- Consumption, Femininity, and Girl Power in Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted
Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted brims with emotionally charged sites of eating in which nurturing and predation, abundance and deprivation, ingestion and regurgitation are set in opposition. Ella is fed natural, delicious, magical foods by her fairy godmother, is starved by her gluttonous, vampiric stepsister Hattie, listens as salivating ogres vie for her meat, and is "poisone[d]" (139) with magic mushrooms by her father. Throughout the novel, Levine uses food, appetite, and patterns of consumption as central tropes representing two opposing subjectivities. The sides are represented on the one hand by a culture of hyper-consumption, commodification, domination, and unsustainability, embodied by Ella's father, stepmother, stepsisters, and the ogres; and on the other, by a culture centered on food production, sustainable consumption, mutuality, generosity, and pleasure, represented by Ella, her mother, her fairy godmother, her friend Areida, Prince Char, the giants, and the elves. The "tastes" of the first group form a monoculture centered on the rich and the overly-sweet while the tastes of the second tend toward what I call the "earthy."1
In a novel that foregrounds the domestic lives even of ogres, giants, and elves, Ella's fairy-godmother's "little magic" is generally confined, not surprisingly, to the kitchen where she cooks magically delicious food and concocts magically nourishing tonics. Mandy's hearth signifies a sustaining social order that contrasts with the rapacious worlds above her kitchen; Ella affirms her allegiance to Mandy's values at the end of the novel when she chooses the titles "Cook's Helper" and "Court Linguist" rather than "Princess." But because she has been cursed with the "gift" of obedience by Lucinda, the Perrault-esque fairy, Ella is preyed upon by her family and others. Her gift/curse enforces obedience to direct orders, but unlike earlier meeker Cinderellas, Ella exhibits rebelliousness, moral gravity, wit, courage, and enlightened sensibilities. Her knack for languages (64) [End Page 35] and culinary adventurousness defend her from predators and ally her to "the exotic peoples" (230). In the end, even though Ella's stepsisters, stepmother, and father have enslaved her throughout the novel, they themselves remain enslaved by their hyper-consumptive patterns. Ella frees herself from her family's abuses and secures an alternate economy of sustainability, gratitude, and generosity, marries her beloved Prince Charmont, and retains the services of her godmother, Mandy.
The novel's enlightened critique of hyper-consumption, however, is somewhat darkened by its disciplinary approach to female appetite and conventional portrayal of the wicked stepmother's and stepsisters' "incorrect" habits of consumption that reveal the specter of "female hunger" that has long been a frightening "cultural metaphor for unleashed female power and desire" (Bordo 116). As the antagonists, the stepsisters are deliciously comic figures, and, because they are such nasty bullies to Ella throughout the novel, it is, perhaps, difficult not to cheer Ella's refusal to forgive them at the end. And yet, the social and educational systems that have acculturated Hattie and Olive cannot be fully divorced from Ella's fate, despite her seemingly magical transcendence of their constraints. Indeed, Hattie and Olive are seen to be particularly vulnerable to the very sorts of abuses they visit upon the more "naturally" resilient Ella. Ella, who is able to flaunt and even to subvert the codes and manners of upper-class femininity, is much more at home in this domain than Hattie who claims to reign over, but seems more like a squatter in, the realm of "feminine" power. Hattie's and Olive's patterns of consumption represent a threat to Ella only while she is cursed to obey them by an external force, but Hattie and Olive remained constrained by their own subject positions, not only within the paradigms of upper-class adult femininity but also in the girl culture that feeds into and is fed by it.
I will begin this article by examining the very consistent alignment of "good" and "bad" characters within the opposing food cultures of Ella Enchanted; then, reading against this system of values, I will examine how literary stereotypes of the "fat child" and...