Ella Enchanted was my favorite book when I was 12, is my favorite book right now, and might be my favorite book forever. As a lover of fairy tales, balls, and evening gowns, every version of Cinderella was a treat, but this one felt like it was made just for me. Because in this version, the girl doesn’t need to be a princess, actually gets to know the prince, and then saves herself.
In the fairy tale land of Frell, there are giants, elves, princes and curses. Magic is real, and so are mean girls. Ella is under a curse to always be obedient, so she has to follow every order anyone gives her. Every “go to your room,” every “go jump in a lake,” everything. She meets a prince, because this is that kind of story, and they fall in love. But she knows that her curse would put the prince and her kingdom in danger, so she gives him up. Her mother dies, and she knows of grief and fear. It is that kind of story, too.
I revisited Ella Enchanted recently and wondered why I ever read any other book when everything I need to know was already in its pages.
This book is what taught me that men will always give you grief if you want to do something all on your own. In Ella’s case it’s when she runs away from finishing school and asks for directions to a giant’s wedding. Upon hearing she wants to walk her journey alone, sometimes at night, the shopkeeper laughs at her. In my imagination, he gives her what I’m sure is the same exact look the guy at work gave you yesterday when you said “No, actually, I’ve got this.” Ella continues her journey and doesn’t think about the shopkeeper again. I think about him often.
Later on, Ella meets a different kind of man. Her father loses all his money when he gets caught trying to swindle a client. To gain back some of their fortune, he decides to marry Ella to a rich old man. He orders her to eat drugged mushrooms (our fairy tale’s version of ecstasy, perhaps) to lower her guard and make her more “flirtatious.” When this skeezy old man, who ends up not being rich enough anyway, learns that Ella is only 15, he says “You have a loving heart. I see that. More woman than child.”
And that is when I learned that gross old men will always make excuses to justify preying on young women.
There are some good guys in Ella’s life too, but while reading her story I learned even the good guys can disappoint.
Prince Char is an undisputedly good guy. He doesn’t fall for evil stepsister Hattie’s shenanigans, and his faults are things like “loves his family too much.” But all it takes is Ella dumping him for him to conjure up names for her that certainly wouldn’t be allowed in polite, princely company. Names like minx, flirt, harpy, siren, enchantress, temptress, and monster. Char is a good guy, yes, but he is also the epitome of princely privilege. When Ella dines with him (this is a fairy tale, remember, so she doesn’t grab dinner with him, she dines with him), everyone in his company waited to eat until Char began eating. “It was so natural to him I doubted he noticed,” Ella thinks. That’s as good a definition of privilege as I have ever heard.
The lesson from Ella Enchanted that took me the longest to learn–that I am still learning–is the one that Ella also struggled with the most. Ella had to follow orders because she was cursed. I follow orders because I am a people pleaser and fixer in a world that teaches women to be people pleasers and fixers. Following the rules is how I made my way through life: I did my homework, I read the directions, I didn’t stay out past curfew.
Ella was my first fictional example of a woman who knew that following the rules wasn’t best for her. She followed orders, technically, because she had to, but she did everything she could to fight back. In my world, doing anything to make yourself more difficult was revolutionary. When her dancing instructor at finishing school told her to raise her feet higher, Ella raised her legs above her waist. When her stepsister told her to clean up a dustbunny, Ella picked it up and then shoved it in her sister’s face. She rebelled in any way she could, over, and over, and over. She was my first rule-breaking role model.
I have had other rule-breaking role models in real life, and they have been invaluable to me. When I see another woman decide she doesn’t have to wear what’s appropriate, or be nice when people are rude to her, or stop everything to answer an email, I get a little stronger, and saying no becomes a little easier. Ella had to learn how to say no to break her curse, but we both had learn how to say no to survive.
I extremely proud that I make my own money and pay all my bills. I work hard, and I’m good at what I do. I am a grown woman, and I can do whatever I what. But sometimes, still, I forget I can say no.
The other day, a complete stranger told me to do something I didn’t want to do to make his life easier. And I, a grown ass woman, said “Do I have to?”
Ella says the same thing, when she wants someone to reconsider their order, if they said something hastily or sarcastically. Ella had to obey. I do not.
I quickly gained my composure and remembered that this man I do not know has no power over me, but it was scary to realize how easily I slipped back into the dynamic of a man giving orders, and me following them.
In the year of Shonda saying yes, I kept the word “no” on my lips. Like many young women in a mostly male workplace, I was often taken for an assistant instead of a peer. Workplace dynamics are tricky anyway, and when you want to be seen as someone who is helpful, it is very easy to end up doing everyone else’s job and not your own. So I said no. No to small tasks that I knew I could do, and to big tasks I knew I couldn’t. Like bullies on a playground, eventually the boys I worked with stopped trying to push me around.
It’s time consuming, to say no. I have to weigh my options, who is asking, if I sound too aggressive, if I really want to do it, what will it look like if this email gets forwarded. Sometimes I thought I would crumble under the weight of saying no, but instead it built me up.
Now I say no, all the time, just for fun. I’m horrible at board games because I never follow the rules, I just make up my own. I don’t participate in karaoke. I don’t answer all my emails or texts. If I don’t like the way someone is speaking to me, I hang up the phone.
I recognize that, like Char, I have privilege that allows me to say no often without real threat to my life or livelihood. I hope that, unlike Char, I notice when others don’t.
Ella noticed. Ella noticed everything. She was kind, but not always nice. Ella broke the rules and broke some hearts. Ella married a prince and then refused to become a princess. In saying no to one happily ever after, she created her own. And that is what I am most grateful for learning.