Cinderella Doesn't Have to Be a Passive Servant Girl Who Gets By on Her Looks

There are ways to empower the fairy-tale heroine—just look at Ella Enchanted.
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Miramax Films

Cinderella is the ur-princess, which means she's also, in a lot of ways, feminism's ur-bane. Oppressed and downtrodden, she slaves away until she gets her heart's desire, which isn't revenge or escape, but just to go to some stupid party. And she's saved not through any particular virtue of her own, but just by being pretty, changing her clothes, and marrying up. It's a story that glorifies self-sacrifice and sitting on your butt till a man comes to save you—and worst of all, little girls insist on loving it to death.

No wonder, then, that the news of a new live-action Cinderella in the works was greeted by Slate's Alyssa Rosenberg with a certain amount of ambivalence. The "fairy tale" is "ripe for revision," Rosenberg argues, and hopes that we might see a Cinderella who is not just a "passive, pursued object" but "does a little something to improve her own circumstances, and to prove that unlike all those fairy tale stepmothers who get their positions with their pretty faces, there's something more she has to offer."

Rosenberg mentions some earlier versions of the folk tale, and points to the recent martial Snow White and the Huntsman as one example of a princess rejiggered for greater autonomy. But she didn't point to the most obvious popular, contemporary, explicitly feminist version of the Cinderella story: Gail Carson Levine's wonderful 1997 novel Ella Enchanted.

The book was adapted into a decent 2004 film—but my heart still belongs to the original. Levine's Ella is everything Rosenberg asks for in a Cinderella; she's resourceful, brave, determined, and wins her Prince mostly through her mind and personality. Levine writes Ella's correspondence with enough verve that you can see why a Prince might fall in love. For example, when Char (the Prince) asks Ella to provide him with conversation, Ella replies:

Greetings. How do you fare today? Lovely weather we've been having. The farmers predict rain, however. They say the crows are chattering. Ah well, wet weather will do us good, I daresay. We can't have sunny days always. Life isn't like that, is it? Wish it were. Wouldn't that be fine? Never a disappointment, never a harsh word. Don't you agree, sir? A fine fellow such as yourself, you have sense enough to see it's never that way.

In one dose, I hope, I have cured you of your desire for conversation.

But the true genius of Ella Enchanted is that it does more than simply give Cinderella a personality. It also explicitly and ingeniously addresses the disempowerment at the heart of the fairy tale.

Ella, in Levine's story, is blessed at birth with the gift of perfect obedience by a fairy godmother named Lucinda. The only problem, of course, is that "perfect obedience" is not really a gift at all. Ella has to do whatever anyone tells her. "If you commanded me to cut off my own head, I'd have to do it," she says. "I was in danger at every moment."

In this telling, then, the Cinderella virtues—selflessness, meekness, living for others—become not virtues at all, but a literal curse. And in order to preserve herself, Ella has to learn to outfox that curse and the Cinderella myth both. "Instead of making me docile," she says, "Lucinda's curse made a rebel of me." She keeps her curse a secret as best she can, or twists the orders. When her future stepsister tells her to clean up the dust on the floor, Ella picks it up and grinds it in her face.

But if Ella has some victories, they are hard fought and often temporary. In the film version, Ella (Anne Hathaway) often gains power through others' commands. When she's told to be a great fighter, she becomes a great fighter; when she's told to sing with passion, she does that, too. In the book, on the other hand, if Ella is commanded to do something—like learning to behave like a lady at finishing school—she just has to work really, really hard at acquiring skills she doesn't want in the first place. Ella fights a long, painful battle not only against those who would control her, but against the voice inside her that assents to the control. The battle is hard and often seems unwinnable, but Levine makes it very clear that the alternative is not magic or release, but slavery.

In the film, Ella escapes her curse when she resists a command to stab Char to death. The book is more subtle. Char asks Ella to wed, inadvertently giving her a command: "Marry me, Ella." She wants to do so, and he curse commands her to do so. But she knows that if she does, she will be a risk to him and the kingdom, since she will do anything her stepsisters, or anyone else, tells her to do.

So out of her love for him, she manages to say "no," refuse to marry him—and break the curse. It's only when she steps out of the Cinderella narrative, and refuses to be obedient to it, that she can be free...and ask her prince to marry her, rather than the other way round.

Levine's Cinderella, then, is not just an updating of Cinderella, but in many ways a consciously anti-Cinderella, in which the traditional story is figured, not as a blueprint to follow, but as an antagonist to be overcome. The upcoming Cinderella film may have its virtues, but I doubt it will manage anything quite so thoughtful, or so elegant, as the enchantment, and the disenchantment, of Ella.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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