What I learned from Ella Enchanted

Ella Enchanted

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.

Why I’m a fan of Star Wars’ Rey

rey and bb8

The complaints have started to come in. So far, I’ve heard the politics in Star Wars: The Force Awakens don’t make sense, Rey is too good to be believable, and that rehashing the story beats from the original films takes away the great experimentation of what people loved about the films in the first place.

First, it should be known that all Raes are exceptionally great at everything they do, so Rey’s skills were no surprise to me. She also lives on her own in a tough world and fights off a gang of men to save herself and BB8 before she even meets Han or Finn, so it’s clear she’s pretty good at fighting for her survival and thinking on her toes. Better than young Luke, even, who had a home and didn’t have to bargain for his food every day. (Luke is also a big whiney baby much of the time, but this isn’t about him.) If you need more convincing, Caroline Framke does a great job of laying out why Rey isn’t a Mary Sue.

As for the politics in the Force Awakens: I don’t care. I got the gist, and wondering about the details of a post-Empire government and why the Resistance is different than the Republic did not impede my enjoyment of this movie in any way. What threatened to derail it instead was being so prepared to be disappointed every time Rey got into a bind. Here it is, I thought. This is where she gets into trouble she can’t get out of, and Finn will need to rescue her.

But that never happened. Instead, she rescued herself and she rescued her friends. Instead, Rey not only fought, but she also survived and excelled.

What shocked me, looking back, is how ready I was for the let down of seeing another woman not get to be the hero. I was hoping for better but ultimately not surprised when Finn picked up the lightsaber. Of course, I thought. Here it is, here’s the part when Finn gets to fight with the lightsaber and Rey has to watch from the sidelines once again. I thought this even as my worst expectations had been disproved not yet an hour earlier when Rey talked herself out of imprisonment and fought back against Kylo Ren’s mindwashing all on her own.

For as predictable the Force Awakens may be, Rey saving herself surprised me. The movie played on the expectation that Rey would need rescuing a few times, and each time she didn’t need a man’s help I was shocked and delighted. Isn’t that the experimentation and subversion of expectations that people loved in the originals? To me, and to many other women watching, that element of surprise was there. If you didn’t see it, maybe it’s because you are not used to bracing yourself to watch women get shunted to the side.

What kills me is how even as I wanted Rey to be the lead in this movie and get to do heroic things, I didn’t truly believe it would happen, not deep down in my bones. I’ve seen popcorn movies before; I know how it goes. Rey gets to be charming and beautiful, but when it came down to it, she wouldn’t be able to come through when it really mattered without a man helping her out. And, honestly, I still would have loved it even then because Rey, Finn, and Poe are so charming and loving, and it was so good to see Han and Chewie again, and because I am so used to the disappointment of not seeing a woman save the day that it hardly would have registered.

That’s the saddest part. Women have been denied being the star and seeing female-specific stories for so long, we’ve become used to it.

I didn’t know I was missing this: This is the refrain I’ve seen from women again and again lately. Rachel Syme said it in her wonderful essay on women making culture:

“And this flash of recognition immediately made me sad: How moving it is to feel like you can meld with the screen, how deeply this mirroring affects you and changes the way you feel for long hours. I realize how rarely I feel this way, the way that men must feel all the time.”

And Jessica Ritchey said it in her great piece on Rey:

“This wasn’t just going to be the story about how Finn and Poe become great heroes, with Rey helping out and minding her place. This was also going to be the story about how Rey becomes a great and powerful Jedi.

I didn’t know how badly I needed to see that story.”

I said it myself in a recent Tinyletter:

“I didn’t know I was missing women-specific stories until I got a taste. I had always felt fulfilled with the stories I’d been given until I uncovered the giant hole that had always been there. Now my thirst cannot be quenched.”

I didn’t know that connecting with a character could feel like this because it’s never happened to me. Never before have I seen a girl who shares my name save anyone. Never before did I know what it felt like to see myself as the lead of a franchise like Star Wars.

I didn’t know, but now I do. It’s been an awakening indeed.

The backlash against Rey isn’t surprising. To survive in a man’s world, sexism mandates that women need to be better than the men. But when Rey has the skills, they change the rules and say she’s too perfect, that she got too good too quickly.

To demand perfection in stories by and about women is, as Admiral Ackbar would say, a trap. When a work doesn’t meet that invisible mark, people who don’t take women’s stories seriously use any flaw they can find to easily dismiss it. But perfect female characters will never exist. Women are complex and varied, and no one story or one character will ever be everything that every person needs–especially if you want your women quiet and compliant.

It’s a familiar pattern now. Book or movie contains a woman lead and some female-driven plotlines like a love triangle or motherhood, book or movie becomes a hit on the back of female fans, book or movie is picked apart and ridiculed endlessly. (The original Star Wars included a love triangle that no one seems to mind even though two of the spokes are siblings, but this isn’t about that either.)

If culture is serious about including women, it can’t dismiss everything that isn’t an ideal example of a woman. (And who gets to decide on the ideal portrayal of a woman? As Rachel Syme pointed out, it’s certainly not women who are making this culture in the first place.)

Rey may be flawed, or not flawed enough, but to me she is perfect.