CN: ableism, sexual assault in fiction
After watching the new version of Cinderella starring Camila Cabello, which I found mediocre at best, I wanted to expand on my WordPress post from August. This is in case anyone follows Medium only or finds the longer post inaccessible.
I’m a little baffled by all the takes claiming the Amazon movie tries to make Cinderella feminist, as if this is a new thing. I agree that it tries to be feminist in a “girlboss” way, but Cinderella has been current and feminist many times before and more successfully. In the ’90s in elementary school, I grew up with Ever After. Drew Barrymore’s Cinderella (named Danielle) quotes Thomas More’s Utopia to the Prince and dresses up as a countess to free a servant whom her stepmother has sold into indentured servitude. I also liked the 1997 production of Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s Cinderella with a diverse cast and starring Brandy.
I’ve also mentioned Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, a 1997 feminist retelling of Cinderella, as a book I loved as a child. I still think it holds up beautifully. Like many other readers, including China Dennington in this post, I later related this book to my own experiences of OCD. It also has great, feminist messages about autonomy and consent. Compulsory or unquestioning obedience is not a virtue, and consent must be freely given.
Just Ella: Just Ableist
At the opposite extreme, some fairy tales can be very ableist, as Amanda Leduc, other writers, and I often point out. Of course, this is subjective. Readers naturally disagree on what is ableist and to what degree. When I say something is ableist, I’m stating my own opinion on it, not trying to settle the score, impose my point of view on anyone else, or saying no one should ever read it. Ableism and other biases permeate art, even unintentionally or unconsciously. I’m just trying to fill gaps in criticism. Literary criticism is often analysis, of course, not necessarily condemnation. It’s not exactly the popular use of “criticism.”
Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix was published in 1999. I loved Ella Enchanted (the book) and Ever After and think they hold up as feminist overall. I hated Just Ella and thought it was ableist. It was also billed as a feminist retelling of Cinderella, but unlike Ella Enchanted, I do not consider Just Ella a successful feminist retelling at all. I owned and read a hardcover copy of Just Ella as a ten-year-old fifth grader in 1999.
Like the body swapping books from the same era, Just Ella horrified me in ways that seemed visceral and obvious, but which I could not articulate until I was an adult well versed in disability and critical theory.
Ella, the teen protagonist (or Cinderella character) is imprisoned in a dungeon at one point. Her jailer is a man named Quog, described as a “brute” with a slow, hulking gait (Haddix 131). Quog is written in an extremely ableist way and is repeatedly coded as physically and/or intellectually disabled. When Ella first meets Quog, she compares him to a fairy-tale giant and describes him as dirty, threatening, and drooling (131). He speaks mostly in monosyllables: “Heh!” Quog repeatedly sexually harasses Ella by grabbing her or saying simple phrases like “I want…that” (meaning her, of course).
Alternately, Quog speaks in sentence fragments: “Wanted women. Couldn’t get them. Now big. Get what want. Heh!” (133) As I recently Tweeted in August 2021, that quote becomes even worse in context. Ella just asked him if he had a happy childhood. He “wanted women. Couldn’t get them”…as a child?! He was born an adult rapist because he’s big and disabled-coded? I always say objectification hyper-sexualizes and desexualizes people simultaneously. This is exactly what I mean.
The characterization of Quog implicitly conflates being a sexual predator with being physically or intellectually disabled, being a tall, strong, or fat man, or not speaking with conventional grammar. Just Ella fails as a feminist retelling because readers are meant to identify only with Ella. The book’s white, abled feminism makes ableist, classist points at the expense of men, disabled people, poor people–anyone but the white, young, conventionally attractive, cisgender, upper-class protagonist. As a disabled, white, cis girl who generally loved the feminist, “girl power” media of the day, I was confounded.
Ella describes Quog as “revolting” in appearance (133) and repeatedly compares him to a dog. Combined with the initial description of him as filthy and drooling, this uses abjection to dehumanize him. He also seems unable to understand consent. So, the novel conflates an apparent lack of typical intelligence, hygiene, speech, or understanding with an inability or unwillingness to control oneself sexually. Everything about Quog–his size, hygiene, speech–is meant to be lascivious and sexually threatening.
When I was 10, I was only vaguely aware of sex and potential sexual predators. However, I thought it was horrifying and unfair to imply that Quog’s disability or looks had anything to do with him being threatening or a rapist. As a feminist, I think rapists choose to hurt other people but often use lack of understanding or self-control as a cover or excuse. It was too much for me to articulate or unpack at that age, so I just hated and was angry at the book.
I couldn’t find anything online about the ableism in this book, so as usual, I looked it up on Amazon and Google Books to confirm my memories. My thoughts and impressions date from when I was the “right” age for this book, but are now expressed using theory as an adult.
If Earthsearch was The Population Bomb for ’90s kids, then Just Ella’s girl power was white feminism. I love fairy tales, but even their retellings are rife with ableism.
Haddix, Margaret Peterson. Just Ella. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.