5 Feminist Lessons I Learned From Reading 'Ella Enchanted'
Growing up, there's one single book that had more effect on me than any other. It wasn't Lord of the Flies, or One Hundred Years of Solitude, or any of the other profound and classic books that are supposed to change your life. Nope, the book that changed my life was Ella Enchanted .
I must have read Gail Carson Levine's gorgeous Cinderella retelling at least 600 times throughout my childhood. As a child, I just loved the magic; as a tweenager, I laughed out loud at the bold and funny heroine; as a teen, I fell in love hard with Prince Char. But as an adult, I look back on all the time I spent curled up with Ella Enchanted, and it's clear that something else pretty major was happening: I was becoming a feminist.
Ella Enchanted (the book version, not that terrible terrible movie which I advise you never to watch) is a kick-ass feminist fable disguised beneath an excellent storyline. To be fair to the movie version (ugh, it pains me even to think anything nice about it), it does attempt to carry on the activism of its literary counterpart by adding in a strong subtext about animal rights — but sadly, this comes totally at the expense of the original feminist message.
And it was that feminism that changed my life so drastically. Without Ella Enchanted, I might never have learned so many of the key lessons that helped me become the person I am today. Here are five of the key ways this book changed me for the better.
1. It Taught Me That Not All Oppression Is Visible
In case you need a recap, at Ella's christening, a fairy cast the spell of obedience on her. It was intended as a gift, but as Ella is now magically compelled to do anything she's told to do, it quickly becomes a curse. To the unobservant onlooker, it's not obvious that Ella is being oppressed — but reading Ella Enchanted taught me to look beyond what's on the surface. Through no choice of her own, Ella is constantly more exhausted and more vulnerable than those around her; she is constantly being controlled even though there are no visible restrictions holding her in place.
2. It Taught Me Actions Don't Always Mean Consent
Consent is so much more complicated than just the absence of the word "no" — but unfortunately, this seems to be something many people overlook. Having read Ella's story so many times, I was better prepared to understand the many invisible ways someone can feel compelled to do something. After all, if someone told Ella to kiss them, she would do it — and this is far from enthusiastic, affirmative consent.
3. It Showed Me A Hierarchy Of Privilege
If Ella symbolizes oppressed women, then the fairy Lucinda symbolizes all the privileged women who can't see beyond their own life experiences. When Ella begs for her freedom from the curse, Lucinda can't see why she's complaining. But that's because Lucinda is a fairy; she's having a pretty great life as it is, and she can't see what the downside might be. Re-reading this passage as an adult reminded me of conversations I've had with women who can't accept that sexism exists — because they've never faced it. As a middle-class, white, able-bodied woman myself, I will never face the same level of sexism as some other women, and Ella Enchanted helped point that out to me.
4. It Gave Me High Standards For Relationships
In the book, Ella and Char's romance is pretty wonderful. The two lovebirds are on equal footing from the start, and their communication skills are through the roof. Char is a bit of a mansplainer at first, but once he learns quite how much Ella has to teach him, he soon gets over that. And throughout the book, they help each other out in equal measure without one ever becoming overly dependent on the other. (That's why it's so frustrating to see the movie version of Ella Enchanted revert to the tired old cliche of the prince constantly rescuing the princess!) With this as my go-to love story, I was never going to settle for less.
5. It Gave Me Different Life Goals
Ella Enchanted was my most-read childhood book, and so the happy ending that it offered its heroine had a pretty big impact on my own life goals. Many of the fairytales I could have been reading would have left me waiting for a handsome man to rescue me from my dreary life and take me away to be a princess — but Ella Enchanted flipped that idea right on its head. Yes, the love story is a key part of the book — but Ella is very clear that marrying the love of her life wouldn't save her from anything. She needs to save herself first, and once she's done that, she's determined to go on to have a career of her own. Marrying the man she loves? Well, that's just a happy bonus.
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