I grew up on The Babysitter’s Club, and the American Girl books. I grew up with girl heroes who always, ultimately did right. Though, I wouldn’t have called these girls heroes at the time. Heroes were men. They were bulky muscles and swords. Yet it was The Babysitter’s Club novels that my sixth grade teacher attempted to wean me from. With the best intentions she wanted me to read more challenging novels. I found the bad end of the teen section instead.
I’m talking about the YA books of boy-meets-girl, girl-angsts-over-boy, boy-gets-girl variety. The books of catty depictions of women and fickle female friendships. Despite starring a woman, these books were ultimately male centered. The novels passed themselves off as realistic novels for teens, the ones that would teach you how to be a teenage girl. The answer: desire boys, be pursued, and worry about popularity.
Yet somehow in all this muck, I read (and re-read and re-read and re-read) Ella Enchanted, the Newbery Award winner, by Gail Carson Levine. A feminist retelling of Cinderella, Ella narrates the story of her life while under a fairy’s curse. The fairy meant to bestow a blessing when she gifted Ella at birth with obedience, but the blessing is more of a curse, forcing Ella to follow any command given to her. As Ella explains, “If you commanded me to cut off my own head, I’d have to do it.” She could easily be a helpless princess, locked away from the world for protection until her prince breaks the curse.
But then this wouldn’t be a Gail Carson Levine novel. Ella sets out to break the curse on her own.
Ella was my first feminist character. Levine never had to label her to make that clear. This is a story about a young woman growing up and learning how to say no. Literally learning how to say no. More than the average woman, Ella does not have the option for consent. Still, she finds her individuality: following orders does not mean she likes them. When sent to finishing school, Ella is hemmed in by commands all day that she must obey, but Ella imagines her freedom:
“At dinner, I’d paint lines of gravy on my face and hurl meat pasties at Manners Mistress. I’d pile Headmistress’s best china on my head and walk with a wobble and a swagger till every piece was smashed. Then I’d collect the smashed pottery and the smashed meat pasties and grind them into all my perfect stitchery.”
Even better, she does more than imagine. Her teachers quickly learned, “I was nobody’s pet.” When told to sing softer, she quiets to be almost inaudible. When told to sing louder, she sings too loud. She will fight for her independence however she can. Re-reading this book for the first time in years, I forgot what it felt like to smile so often at a character’s minor victories.
But it is her sacrifice and bravery I admire the most. The Prince (himself a believable character with his own character arc) asks her to marry him. He asks, he does not demand. And Ella refuses. She loves him but she refuses. While she is still cursed, their marriage could put the prince and the whole kingdom in danger.
The other day I was watching Emma Watson interview Lin-Manuel Miranda about Hamilton, and Watson commented that women are assumed to be naturally selfless. And in such an assumption, we remove the bravery of women who choose selfless actions. To be selfless is a choice, a brave choice. Ella is one of the bravest female characters I could have read as a child. She does not need a sword. She does not need to prove herself in competition with the boys.
After about a decade away from my childhood favorites, Ella has won my heart again. She is brave and she is good and above all, she chooses to embody these heroic qualities. If you have not yet read this children’s classic, you are missing out on an inspirational hero for all genders.
And don’t forget Gail Carson Levine’s other novel set in the same universe: Fairest.