going to ask them. We also expect obedience immediately. We don’t expect to wait 10 minutes while they finish what they’re doing—but we would finish what we were doing in most cases before we moved to do something we were asked to. Now I’m not suggesting we never ask our kids to do things; I do ask Little Jedi to do things, including go get that juice I mentioned. But what I’m saying is that we need to be conscious of what we’re asking them to do and of how we expect them to obey. We need to remember that they’re not going to be children forever–they’re going to be adults, and we don’t want them to be too obedient or to rely so much on getting others’ to do what they want (which they learn when we don’t do things for ourselves, not just when they aren’t made to do things by themselves).
Ella shows us what it’s like to be totally obedient. You say “oh Ella, stop it” when she’s joking, and she does stop. You say “Ella, get me a beer,” and Ella gets you a beer. The 2004 film version (which retains the spirit of the story but is quite different) does a pretty good job of letting us see Ella grow up, watch how frustrated she gets as she’s ordered to practice her music lessons, to “march faster” to what she’s doing, etc. Ella has little choice. And then we see Ella with Char, and she’s more often in his company than in the book, and Char tells Ella “kiss me.” And a whole other dimension. of the sort we get when Char orders Ella to marry him in the book-version, opens up: the idea of Ella having to be sexually obedient, too.
Because Ella’s powerlessness doesn’t just stop at what her parents or friends order her to do. She cannot say “no”—not to a direct order from anyone about anything. She seems to be largely untouched by the possible sexual aspect of her obedience, though. She’s not often around males, especially alone, and it is her denial of sexual appetite through forgoing a marriage with Char that allows her to break the spell.
And she is in direct contrast to her stepsisters, both of whom are configured as monstrous, large, and with enormous appetites—and unfeminine. It is Ella, the obedient one, who is most feminine and whose femininity and purity must be protected. Ella is thin, and she is beautiful. She is graceful. And like the ugly stepsisters in most Cinderella stories, Hattie and Olive stand in opposition to Ella. Hattie is bald. Olive is enormous and cannot stop eating. And they are both punished by Ella in the end of the tale, essentially for never having been made to be obedient enough not to become monsters. Ella dis-enchanted is a model of goodness and purity, as she’s been taught to be—and she’s not willing to excuse those who haven’t been forced to be. The book thus reinforces traditional notions of beauty versus ugliness, feminine consent, and the things we insist our children do.