We’ve been having an interesting discussion over the past week or so about Twilight, the Hunger Games, and the place of empowerment in feminism. Specifically, does a feminist heroine need to be empowered and in control of her own life? Or is the experience of disempowerment — including passivity (or selflessness) and irrationality (or emotional sensitivity) — valuable in itself? Or to put it another way, is feminism’s goal to integrate women into the male world on equal terms, or is it’s goal to change the world in accordance with female experiences?

The 2004 film Ella, Enchanted has an interesting take on these questions. Based on a (better than either Twilight or the Hunger Games) book by Gail Levine, the movie is a reworking of the Cinderella legend. Ella (Anne Hathaway) is as an infant visited by her incompetent fairy godmother Lucinda (Vivica Fox). The godmother gives Ella the gift of obedience.

As Ella’s mother instantly recognizes, and as Ella herself learns as she grows older, the gift is not really a gift, but a curse. Ella has to do everything anyone tells her to do. If her mother tells her to practice her music lessons, she has to practice her music lessons. If she’s told to shovel cake into her mouth, she shovels cake into her mouth. More painfully, after her mother dies and Ella’s evil stepsister discovers her secret, she is forced to perform a series of ever-more-terrible tasks — giving away the broach her mother handed her on her death bed; stealing from a store; and finally, insulting her best friend and telling her she will never see her again.

The film, in other words, is one long treatise about the dangers of disempowerment; the traditionally female virtue of obedience is presented as a kind of fierce and unrelenting slavery. The film, in this sense, is clearly, and strongly, in favor of empowerment — not least in the way in which it takes pains to demonstrate that, while Ella is controlled by her curse, she is not defined by it. Whenever she can, Ella thinks her way around her obedience — when an antagonist tells her “bite me!”, young Ella obliges instantly; older and told to gather bouquets for her stepsisters, she smirkingly collects poison ivy. Moreover, it is not Ella’s obedience, but her feisty independence and her refusal to be charmed by his beauty or rank which attracts the romantic lead, Prince Charmont (Hugh Dancy.)

And yet…is it so clear that Ella is not what she is because of her obedience? The narrator at one point says that Ella’s gift is actually what gave her strength of mind — it is the ordeal of having to obey everyone all the time that made her so determined to think for herself. Even more telling, one of the ways in which Ella has most conspicuously thought for herself is in her political views. She doesn’t like the prince because his uncle’s government has been systematically enslaving other races — ogres, giants, and elves. Ella makes the link quite explicit for the viewer in a discussion with the prince (who is not in on her secret.) After seeing some giants being forced to work in the fields, Ella tells him: “No one should be forced to do anything they don’t want to. Take it from somebody who knows.”

The dichotomy here between obedience-as-a-curse (slavery) and obedience-as-a-gift (source of wisdom and character) can perhaps be traced to the fairy tale source material. As I said, this is a retelling of Cinderella, and a retelling in a feminist vein. The original tale is about a woman being saved by marriage and love; the new tale wants to be a story of an independent woman. At many moments, you can see the fissures. For example, the climactic scene involves a (quite entertainingly silly) battle with a horde of ninja-knights. Prince Charmont battles ferociously — and so, too, does Ella, who has not previously shown any particular capacity for battle (except in one scene where someone ordered her to fight skillfully, that is.) Diagetically, there’s no reason for her to be able to defeat trained warriors; it’s just thrown in to make her look empowered and equal. As such, it comes across (for all its obvious goofiness) as almost condescending. You want empowerment; okay, we don’t really believe in it, but we figure you’re easily satisfied. Here you go.

The tension between Cinderella and Ella is perhaps most apparent, though, at the film’s emotional climax. Prince Charmont’s evil uncle Edgar (Cary Elwes) finds out Ella’s secret and orders her to stab the Prince through the heart at the moment when he asks her to marry him. Despite desperate attempts to escape, Ella has no choice — and as he asks her, she raises the knife. But…a miracle occurs. The strength of her true love releases her from her curse, and she lets the knife drop to the floor as she weeps in relief.

The movie makes some effort to suggest that the breaking of the curse is the result of Ella’s will-power, rather than of true love per se. But…well, come on, now. It’s true love. And even if you insist that it’s true-love-providing-incentive-for-will-power, you’ve still got some explaining to do. After all, as I mentioned, obedience made Ella break off her friendship with her closest friend whom she had known for years. Why wasn’t her love for that friend enough to break the command, while the love for some guy she’d known about a week was? However it’s parsed, heterosexual romantic love, and, indeed, the offer of marriage, is what breaks the spell. Which makes it hard to shake off the sense that the reason Ella is no longer under compulsion to all the world is because she’s under compulsion to one man in particular. And, indeed, Ella at the film’s end is not her own person, but a bride. Her signature achievement is not becoming a lawyer (like her elf friend) or ruling a kingdom (like Charmont. Instead, it’s marrying the king, and influencing him through her love to be a better man and a better ruler.

It would be possible to see these tensions as a sign of the film’s failure to shake off the Cinderella’s stories gushy romance of disempowerment; Ella is more empowered than Cinderella, but she’s not truly empowered.

I think, though, you could also see the ambiguity as a potentially more thoughtful conclusion. When the film goes for empowerment-for-empowerment’s sake in essentially male terms — beating up ninjas — it seems crass and stupid. It’s at its best when it reaches for an empowerment that learns from, rather than entirely rejecting, the Cinderella story. That fairy tale, after all, is about both the injustice of slavery and the beauty of love. Both of those insights, it seems to me, come out of distinctively female experience, and so it makes sense that Ella, Enchanted build its feminism — not perfectly, but still with some conviction and heart — on both.


Gratuitous Harry Clarke illustration, because Harry Clarke is bad ass.

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