Have you ever read something or watched something, and then years later, as you absent mindedly day-dream about it, a revelation strikes?
I do this quite often. Whether it’s a movie I watched when I was younger (oh, so THAT was definitely a sexual innuendo) in which I all of a sudden realized that when I was young, I had NO idea what the actual plot of the movie was (coughETcough), or a book, magazine article, or online blog that suddenly brought new light to my understanding, I always relish that “eureka” moment, when I proudly declare my new-found knowledge to the world.
The other day I was thinking about the novel Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. I have no idea why. And then BAM! a lightening bolt. While I always thought of it as a charming novel about a girl “blessed” with what really turns out to be a curse, I realized with horror how accurately that represented many of the young women I know in real life.
There’s been a lot of critical readings of Disney princesses lately, one of my favorites being by famed vlogger Jenna Marbles, who provides a harsh insight on the lessons that these “women” are actually teaching us:
But let’s talk about Ella Enchanted. While I don’t know if the fabulous author Gail Carson Levine meant to create an allegory for the all-too-common subservient woman I find everywhere nowadays, it certainly struck me as a theme, as I was rethinking the novel’s plot line today.
For those of you who haven’t read Ella Enchanted (who ARE you????) it’s a retelling of the classic Cinderella through the story of a girl, Ella, who is “blessed” with the gift of obedience when she is a baby by a fairy named Lucinda. She must always do what people tell her, though she is free to ignore requests. When she is 15, her mother dies, leaving her in the care of Mandy, the family cook/Ella’s fairy godmother. Ella is eventually sent to a boarding school, where she meets Hattie and Olga, the “ugly step sisters”, who figure out that she does everything they tell her to do, though they don’t quite know why. Along the way, Ella also falls in love with a charming prince named Char. The story really begins developing when Hattie demands Ella to give up her treasure: a necklace that belonged to her mother. In a rage, Ella flees in search of her father, who is attending a wedding at which fairies will be present, in the hopes of finding Lucinda and lifting the curse. Along the way she befriends enchanted peoples, is almost eaten by ogres, and more. Upon finally finding Lucinda, Ella is horrified that Lucinda refuses to lift the curse, and instead tells Ella to enjoy it (and she must because it’s an order!). Luckily, Mandy reverses it, just in time for Ella to become a servant in her own home.
The story culminates in the ultimate decision Ella makes: she lies to Char to make him believe that she eloped with another man, to make him fall out of love with her because she thinks her curse would put him in danger. At the climax, she screams at Char that she will not marry him, even though he demands it of her, because she loves him too much to let him get hurt by her curse of obedience. And thus, because she is able to disobey an order out of love, the curse is broken, she marries Char, and everyone (except for the bad guys, of course) live happily ever after.
Now, am I the only one here who’s met plenty of people (myself included) who just can’t say no? My father is one of these examples, but much more commonly I find women who can’t say no, or apologize for all of their actions. I’ve apologized to an old boyfriend, because he cheated on me (oh god, I’m sorry that our relationship was so stressful that it drove you to break my heart and trust). How crazy is that??? Stupid crazy, that’s what. I just couldn’t say no. I’ve had friends that would complain and gripe about doing favors for other people, yet would NEVER turn them down. And I’ve always been a busy person, leading this study group and coordinating such and such event, because I couldn’t bear to say no to people, I couldn’t bear to disappoint people. In a way, I was like Ella; I wanted people to like me so badly that I would do anything for their approval, even if it meant giving up things that were just as important to me as Ella’s mother’s necklace was to her.
This isn’t a book just about a fairy tale. It’s a book about an alarming trend in our society, of people who would give up personal standards, time, money, and even values, for other people.
And they don’t even like it.
They just know that they’re too scared of being seen for themselves, outside of what they can do for others. To borrow a line from Firefly, “I’ve seen you without your clothes on before, but this is the first time that I’ve truly seen you naked.” How often can we be naked to those around us? To be satisfied with just being ourselves, and trusting that other people will appreciate us for who we are, and not for the cookies we bring to the yearly bake sale?
And what’s more, unlike Ella, who realizes her curse and does everything she can to reverse it lest she hurt the people she loves, we’ve put this terrible curse on ourselves. And the more we pile on, the more fundraisers we volunteer for, the more papers we edit for our siblings (I’m talking to you Wilson) that we don’t want to do, the more we hate the very people we are helping, and eventually, ourselves.