29 June 2006

Ella Enchanted: what sort of message?

Depending on which headline you read, Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted is a feminist or post-feminist retelling of the "Cinderella" story. I'm not sure what the difference between "feminist" and "post-feminist" means here, but apparently it all comes down to the fact that the original Cinderella--a girl who spent all day doing chores for her stepfamily until rescued by a fairy and a prince--no longer seems like a plausible character, much less a heroine. We want our young females as well as our young males to stand up for themselves, to be plucky, to demonstrate modern human aspirations instead of just survival instinct.

Indeed, the limitations of the original character are what inspired Levine to reinvent Cinderella and her world. The publisher's webpage for teachers quotes Levine this way:

I had to write something and couldn't think of a plot, so I decided to write a Cinderella story because it already had a plot! Then, when I thought about Cinderella's character, I realized that she was too much of a goody-two-shoes for me and I would hate her before I finished ten pages. That's when I came up with the curse: she's only good because she has to be, and she's in constant rebellion.
Levine's Ella is thus cursed to be obedient, yet struggling to express her true nature. It's an interesting idea, though it seems almost tailor-made for an intro women's-studies class and the final resolution of Ella's inner conflict seems rather perfunctory. All that swirls around that conflict is much more enjoyable for me.

In her 2001 Sequential Tart essay, "Cinderella: In Search of a Heroine," Rebecca Salek focused on that fairy tale's implications:
In recent years, feminists in both the United States and around the world have attacked the story. "What sort of message are we sending our daughters?" they ask. "What message are we sending our sons?" And rightly so.
Salek concludes with praise for Levine's book, saying, "We need more heroes like Ella." Likewise, Amber LeDeit lists Ella Enchanted among her examples of "How Feminism Changed the Face of the Fairy Tale," the subtitle of her report for a YA lit class at San Jose State in 2005.

So what sort of message are we sending daughters and sons in Ella Enchanted? It's a charmant novel, but I can't help but note that almost all the antagonists and outright villains are female. The character who thoughtlessly curses Ella is a female fairy. Her childhood playmate and the stepmother and stepsisters who discover and exploit her weakness are female. The worst places for her to live are all-female households: her finishing school and her stepmother's palace. Literally, Ella has to flee to a war zone.

Among males, only one takes advantage of Ella's disability, and he's an ogre. In Levine's inventive reconceptualization, ogres can wheedle anybody who hears them into doing what they want, so he could get to her anyway. Human males in this world all tend to be pleasant but apt to disappear on quests and wars and clueless about females. The prince is truly charming, though he needs a little loosening up. All his knights and his father prove pleasant, however gruff they appear. Ella's father is as greedy and dishonest as her stepmother and stepsisters, but somehow more likable.

To be sure, there are several likable females as well, but the only truly nasty people in the book are, each and every one of them, female. Is that "post-feminist"?

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