13 December 2010

Read This Not That: Feminist Young Adult Retellings of Cinderella

Read THIS:


The fairy tale of Cinderella is apparently a compelling one for YA novelists. I sort of get that. I think a lot of women find the idea of rising out of a mundane, chore-filled existence and becoming beautiful and high-ranking at sought-after to be kind of compelling. (I do. Where do I sign up to quit doing mundane chores?) But the original tale of Cinderella is not feminist, not even in a sort of PC feminist-lite, non-progressive but non-offensive kind of way.  Think about it. Evil stepmother. Life of drudgery. Pretty pretty princess moment. Love at first sight. Shoe shopping. (Yeah, I went there.)

And of course, everyone knows that story. So you want to write a YA novel, you want to jazz it up a little but keep it familiar, maybe include a more empowering message. Well, maybe you don't. But these ladies do.

Both books are retellings of Cinderella, and they're both intended for the 12-15 age group. Life of kitchen drudgery makes an appearance, so do glass shoes, so do evil(-ish) stepmothers. Princes are wed. (Spoiler!) Both writers also put in feminist story elements, sending their heroines on quests and giving them goals. (Ever notice how in the original fairy tale, Cinderella is less adventurous even than Snow White? You have to work hard to be less adventurous than Snow White.) Now, full disclosure, I read Ella Enchanted lo these many years ago, back when I was in the target demographic. And I read Bella at Midnight last week. So maybe I've edged out a little bit, but Ella is still a comfort book for me and I'm always looking for new comfort books. And I really feel that Bella didn't live up to its potential.

Ella sticks much closer to the original fairy tale in its structure. Ella's father is a wealthy merchant, and the story picks up when her mother dies, when Ella is in her early teens. Ella is eventually saddled with an evil stepmother who makes her do chores, and she does eventually go to a ball, wear glass shoes, dance with a prince, etc. What sets Ella apart is her curse: at the beginning of the book, Ella as a baby is cursed with obedience. She must always obey a command. This ends up working delightfully. She can be adventurous, go on quests, and yet has a compelling reason (in the literal sense that her reason is a compulsion) to stay at home and do chores for her stepmother. She meets the prince long before the balls, but cannot act on her feelings toward him lest she put her country in danger. She can be a traditional Cinderella, and yet be likable, yet have a goal that has to do with living up to her potential, not pleasing boys.

Bella, on the other hand -- God, Twilight has ruined that name for me -- is under no similar compulsion. She is actually raised by a foster family of commoners, and so when her father sends for her upon his remarriage, she is accustomed to the kitchen and spends her time there out of choice rather than necessity. Stanley gets a few points with me for giving the background on the "evil" stepmother, who has understandable if unfortunate reasons for disliking her stepdaughter. Bella too goes on a quest, to warn her particular prince of imminent danger. She's forced to show some initiative, and yet she does it in the most docile way imaginable. (She does get an interesting honor at the end, one which is traditionally masculine and which Ella does not. It isn't quite enough to balance.)

 For in the end, it comes down to their characterizations. Ella, saddled with obedience her whole life, is naturally rebellious. She is full of mettle and humor. Bella, by contrast, is much more traditionally feminine (though she does at one point assume a masculine disguise, something Ella never tries). She's sweet, and dear. Her family is always doing things for her, because she brings them so much joy. She's friendly and honest and never seems to lose her temper. All her habits are good ones. It's impossible to dislike her -- but next to Ella she's faded and uninteresting. I know exactly why Char falls for Ella and so does he. Julian seems to fall for Bella because... well, she's just so sweet, what else can he do? (He is impressed with her heroic act at the end. But he's already fallen for her before she performs it. Char also falls for Ella all unawares of her heroism, which takes a subtler form, but it has nothing to do with her sweetness.)

In pure storytelling, Ella also wins; it presents a coherent world full of different races (elves, gnomes, ogres, giants) and lets its heroine move about freely therein. Bella is full of false starts and plot strings that don't seem to lead anywhere -- Bella has a talent? for making people feel better? by listening to them? I'm not sure, because it was mentioned once on page 127 and then never brought up again. It also mentions God and His Will every few pages. As an atheist/agnostic/shut up it's none of your business, I am not the best person to judge as to whether a reference to God is appropriate. But I found it quite off-putting; the author seemed torn between how much of her kingdom is magical and imaginary and how much is actually based on Medieval Europe (where mentions of God would be expected). But Bella's act of heroism is almost religious, Ella's is personal.

Ella is a personal story -- one young woman, overcoming a handicap in both the short and the long term. Bella is the tale of an instrument -- a young woman who had just the right potential to fulfill just the right role. That role is unfortunately much less interesting to read about.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this! My dissertation has kind of inspired some fairy tale love, so I'm always on the look out.
    I might argue, then, that the Bella of 'Bella' and the Bella of 'Twilight' serve the same function. (Have only read 5 chapters of T, so I might be wrong) But it's fun to hate on them! XD