I’ve been pretty stressed out recently, so whenever I get a chance, I like to just conk out in front of the TV and relax a little. However, on one of these mindless couch potato outings, my cat decided to curl up on my lap and go to sleep at about the same time the movie on TV ended. This is generally a more than welcome occurrence, but the next movie that came on was… the movie version of Ella Enchanted. I looked around. The remote was out of reach.
Since I obviously couldn’t push my cat off my lap, I ended up, to my immense regret, sitting through most of the movie. Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted was one of my favorite books as a kid (and still is today, if we’re being honest). To get the bad taste of the movie out of my mouth, I immediately went to reread my old copy, and I started thinking about why I loved it so much. It’s obviously a revisionist fairy tale, like the many other takes on Cinderella there have been throughout the ages, and what I really admired about this particular take on Cinderella was its worldbuilding. Unlike Maleficient, which didn’t exactly succeed in adding magic to its story, Ella Enchanted added magic to its story in a way that subverted tropes and enhanced its plot and characters.
For those of you who didn’t read this book growing up, Ella Enchanted is a twist on the traditional Cinderella story in which Ella, our protagonist, is cursed by a fairy at her birth. The fairy, Lucinda, thoughtlessly gives Ella the “gift” of obedience—she has to do what anyone tells her to, always. If she tries to resist, she gets dizzy and gets headaches until she eventually has to follow the order. As she grows up, Ella journeys to find Lucinda in hopes that she can remove the curse, and along the way, she meets and falls in love with Prince Charmont. However, though she knows Char loves her, she doesn’t want to marry him while she’s still cursed, because anyone could tell her to do anything to Char and she’d have to do it.
The first and most important piece of magic that the book added to the classic story was the curse. The original Cinderella in the Perrault and Grimm versions was obedient to a fault of her own accord—she gladly suffered abuse at the hands of her stepmother and stepsisters, and all the while she was good, and kind, and beautiful.
Once there was a gentleman who married, for his second wife, the proudest and most haughty woman that was ever seen. She had, by a former husband, two daughters of her own, who were, indeed, exactly like her in all things. He had likewise, by another wife, a young daughter, but of unparalleled goodness and sweetness of temper, which she took from her mother, who was the best creature in the world.
No sooner were the ceremonies of the wedding over but the stepmother began to show herself in her true colors. She could not bear the good qualities of this pretty girl, and the less because they made her own daughters appear the more odious. She employed her in the meanest work of the house. She scoured the dishes, tables, etc., and cleaned madam’s chamber, and those of misses, her daughters. She slept in a sorry garret, on a wretched straw bed, while her sisters slept in fine rooms, with floors all inlaid, on beds of the very newest fashion, and where they had looking glasses so large that they could see themselves at their full length from head to foot.
The poor girl bore it all patiently, and dared not tell her father, who would have scolded her; for his wife governed him entirely. (from the Perrault)
Once upon a time there was a rich man who lived happily for a long time with his wife. Together they had a single daughter. Then the woman became ill, and when she was lying on her deathbed, she called her daughter to her side, and said, “Dear child, I must leave you now, but I will look down on you from heaven. Plant a little tree on my grave, and when you want something, just shake the tree, and you shall get what you want. I will help you in time of need. Just remain pious and good.” Then she closed her eyes and died. (from the 1812 Grimm version)
The moral was that girls who were “good”, who were patient and yielding, would be rewarded and those who abused them would be punished. It’s a difficult lesson for abuse victims and for modern-day girls to take in, because it’s so wrong—why should one need or insist on being patient and kind and caring even in the face of extreme deprivation and abuse, or in the face of sexism and bullying? Ella Enchanted turns this on its head by literally cursing its protagonist with obedience. It’s always clear which orders Ella wants to follow and which ones she fights against, and it reveals other facets of her personality: she’s witty and contrary, taking pleasure in turning aside possible orders with charm and quips before they can turn into more dangerous situations. Neither is this Ella perfectly kind and tolerant of her abusers—when her stepsister Hattie orders her to pick up the dirt in their carriage, she picks it up and throws it in Hattie’s face; when Ella escapes the boarding school she shares with her stepsisters, she steals Hattie’s wig for no other reason than to be petty and get back at Hattie for her actions.
Not only did the curse subvert traditional gender expectations of Ella, it also gives her a thing to accomplish that isn’t necessarily boy-related. Ella loves Char, and the story does a good job of letting the two get to know each other without any cliché love-at-first-sight moments. However, she doesn’t see getting rid of the curse as the first step in getting Char; she wants to get rid of the curse to get her own life back. She risks life and limb to find Lucinda, and when Lucinda refuses to take the “gift” back, she figures out a way to do it herself.
Ella breaks the curse by refusing to marry Char when he tells her, “Marry me.” Though this is what Ella most wants to do in the world, she knows that she would be putting Char and the rest of the kingdom in danger, and so she rocks back and forth, fighting against herself, until she’s able to finally break free. True love breaks the curse, but there’s another important thing brought up in this scene: the idea that the princess should consent to her wedding.
“No,” I shouted. “I won’t marry you. I won’t do it. No one can force me!” I swallowed and wiped my mouth on my filthy sleeve. I leaped up, ready to defy anyone.
“Who would force you?” Char sounded shocked.
“No matter who. I won’t, I won’t. They can’t make me, no one can make me. I won’t marry you.”
In past versions of the story, Cinderella only sits by the ashes while her stepsisters try on the slipper, and when the prince asks if there are any more women in their household, only then is Cinderella brought before him. In most versions, the prince doesn’t even recognize Cinderella until she puts on the slipper. However, Char immediately recognizes Ella thanks to their past friendship, and asks Ella to marry him (not realizing the curse would take it as an order). In breaking the curse, Ella emphasizes the importance of consent—she wants to marry Char, but she doesn’t want to have to marry Char. The actual understanding of consent is an important distinction, particularly in our real world where forced marriages and child marriages are still a thing.
Curses aside, the other magic Levine wove into her world also fleshes out the bare bones Cinderella plot. Ella doesn’t have a fairy godmother because she’s such a good girl—a fairy called Mandy has been a friend to their family for generations, and looks no different from the other servants in Ella’s household. Ella herself has a tiny bit of fairy blood in her heritage—the only way someone can tell is by looking at her feet, which are abnormally small. That’s how she fits into the classic glass slipper: it isn’t because she’s beautiful and dainty, it’s because her feet are genetically smaller than other peoples’.
Even Lucinda, the apparent antagonist of the story, isn’t a wicked witch: she’s just flighty and doesn’t think things through. She doesn’t just give “gifts” to the unlucky Ella, she goes to many different weddings and births, leaving a token of her magic each time. All her gifts, though, are stereotypical fairy tale gifts: a new couple is told they will never leave each other’s sides, and another couple is told that they will love each other forever. Along with Ella’s obedience, by painting these gifts as illogical and unnecessary, the book lays bare the ridiculousness of the old morals and happy endings of fairy tales. And humanizing the fairies and their magic gives the characters logical reasons to act the way they do, without relying on outdated and sexist morals. Hopefully other revisionist fairy tales will keep this in mind when adding magic into their new worldbuilding.